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Alaska Stakeholders Step Up

Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation's (ADEC) Hydrologist, Charley Palmer, discusses how stakeholders in Alaska have been voluntarily working together to protect groundwater and raise awareness on various issues and concerns. The Private Well Class met Charley during a webinar that mentioned Alaska's lack of private well regulation. After speaking with him more, we learned that stakeholder groups in Alaska are voluntarily working on best management practices (BMPs) for well construction and decommissioning in the state.


Q:  What is your job title and what does it encompass?:

CP: I’ve been a Hydrologist with the State of Alaska’s Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC) working in the Drinking Water Program since 2007. ADEC is responsible for ensuring that public water systems meet the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act. Within the Drinking Water Protection group, my role is to delineate source water protection areas, or where public water system wells get their water from (typically within the watershed), and to assess potential sources of contamination within this boundary. I then communicate the results to the water systems and the public with the intent of encouraging voluntary protection efforts. Some protection efforts are accomplished directly by the water system or the community it serves. However, other protection efforts are passively accomplished by our group through permit recommendations, agency collaboration, developing guidelines, public outreach, etc.

Q:  Alaska is unique in that there is a collaboration of many stakeholders working together to form guidelines. Can you explain more about how and when this started, who the stakeholders are, what the goals are, and where you are in the process?:

CP: Private water wells are different than the public water system wells that ADEC regulates, but they often use water drawn from the same underground source (aquifer); therefore, the matter in which private wells are constructed and maintained can impact nearby public water system wells. In Alaska, there are no statewide standards for private water wells, and only two local authorities, the Municipality of Anchorage and the City of North Pole, have regulatory code for private wells. Additionally, there are no requirements for groundwater professionals (i.e. well contractors, engineers, hydrologists, etc.) to have specialized water well knowledge or experience. As a result, there had been a growing concern by many stakeholders that the lack of statewide standards and proof of qualifications has led to an increasing risk to groundwater protection. 

In October 2012, ADEC facilitated an open public discussion in three different cities in Alaska, among potential stakeholders regarding issues and concerns with water wells and perceived impacts to groundwater sources. The purpose of the discussion was to raise awareness of issues and concerns and determine whether an interest existed to find solutions. In general agreement, stakeholders volunteered to participate in workgroup meetings and the Groundwater Protection and Water Wells stakeholder workgroup was formed. The first workgroup meeting was March 2013. The workgroup currently includes stakeholders from state agencies (staff from ADEC and the Alaska Dept. of Natural Resources (ADNR)), as well as water well contractors (drillers and pump installers), hydrologists, engineers, public water system owner/operators, water testing lab professionals, and private citizens. Meetings were held roughly monthly during the generally slower construction season (October through March). 

The workgroup first acknowledged that there was not a centralized location for existing and future private well owners to find information relevant to Alaska. By spring 2014, we had collaborated to create the Alaska Private Drinking Water Wells & Systems web site containing information compiled from across the state and nation as it relates to private drinking water wells.

Next the workgroup began tackling water well construction and decommissioning (see discussion in following answers).


Q:  Can you describe the policy differences between the well decommissioning BMPs and the well construction BMPs?

CP: At the time the workgroup began, the ADEC Drinking Water regulations for public water systems, 18 AAC 80.015(e), adopted by reference copyright-protected water well decommissioning methods that applied to all types of water wells (including private wells), but were too generalized, not specific to Alaska’s conditions, and difficult to access. By June 2016, the workgroup thoughtfully developed the “Alaska Best Management Practices (BMPs) for Maintaining or Decommissioning Water Wells and Boreholes”, which take into account Alaska’s unique remoteness and natural conditions. Effective July 2016, an ADEC internal directive was issued to accept these BMPs as an approved alternate method. These BMPs are intended to be applied to the maintenance or decommissioning of all water wells and boreholes (public and non-public) in Alaska .

Also by June 2016, the workgroup completed the “Alaska Best Management Practices for the Construction of Non-Public (private) Water Wells”. At this time, these remain BMPs (are not tied to any regulations) and are intended to be referred to by the public and other agencies when installing or maintaining an existing or future private well.

Together, these BMPs balance protecting groundwater and public health with practices that are economically sustainable and can be applied statewide.   


Q:  What sort of response have you received from working voluntarily with so many other stakeholders?

CP: Since the release of the BMPs in June 2016, the ADEC staff that participated in the workgroup have made a strong effort to publicize their existence and seek feedback. Presumably because of their more accessible and applicable nature, we’ve been receiving records of decommissioning using the methods in the BMP regularly. Also, we’ve seen an increase in contacts regarding private well construction information, again presumably because of the information being more accessible, and it has given staff an efficient resource to refer the public.

Q:  What has been the biggest win so far? What has been the largest challenges or hurdles?

CP: There have been several wins, including making information more accessible to the public and crafting practices that work in Alaska’s unique environment. Although I think the biggest win has been improving dialogue between stakeholders, particularly agency staff and water well contractors. Having regular meetings and follow-up e-mail correspondence has helped reduce miscommunication and increase knowledge of each other’s profession and perspectives. Over time this has allowed progress to be made through understanding and compromise. 

The immediate challenge was for agency staff to convey to stakeholders that we were interested in an open discussion that would lead to the mutual benefit of better groundwater protection, and were not approaching the workgroup meetings with the ulterior motive to create more regulations. This is the primary reason why the deliverables to this point have been in the form of BMPs and not “standards”. The exception is that the Decommissioning BMPs were used to help clarify existing regulations; hence, are now referenced as an acceptable method with respect to current regulation 18 AAC 80.015(e).

Another challenge was demonstrating to each other that the stakeholders involved in the workgroup discussions were knowledgeable on the topic of water wells and groundwater protection. Overcoming this doubt meant putting aside stereotypes and listening. With each meeting, stakeholders gained confidence in each other’s knowledge about water well construction and the existing regulatory framework. Today, I believe we have a mutual trust that allows us to make progress more efficiently.

  

Q:  Moving forward, what tasks are you tackling currently? What would you like to accomplish in the future?

CP:  The workgroup is not planned to meet again until the fall, when the construction season typically slows down. When the last meeting was held in the spring, a focus group was tasked with developing draft BMPs for public water system (PWS) well construction. For a starting point, we reference the AWWA A100-06 Water Wells, and the ANSI/NGWA-01-14 Water Well Construction Standard. Despite the minimum requirements in current ADEC Drinking Water regulations, 18 AAC 80, there are additional construction techniques and considerations that are common in Alaska. The intent is to capture these in a BMP.

Ensuring that groundwater professionals in Alaska have basic knowledge and experience in water well construction is a challenge that the workgroup has expressed interest in confronting. In Alaska, there is not a hydrologist/hydrogeologist specialty license, there isn’t a water well contractor certification requirement, and there isn’t specific water well training associated with the professional engineer license requirements. This has led to frustration from all stakeholders when working on projects that involve designing, constructing, and approving a water well. The workgroup is interested in finding a way to ensure that training is available and establishing proof of qualifications.


Q:  Is there anything else you would like to touch on of importance that we may have missed?

CP: To see what the workgroup has accomplished so far, and to follow along as we move forward, please visit our web site where you can find agendas, minutes, and links of interest: http://dec.alaska.gov/eh/dw/dwp/dwp-water-wells-mtng.html.



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