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Kansas Geological Survey, PIC 11--Kansas Springs, Part 4 of 5
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Significance of Springs

Springs are fascinating natural phenomena. Their origin is seemingly mysterious; they appear suddenly, almost anywhere. They can smell like rotten eggs, taste salty, or be as pure and clean as water can be. Their presence produces a green and living landscape, often creating an oasis in the middle of dry places. Purported therapeutic properties associated with springs have provided people with hope and relaxation for centuries. In the 19th century, someone who had tried the water cures at nearly all of the spring-water spas in an area, without success, was "down to their last resort" (Chapelle, 1997).

Springs are of historic interest (Buchanan et al., 2000). They mark the path of trails, and they serve as places where people have come together for centuries. Several Kansas municipalities rely on springs for public water, and hundreds of smaller springs across the state provide water for domestic use, for watering livestock, for fishing ponds, and for other uses. When water is in short supply, springs may become even more important sources of water.

Springs are also important to the flora and fauna of the state, especially in the parts of Kansas where surface water is rare. In addition to serving as watering sites, springs provide important habitat. Many varieties of plants (watercress and monkeyflower are two common examples) thrive in spring runs, the channels where water moves away from a spring. Some fish species flourish in spring runs, and the Kansas Biological Survey has reported a riffle beetle that is found only in Big Springs at Lake Scott (Ferrington et al., 1995).

Springs are a window into the aquifer; their presence reveals the ground-water potential and may help locate a source of useful water. Springs are excellent indicators of the general state of the hydrologic system. When ground-water levels decline, either from pumping or a lack of precipitation, the change is nearly always reflected in lessened spring flow. Many springs in western Kansas have stopped flowing as a result of lowered water tables, primarily from pumping the Ogallala aquifer, whereas springs in the Flint Hills, where irrigation is uncommon, have continued to flow.

Finally, springs are a source of information about ground-water quality. Poor-quality spring water is a reflection of the water quality in the aquifer that feeds the spring. In some cases, poor water quality is due to natural causes. In Kansas, highly saline water is fairly common, reflected in locations such as Salt Springs. In other cases, ground-water dissolution of gypsum can lead to water that is high in sulfates, a situation found in springs on the west edge of the Flint Hills. Poor-quality water in springs can also result from human activity. At least one spring associated with the Arkansas River in western Kansas is now high in sulfates from reuse of the water, mostly for irrigation. Another spring in eastern Kansas shows elevated levels of contamination from hazardous-waste sites more than a mile away. Several springs in the rest of the state show elevated levels of nitrates, probably related to agricultural activity.

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Kansas Geological Survey, Public Outreach
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Web version October 1998