You can’t buy a well at a convenience store

Originally written for the NGWA toolkit

By Christopher S. Johnson, PG, CHg
A property owner called and asked me to meet him at the corner of Inexpensive and Quick to meet a driller and “discuss the new well.” Casually, I set off, ready for a great day to do well (yes, an awful pun, but it could be worse). We all arrived about the same time, and after arguing about whose truck was best, got down to business. The property owner, Bob, looked around and pointed to the ground: “I’ve got a 150horsepower motor and need a well about here. What’s that
going to cost me?”

Swifty, the driller, looked around and said: “Oh, about this much (insert a ridiculously low value for a well).” The owner nodded and said, “Okay, seems a bit high, but a neighbor said you were a good driller, did right by him, so go ahead. When can you start?” Swifty nodded a couple of times, turned around as if aligning his celestial calendar, and said, “Tomorrow?” Bob nodded twice, reached out, and shook Swifty’s hand, and the two of them got into their trucks and drove
off without another word to each other and not one to me. The entire engineering and design discussion had just occurred.

The California drought of 2015 brought in all kinds of people with drilling rigs to the Central Valley of California. Experts of all shapes and sizes appeared, offering smoking hot deals and amazing schedules. At one point, you could barely see the telephone poles for all the placards advertising “Well Drilling—Cheap Water Fast!”
In the aftermath—or perhaps interlude would be a better word—those of us still standing looked over what had happened and came to some general conclusions.
Thinner well casing is in fact cheaper. Field slotted well casing (as an intake structure) is also cheaper. However, we are starting to see this thinner material collapse, corrode, or because they are so poorly designed and installed, cost far more to operate then a better built well—all in a couple of years.

Dumping gravel pack into the hole rather than placing it by tremie pipe is in fact cheaper. A lot cheaper, when you consider the time and effort it takes to place the gravel pack by a tremie line. However, many of these recent “high speed, low cost” wells simply cannot be developed, or at best, don’t match other wells in the same area when it comes to performance. A little drilling mud is good, a whole lot of drilling mud is great! Actually, no! That is not the case. I encourage all the pump contractors who are called on to “run a developer [pump] in my new well” to first run a video of the well before they set a pump in the well. I spent a great deal of time during the drought helping clean up wells with breathtaking amounts of residual drilling fluid left behind by the contractor.

Development is best done by a pump, not a drilling rig. Again, wrong! However, most new well owners are convinced, either by the drilling contractor or their wallets, that this is the case, and cutting short on the development by the rig saves them money. Sorry, just not true. Different client, different set of drillers, similar problem. Kathy called me and wanted to ask questions about the bids she was asked to get on a 900 foot deep well that can pump 1000 gallons per minute. She had four bids, all in different formats with language she didn’t understand.
She asked, “Did I do something wrong? I asked each drilling company for the same thing, and it seems I have four entirely different quotes.”

I explained she got four different approaches to the same problem based on several factors, none of which was likely the same for all four drillers.
I also explained you can’t buy a well in a convenience store. They don’t come prepackaged and on a shelf. Wells require thought, design, planning, and careful construction. What Kathy needed to know (as did Bob) was what to ask for.
So, here are the lessons: Inform your clients. Talk to potential clients about the design and selection of well materials, the pros and cons of drilling methods, and what a realistic cost should be. Help them understand what to expect from start
to finish. The better your clients understand how to be a better consumer, the more likely everyone is going to walk away from the project satisfied. Additionally, the better your clients are informed and understand, the better equipped they are at avoiding Swifty.

Discuss the design. Avoid placing your client in a position of assuming you know everything they want or need, or that they have an engineering degree and have all the answers. Too often there are design and engineering discussions that are critical to the successful outcome of the project, and glossing over or simply
ignoring them usually frustrates everyone. I often tell clients selecting a contractor is difficult, but the degree the contractor goes to inform you, work
with you, discuss options, and be up front about challenges will improve your chances at the end product.

With respect to guys like Swifty, I tell my clients, “You can hand a square table to this type of fellow, and get a round one back because of all the corners he cut!”
I’ll leave you with a thought about craftsmanship. In the end, satisfied customers and clients, and repeat work, will often come to a person or company making a point of being a craftsman.

Happy holidays to all of you. Be safe and drill on!
Christopher S. Johnson, PG, CHg, is the president and principal hydrogeologist at Aegis Groundwater Consulting LLC in Fresno, California. Johnson works with well owners and operators on a variety ground water related projects, including locating new water resources, well design and construction, management, aquifer testing, and well rehabilitation. He can be reached at
The views expressed in this column are the author’s opinions based on his professional experience.