Groundwater contamination a persistent threat


The National Cave and Karst Management Symposium was held in Eureka Springs on Oct. 16-20 and attended by nearly 100 delegates representing research institutions, government agencies, consultants, non-profit conservancies, spelunkers and cave owners from all over the United States.

Tom Aley of the Ozark Underground Laboratory emphasized recent dramatic technological progress in scientific data gathering and analysis of underground habitats, water flow pathways, rare cave species and pollution monitoring. Aley is known in Eureka Springs for dye-tracing studies of the springs in 1980-81 that established widespread leakage from sewer pipes into our springs. This landmark study led to EPA-mandated major improvements in our sewer lines and plant. Continuing monitoring shows this contamination remains a problem.

A major subject of concern is groundwater quality degradation impacting rivers, lakes, water wells and endangered species as a result of widespread development pressures on karst lands all over the country.

These environmental impacts are driven not only by urban-suburban growth, but agricultural chemicals/waste applications, utility rights-of-way construction, and oil and gas and other natural resource extractive industries. Evidence was presented from cave mapping, hydrological research and cave biology to dramatically illuminate the wide extent and fragility of cave systems and their unique species.

Managing and protecting this underworld wilderness requires near perfect avoidance of damage by cavers, tourists and water pollution. Locally we are aware of the CAFO issue on the Buffalo River as well as the White Nose syndrome that has decimated bat populations. Cave owners, environmental agencies, and US Fish & Wildlife are active stewards, protecting caves with steel gates, cleaning up sinkhole dumps, monitoring water quality and critters like blind cave fish, isopods, bats and beetles, etc.

Regulations to protect underground habitats and groundwater vary by state, and enforcement likewise, but the best protection is seen to be the establishment of conservation preserves in large portions of recharge areas of karst landscapes.

The Nature Conservancy and the Cave Research Foundation presented substantial new results for the Ozark region on new cave species and more than 100 newly found caves.

National Park Service presenters expressed concern over the political atmosphere in government agencies that’s dismissive of environmental concerns in karst terrains.

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