Robinson & Noble Inc.

Specialty: Hydrogeologic consulting services, primarily in Western Washington
Ownership: Privately held partnership
2000 revenues: $900,000
Projected 2001 revenues: $1 million
Location: Tacoma

As the region’s water supply comes under greater pressure, Robinson & Noble Inc. is focusing more energy on groundwater management and less on groundwater development.

Growth, drought, the power crunch and environmental concerns have combined to expand government regulation and change the emphasis of hydrogeology consulting. Instead of helping utilities and developers find and pump water, Robinson & Noble is more often helping them conserve and protect it.

“It’s a culmination of trends that have been happening for several years now and it’s just getting more so,” says Joseph Becker, president of the Tacoma firm, which was founded in 1947.

A decade or so ago, water utilities could pretty much bank on gaining groundwater rights from the state whenever they needed to develop new wells, says Becker.

Then came the early 1990s and a change in the state Department of Ecology’s response to requests for water rights. Utilities had to prove their wells would not draw water from the rivers and streams above them during low-flow periods — a very difficult thing to demonstrate, says Becker.

“That totally shut down new water rights because there was always at least a drop that might be removed from those streams,” says Becker. “There were exceptions, but they were few and far between.”

Since that time, the state has mellowed, once again granting water rights, but only if utilities find ways to offset — or mitigate — the potential affect of their wells on surface water sources. Common strategies include pumping some of the water taken from the ground back into streams and replacing shallow wells with deeper wells that are less of a threat to surface water sources, says Becker.

The need for utilities to develop mitigation strategies and negotiate their approval with the state has made consultants such as Robinson and Noble more valuable than ever. “It really has driven our business up and I just see it continuing to grow,” says Becker.

On the other hand, he says, “I do see negative things for our clients, because it is so much more difficult to get water rights, particularly for small purveyors or developers that don’t have deep pockets to do the regulatory work that is becoming necessary.”

Another growing niche for Robinson & Noble is helping utilities make their wells more efficient — not just to pump more water but to use less energy while doing it.

Technology continues to provide better ways to analyze and present information, notes Becker. Robinson & Nobel uses graphic interface software to download details such as well sites and aquifer locations into a client’s data base. The client can then integrate those items with other variables such as zoning to create comprehensive maps and reports.

Becker says the next big things for hydrogeology could be finding ways to dispose of treated wastewater in the ground. Right now, treated wastewater is dumped into rivers and Puget Sound. However, that method is causing pollution concerns in several locations. Putting wastewater into the ground would allow it to be naturally filtered plus help recharge groundwater supplies.

Becker says Robinson & Noble has participated in studies of that method by the city of Chehalis and the combined sewer system of Lacey, Olympia, Tumwater and Thurston County.

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