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Missouri: "The Spring State"

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Published on: Jul. 2, 2002

Last revision: Nov. 12, 2010

furnished the essential ingredient for mineral water "health" resorts, where people congregated to "take the waters" by tub or by the glass. These places were given names like Ponce de Leon, Reno, Eau de Vie, Siloam Springs, El Dorado Springs, Jerico and Bethesda.

Besides their obvious importance to life above ground, springs also support an amazing world of life beneath our feet. Groundwater sustains a suite of highly adapted creatures, such as unpigmented grotto salamanders and the blind Ozark cavefish. This subterranean life depends on nutrients brought in from the surface, in many cases by spring water recharge.

Fissures and tubes in the karst bedrock are like arteries, moving water and its dissolved and suspended materials rapidly into and through the subterranean realm. This rapid- transport system causes the quality of spring waters to change dramatically over short periods. For example, springs often become murky soon after heavy rains. The recharging effect is heightened by the presence of sinkholes and losing streams, both of which funnel surface water directly into a spring's plumbing system.

With such an open-flow network, a misplaced or poorly designed septic tank system, for example, can easily degrade a spring's water quality. Or, as occasionally happens in Missouri, a pipeline break in the watershed of a losing stream can, within hours, contaminate a spring many miles away. Nowhere is this surface-subsurface water connection more strongly felt than in karst terrain.

Given their long and colorful history, one might expect springs to be treated with respect. However, many springs have become victims of neglect, at least when it comes to protective efforts.

Shallow groundwater, the plumbing systems of some of our springs, is easily compromised by surface pollution. Fortunately, our large springs, such as Big Spring, Blue Spring, Alley Spring and Meramec Spring, emanate from very deep groundwater. Deep groundwater is partially protected by environmental laws, such as those governing septic tanks, underground storage tanks and water well and landfill construction. Karst groundwater, however, is not naturally filtered and can carry contaminants and sediments long distances.

These days, few towns or households use springs for water supplies, a practice discouraged by health departments because springs are so easily polluted. While spurning springs as drinking water sources may be prudent for public health, we have, in the process, diminished the constituency advocating their protection. Unless a spring becomes grossly polluted or fish die, we hardly notice.

Springs can provide an early warning system for the quality of our groundwater. If consistently monitored, springs can tell us how well our groundwater protection laws are working.

Recognizing the importance of springs to the people of the Ozarks, the Watershed Committee of the Ozarks, in partnership with City Utilities of Springfield and the Greene County Resource Management Department, began the Adopt-A-Spring program in 1999. Through Adopt-A-Spring, trained volunteers routinely sample an assortment of springs, large and small, in both rural and urban settings, throughout Greene County.

Adopt-A-Spring was based on the simple recognition that we were not paying enough attention to the quality of our springs. We wanted to know if they were being polluted by land-use and development activities and if the laws designed to protect our precious groundwater were working.

A few years of monitoring revealed some disturbing trends. Springs in urban settings commonly were contaminated with low levels of organic chemicals. Both urban and rural springs sometimes contained high levels of E. coli bacteria and other pollutants. Adopt-A-Spring data clearly reinforced the theory that springs are extremely vulnerable to the effects of human activity on the land.

Springs, in large measure, define the Missouri landscape. They continually replenish our groundwater system and water our landscape. It's important to properly acknowledge these valuable resources and make a concerted effort to "lighten our footprint" on karst lands, so that these interesting and essential pieces of our natural world can continue to refresh and inspire future generations of Missourians.

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