Of all the disciplines at the intersection of science, engineering, and technology, groundwater is the one that demands the most application of art. To address problems at mines involving groundwater, one needs an academic knowledge of physics, chemistry, geology, hydrology, and as much engineering as you can lay your hands on. A good groundwater person has a combination of book-learning, field experience, and an intuitive feel for nature that amounts to an art.

I have no patience with the arguments that cloud the scene whenever folk gather to discuss groundwater issues at mines. I reject most arguments that you need to be a geologist to be a good groundwater expert, or that you should be a civil or geotechnical engineer to have a chance at achieving anything. My mind blanks out at the multiple subdivisions that spring up around terms like hydrogeology, geohydrology, groundwater engineering, and many other permutations and combinations of geo-, hydro-, eng-, etc. You either have the right combination of nature and nurture skills or you do not.

I studied at university in the days before groundwater was a discipline in its own right. We did the reading, writing, and arithmetic of science and engineering including physics, chemistry, geology, hydrology, structures, and soil mechanics. I pity those who today get specialized training too soon, and thus are hobbled when things change.

For a few years I lectured in the Civil Engineering department at the University of the Witwatersrand. My lectures in the department of Soil Mechanics and Foundation Engineering focused on fluid flow in soils. Today that would probably mean lecturing in the Geotechnical Department in Groundwater Hydrology. The names have changed, the discipline remains the same.

The first person I met who called himself a groundwater consultant was Bill Brown who came out to South Africa from Canada to tell us (SRK) how to establish a groundwater consulting practice. I showed him the tiny kloofs of our farm and blushed when years later I drove up the coast from Vancouver to see the towering mountains above his house. He took me far into the interior of British Columbia to a mine which was seeking a water supply to support their operations. We drove around the site and up and down the roads surrounding the property. Then he stood in a large open clearing and surrounded by the eager miners pronounced that they should drill “over there.” He waved his hands in a wide arc and pointed to a hollow a great distance away. I could see no correlation between what we had seen, the topography of the landscape, and his conclusions. I remained silent, for I had been told that he was the expert. On the way home in the car I quizzed him about his recommendation. He laughed and told me that he had studied the geology of the area before coming to site. He has espied the ground surface that denoted the location of the dike that intercepted the flow of groundwater downslope, and had simply told them to drill upgradient of the dike. A few weeks later we got word that they had hit copious supplies of water drilling where he told them to.

Kim de Rubertis lived on a small farm half way between Wenatchee and Leavenworth. He was on the team assigned to design and build the new impoundment for the Cannon Mine tailings. He too seemed to do nothing but walk around the site laughing and joking and waving his hands. Yet his writing for the report we compiled was incisive, sharp, and to the point. The story he wrote was clear. The sandstone between the claystones and basalts were where the groundwater seeps. So we put filters across these layers before placing the basalt-derived rockfill of the embankment (remember the Teton Dam.) The Cannon Mine dam is now filled and reclaimed. It blends so well with the surroundings that I cannot find it on GoogleEarth.

Hence to Albuquerque and the Uranium Mill Tailings Remedial Action (UMTRA) Project. In a classic matrix management structure I was Manager of Engineering along with counterparts as follows: Dave Lechel, Manager of Environmental Compliance; Mark Miller, Manager of Radiological Services; and Frank Titus, Manager of Groundwater Services. We did great work with our teams and the Site Managers, schedulers, and document control folk. It was the best job I ever had. And I learnt a great deal about the geology and groundwaters of the twenty-four sites located from Oregon to Pennsylvania, from Texas to the Dakotas. I even wrote some papers on the topic.

Then to California and interaction with computer modelers replicating groundwater and contaminant flow from landfills, into open pits, and around wetlands. None of this made me an expert. But it gave me an understanding and appreciation I will try to use to tackle the totality of groundwater and mining in future articles.