Vol. VI, No. 1, Summer 1992 / No. 2, Fall 1992


The Water Below

by Tom Aley



Tom Aley is Director of the Ozark Underground Laboratory at Protem, Missouri. His article, "The Karst Environment and Rural Poverty," appeared in the Summer, 1990 OzarksWatch.





The Ozarks has abundant groundwater; it is our water below. As a ballpark number, about 75% of the water ultimately reaching the major rivers of the Ozarks has passed, for at least some distance, through the groundwater system. This helps explain the typically dry surface stream channels which are characteristic of much of the Ozarks. The flow is within the groundwater system, with many surface streams functioning as flow routes only during storm periods.

The majority of the Ozarks is karst. Karst is a landscape developed on water soluble bedrock (such as limestone or dolomite) where appreciable amounts of groundwater move through solutionally widened openings in that rock. Karst areas commonly have features such as losing (or sinking) streams, sinkholes, caves, and springs. Some of the solutionally widened openings

in the Ozarks are caves through which humans can pass; most of the openings are much smaller, yet are readily passable by water, including water containing contaminants in suspension or in solution.

The groundwater flow through (literally) the Ozarks is very rapid; underground travel rates of a mile a day are common. Straight line travel distances of up to 40 miles have been traced, although this approaches a maximum. Most travel distances are on the order of thousands of feet to a few miles.

The characteristic ability of karst groundwater systems to rapidly transport copious amounts of water and contaminants explains the high susceptibility of Ozarks groundwater to contamination and pollution. This is the natural substrate upon which we live; whatever we put on (or in) the ground we subsequently put into the groundwater. Most of the water that enters Ozarks groundwater systems every year discharges within a few days or weeks to our springs, rivers, and lakes. We clearly cannot protect these surface water resources without first protecting groundwater.

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It is report card time; how have we been doing in protecting the water below? The good news is that we are doing a bit better now, on a per capita basis, than we were doing ten years ago. The bad news is that we have more capitas. While the intensity of individual problems is typically smaller, the area affected by these problems is larger. Let's look at the status of groundwater quality protection in some selected categories of our society.

Municipalities have made improvements in protecting water resources over the last ten years, but infrastructure decay substantially decreases the extent of apparent gains. Towns and cities experiencing growth still respond almost exclusively to problems they have themselves created; they only rarely venture into the prevention of groundwater contamination problems. The fundamental problem is a lack of public acceptance that good waste disposal is always essential and never cheap. It is particularly essential and particularly expensive in karst areas, yet how many times have we heard some short-sighted town official argue, in effect, that we can never afford to do things right? Such attitudes must change.

The greatest improvements in protecting groundwater quality in the last ten years have been made by industries that have sufficient capital to pay for the clean-up of problems they have created. The clean-ups have been largely driven by the regulatory agencies who have in turn been encouraged and prodded into action by citizen groups, the courts, and the press. The tremendous costs associated with clean-ups have led cost-conscious industry to make significant changes in waste minimization and waste disposal. New industrial water quality problems are being created at a dramatically slower rate now than was the case ten years ago.

Many of the new industrial water quality problems being created today are associated with industries that operate in such a manner as never to accumulate much in the way of assets that could be captured to pay for the costs of the problems they create. Many (but not all) landfill operations fit this description. I am reminded of a garbage track I once saw with a sign that said: "Satisfaction guaranteed or double your trash back." We will never have adequate waste disposal performance until it is guaranteed by the operator's money rather than with wash or wishful thinking.

Tourism is the largest industry in the Ozarks. The tourism industry in the Ozarks has positioned itself as clean, wholesome, family entertainment. Efforts to insure and enhance a clean and wholesome environment (which includes groundwater quality protection) for both this and future generations is clearly compatible with the role that the tourism industry has adopted in the Ozarks. It is also compatible with the long-term economic viability of tourism in the Ozarks. Ftmher-more, the tourism industry, with its enormous number of contacts with the public, has a unique opportunity to inform that public about local environmental issues and demonstrate how existing problems can be corrected and new problems prevented. A few businesses in the tourism industry have recognized this opportunity (and long-term necessity), but most of the opportunity has yet to be exploited.

What is it that the tourism industry should be doing? One important thing is to increase public awareness of the need for protecting our environment, with particular emphasis on water quality protection. Fantastic Caverns, north of Springfield, Missouri, provides a good illustration of what can be done. Guides on cave tours discuss how groundwater systems in the Ozarks function and identify the need for protecting water resources. Fantastic Caverns provides environmental education programs and educational materials for thousands of school children. Over the last ten years Fantastic Caverns has helped over a million people better understand the Ozarks and better appreciate the need for protecting groundwater and other components of the environment. As one leaves the Fantastic Caverns property there is a small sign along the road that states: "Conservation is Good Business".

Branson has become the great tourism bubble. One would hope that the bubble will ultimately prove to be filled with long-term economic vitality for the area. An alternative could be that the bubble is filled with methane from inadequately treated wastes. Is there any reason that Branson should not have a nationally renowned program, funded with tourism dollars, for protecting water quality and other facets of the environment from adverse impacts associated with tourism? The Lake Tahoe area along the California and Nevada border used a similar strategy 20 years ago and reaped the benefits of water quality protection, national publicity, and long-term economic vitality for the area. If you can do that amid the slot machines, why can't it be done in an area that is home to businesses that sing of pride in America and tout the beauty of the area?

Finally, what is the report card on individuals in the Ozarks? In the last ten years there has been a substantial increase in concern about what a potential neighbor is going to do and about the possible impact of that neighbor's activities on groundwater quality. Issues have ranged from concern about storm water runoff and sediment production from subdivisions, to contamination problems associated with landfills, sewage treatment plants, fertilizer plants, highways, and airports. While increased concern about our neighbor's activities is important, increased concem about our own practices only rarely surfaces. We should all ask ourselves, "Where does this waste go?" The answer, "Away" is inadequate. We should also ask ourselves,' 'Is this waste properly treated and disposed of?." The answer, "Probably'' is not satisfactory.

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So what will be the future? I am cautiously optimistic. I believe that the main driving force in the future for better protection of the water below will be local citizen and conservation groups. I hope and anticipate that these groups will be appreciably augmented by the more farsighted people in the tourism industry. Most of our problems are rooted in inadequate public understanding and appreciation of the actions needed to live on top of a highly sensitive groundwater system without adversely affecting it. Creating this understanding and appreciation will require improved education (both in the schools and elsewhere) for the next generation of those who will live in the Ozarks. Protecting groundwater quality in the Ozarks is a complex problem; seldom are there single or simple answers to such problems. We have made a very good start in the last ten years, but there is much more that needs to be done and must be done. Groundwater is too important a resource to "write it off.

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