Robinson & Noble

Specialty: Hydrogeologic consulting services
Ownership: Privately held partnership
2001 revenues: $1 million
2002 revenues: $1.1 million
Location: Tacoma

If there’s a connection between the hydrogeology business and the economy, Joe Becker has yet to find it.

“There are cycles in our business,” he said, “but I’m not sure they’re tied to the overall

economy.” Instead, they more often flow from regulatory tides — and the region’s ongoing thirst for more water.

Becker is the president of Robinson & Noble, a Tacoma consulting firm that for the past year has been as busy as it’s ever been despite the recession and the post Sept. 11 funk. Revenues grew by about 10 percent in 2001 and the company expects them to increase between 5 and 10 percent in 2002.

A large volume of Robinson & Noble’s recent workload involves helping water purveyors redevelop existing groundwater sources. Although securing water rights to develop new sources remains challenging, changes in state law have made it easier to pursue projects that make better use of existing sources, Becker said.

Purveyors often pump less water than their permits allow. Now, many are replacing old wells, reviving closed wells and digging new wells to increase their capacity to the permitted level, Becker said.

A new approach to processing applications for water rights also is creating a lot of activity, Becker said. The state Department of Ecology maintains different lists of water-rights applications for different areas of the state, processing all of the applications in one area before moving to the next. Under this system, purveyors can wait a year or more for the department to reach their area.

However, if a purveyor pays extra, Ecology will hire a consultant to process all applications from that area right away. Becker said a lot of Robinson & Noble’s clients are having this done — not because they need the water rights immediately, but because they want to know upfront whether they can bank on securing water rights or should plan ahead for alternatives.

Robinson & Noble benefits two ways. First, there’s the increased business from clients applying for water rights. Second, the firm is on a list of eight consultants Ecology hires to process applications. “If there’s any conflict of interest,” noted Becker, “we get passed by.”

Another regulatory wrinkle that may send more work to hydrogeologists relates to gravel mining near rivers. The state Department of Natural Resources is requiring companies to sample groundwater for macro invertebrates, said Becker. If there’s any exchange between the groundwater at the mine site and the river, the bugs become a food source for young salmon and other fish, he explained.

Robinson & Noble recently helped a gravel mining company drill test wells near the Yakima River. The wells are being monitored for a year to determine if the gravel company must find a way to mitigate any harm it would cause to the macro invertebrates. Although this is the first project of its kind for Robinson & Noble, Becker expects more in the future.

Robinson & Noble added one staff member during the last year, bringing its total to 12. When Camp Dresser & McKee closed its Gig Harbor office, hydrogeologist Doug Dow left that company to join Robinson & Noble, where he had worked years before. The Gig Harbor office of Camp Dresser & McKee had been a primary competitor, Becker said, and Dow has brought quite a few former clients to Robinson & Noble.

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