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Worker shortages in the groundwater industry have sparked education initiatives

Oklahoma State University's Dr. Caitlin Barnes (right) speaks with an attendee at the OGWA annual conference in Stillwater, Okla.
Oklahoma State University's Dr. Caitlin Barnes (right) speaks with an attendee at the OGWA annual conference in Stillwater, Okla.

Humans rely on groundwater for most of our usable water. But the shrinking pool of workers in the groundwater industry in the U.S. is a problem Oklahoma State University is trying to address.

To draw interest to the groundwater field, OSU has partnered with the National Ground Water Association (NGWA) to create online training programs for entry-level workers, university students and industry professionals. This partnership brought the Oklahoma Ground Water Association's (OGWA) annual conference and trade show to OSU for the first time earlier this month.

OSU geology professor Todd Halihan said the workers are needed. Halihan said the water well industry in Oklahoma is like a family-based business and the younger generations are going into different fields.

“There’s a whole range of issues to manage [concerning groundwater], but the biggest one for us to manage is getting people to help manage them,” Halihan said.

There are over 135,000 jobs open in the country's groundwater industry, according to a study at the American Geoscience Institute. Josh McClintock, director of the OGWA, said the need for workers is the biggest issue because groundwater is constantly being used.

Only about 0.3% of Earth’s water is usable for humans, and of this percentage of available water, 98% is made up of groundwater, according to the NGWA.

“Oklahoma’s been pretty fortunate that we’ve historically had more groundwater resources than a lot of other places but words out about that,” McClintock said. “And we’ve started using more of the groundwater, especially as we are in drought cycles."

McClintock said because surface water comes from groundwater somewhere, water quality issues are in any area of the state. These challenges surrounding groundwater like having enough groundwater in parts of the state like the panhandle. This area sits on the Ogallala Aquifer, which is reportedly being extracted at a faster rate than recharge can fill it.

McClintock said being able to raise awareness in these topics is one of the reasons why he is excited about the partnership with OSU and the academic and research community.

Caitlin Barnes is a professor and assistant director of outreach for the college of arts and sciences. She said the worker shortage was projected before the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, NGWA connected with OSU to help with education and training.

For Barnes, this presents an opportunity to showcase the industry and geology in general. Although working in the groundwater industry can be difficult, Barnes said it's also vital.

“The more awareness you bring to it, the more attention, and hopefully it will capture people who are like, ‘Yeah, I want to be a part of this,’” Barnes said.

Anna Pope is a reporter covering agriculture and rural issues at KOSU as a corps member with Report for America.
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