|Vol. V, No. 3, Winter 1992|
by David Coonrod
When we look out upon the expanse of our wondrous Ozarks region, the visual field is naturally that of earth and sky. The perception is diffractive. We observe the breadth of the horizon and the vertical circle of the atmosphere--a two-dimensional world surrounds us.
But here in the Ozarks there is literally more than meets the eye. Underneath our feet lies an uncomprehended network of subterranean caves and solution channels formed from dissolving limestone and dolomite. This vast honeycomb reflects the characteristic topography of the Ozarks known as "karst."
The concept of karst topography requires three-dimensional thinking. Only in this way can we begin to understand the principle of groundwater's circulation as a part of all the waters of the ecosystem. Waters below the land, "groundwater," are some 35 times greater in volume than all rivers, lakes, and inland seas combined!
The author David Zwick perhaps best describes the problem of groundwater pollution when he observes that groundwater differs from our surface waters in two significant respects. First, it is more vulnerable to permanent harm. Groundwater is slow to return when depleted, and can take centuries to recover from pollution. Second, groundwater enjoys less legal protection than do surface streams, rivers, and lakes. Our underground waters have been nearly as invisible to lawmakers and regulators as they have been to the naked eye.
However, we are now taking the first important steps in the arduous journey toward groundwater
management. We have started paying attention to our influence on water quality through
scrupulous monitoring of water well construction and the passage of stricter standards concerning
solid waste landfill operations. Sewage treatment facilities are being updated, and installation of
on-site wastewater systems has improved due to local and state regulatory
But it is not enough. Land use determines the extent to which groundwater may become polluted. The fact is that of all the counties comprising the Ozarks region, only a handful currently regulate land use. The remaining governmental entities tend to rule by happenstance, making little or no effort to manage their resources. Because there is a lack of (or resistance to) planning and zoning authority, development occurs in any fashion without regard to future consequences. Groundwater contamination is predicated on such poor circumstances.
The reason for our failings in stewardship is painfully simple. The majority of communities in this area suffer from a funding shortage brought on, in part, by the severing of federal revenue sharing monies. It is all many communities can do to keep their courthouse doors open and meet their most basic needs. This unfortunate situation results in a reactionary process of government where obtuse thinking is usually rewarded and inaction runs as deep as the underground aquifers below. Foresight is indeed a rare commodity for areas where jobs and environmental concerns weigh heavily against each other.
The problem is this: when a given community chooses to be less than circumspect of its hidden resource called groundwater, the effects can be as disastrous as they are comprehensive. For example, if significant quantities of a petroleum distillate such as benzene were to pollute a community's groundwater system the impact would be staggering. Such contamination would impair the community as a whole in many ways: adverse health effects, enormous study and cleanup costs, remedial action, lawsuits,--not to mention the negative stigma which could influence the community, including its property values, for years to come.
The sad fact is that such incidents actually occur and are on the increase. Wouldn't it be less expensive to take preventative action in the first place?
There is a direct relationship among the factors of water pricing, pollution, preservation of agricultural land, affordable housing, water supply systems, stormwater treatment, economic development, and energy conservation and generation. They all depend fundamentally on an abundance of water resources. Pollution could create shortages here in our Ozarks where water is now plentiful. Shortages would spur soaring costs of fresh water by the end of this century. In 1987 a study was conducted in a large county in southwest Missouri which indicated the overall unsafe onetime sample rate for private drinking water wells was a frightening 27.5%!
To avoid an impending water crisis here in the Ozarks our best defense will be action by enlightened community organizations and government officials, with a focus on solutions at the local level. It is there that problems can be met by creative vision. Outside agencies can offer only assistance at best.
Reports of discoveries of buried hazardous materials, gasoline contamination of wells, leachate escape from "sanitary" landfills--all these events are occurring with alarming frequency. When we hear of those who still dump garbage down a sinkhole like their parents and grandparents did, we should show them a better way. We cannot be indifferent to incidents such as these, especially in an area as sensitive to contamination as is our karst terrain here in the Ozarks.
To comprehend groundwater's vulnerability requires understanding. To protect it requires vision. The challenge presented by this vision will be successfully faced only by a citizenry that assumes an active, not passive, role in protecting their own health, safety, and general welfare. This means not only getting involved, but staying involved. Everyone should have a say when our quality of life, and that of succeeding generations, is being debated!
The people of the Ozarks are some of the most independent thinking, perceptive folks in the world. We're enterprising, hard working, and confident. This concept of groundwater, and the way it works, is certainly one we can all grasp. The good news is that we have the ability to protect this vital resource not only for today's needs, but for tomorrow's requirements as well.
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