Missouri: "The Spring State"

By Loring Bullard | July 2, 2002
From Missouri Conservationist: Jun 2002

Missouri is sometimes called "The Cave State," but it could just as appropriately be nicknamed "The Spring State." For where there are caves, there are, or at least once were, springs. Caves give rise to springs. Both are features of karst terrain, a porous landscape formed in areas of limestone and dolomite bedrock. Weakly acidic, percolating rainwater dissolves and widens openings in these rocks until a flowing spring system develops. Much of Missouri has karst terrain, which explains our numerous caves - and springs.

Many creeks in the Ozarks would be bone-dry for much of the year if not for their feeder springs. Flowing springs also create a variety of unique and interesting habitats. Some animals and plants, like mottled sculpins and watercress, are adapted to the constant cool temperatures near the spring mouth, while others find a more comfortable home where spring waters join streams.

Springs are historically significant to life in Missouri. The remains of ground sloths, muskox, mastodons and other ancient creatures have been unearthed from the boggy muck of Missouri springs.

Since springs are reliable water sources, it is not surprising that archaeologists find a large number of prehistoric human habitation sites near them. Native Americans and westward migrating settlers established hunting camps and villages near productive springs. Springfield, for example, was founded near a natural "well," a pit-cave opening down into a subterranean spring pool.

The geographic distribution of springs profoundly impacted settlement patterns in the state. At least 65 Missouri communities have names that contain the word, "spring." Springs also served as the first public water supplies for many towns. Aurora, Bolivar, Mt. Vernon, Neosho, Ozark, Palmyra, Pierce City, Springfield, Sullivan, Warrensburg and Webb City all used springs as water supplies at some point. Springfield is unique among cities in that it still uses a large spring for a significant portion of its water supply.

Springs generated and sustained a variety of commercial and industrial enterprises. Some served as refrigerators for dairies. Others furnished cheap, reliable power for mills and provided water for tanneries, canneries, factories and pickling operations, as well as boiler water for steam locomotives.

Cool, shady spring glens became focal points for community gatherings, picnic sites, swimming holes, fishing camps and pleasure parks. The social legacy of springs, in fact, survives in the many city parks that feature springs as centerpieces. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some springs even 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.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Bertha Bainer