Water Resources Engineering (WRE) connects engineering hydrology and hydraulics with global, economic, environmental, and societal issues. Our student, Margaret Stepp, makes this connection here. . .

The news, Phantom Springs Cave Becomes Deepest Underwater Cave in the U.S.” was published on the Caving News website on January 23, 2013. This article relates to hydrology of droughts and how they affect speleology and aquifer depletion, as well as hydraulic management of depleting resources, water and oil. This article describes an expedition to a desert aquifer in west Texas, where cave divers measured a new depth of the cave to be approximately 140 meters; this new measurement makes Phantom Springs Cave the deepest known underwater cave in America! The entire extent of the cave is still unknown, but it is certain there is a very deep source of fresh water underneath one of the driest regions in the U.S. (USGS, 2013). The article focuses on the findings of the cave, but does not detail the larger aspect that is important to water resources engineers. The primary objective of the dive team was to obtain hydrologic data to contribute to an ongoing study that intends to make a genetic connection between Texas and Mexico aquifers, so the team collected water quality data, conducted dye tracing, and set sediment traps in hopes of finding rare species. The aquifer and surrounding land is currently owned by the Bureau of Reclamation because the site is home to two unique ecosystems, both inside and outside the cave (Bowen et al., 2013). 

Figure 1. Diving gear outside of the Phantom Springs Cave Entrance

The current drought in Texas threatens Phantom Springs because Texans get the majority of their water from aquifers, and this water scarcity is a major societal and economic issue. In addition to groundwater extraction, Texas’ dependence on oil is negatively affecting the status of the protected property due to more than 10 confirmed natural gas wells between Phantom Springs and the nearest town of Pecos (Iliffe, 2013). The threat of hydraulic fracturing is very high because the process requires an abundance of water, and the used and polluted water is generally disposed into nearby wells (“Hydro-Fracking”, 2013). Groundwater flow can transport solutes to nearby water sources, which puts the cave at risk of contamination (Wurbs et al., 2002). The drought has also caused the water levels inside the cave to drop, and any pumping of upstream or downstream connections can cause the water level to possibly drop below the water table. This would cause the cave to breakdown, which would destroy the unique system present in the cave, prevent scientists from further studies, and cause sinks on the surface that can destroy nearby landowner’s properties. 

Figure 2. Spatial representation of Texas drought presented by the NDMC, USDA, and NOAA

References:

Bowen, Curt, Jason Richards, and Andy Pitkin. “Phantom Cave 2013.” ADM Exploration Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2013.

Drought Monitoring. USGS, n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2013.

“Hydro-Fracking.” Citizens Campaign for the Environment. N.p., 10 Apr. 2013. Web.

Iliffe, Thomas. “Phantom Cave Science.” ADM Exploration Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2013.

“Phantom Springs Cave Becomes Deepest Underwater Cave in the U.S.” Caving News. ADM Exploration Foundation, 23 Jan. 2013. Web.

 Wurbs & James, 2002. Water Resources Engineering, New Jersey, Prentice Hall.

 

 

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