It was springtime and the water at Lost River Cave had been running a little high. Every morning when I got up I would check the weather forecast for that day’s chances for rain. Springtime in Kentucky is thunderstorm season and thunderstorm season at Lost River Cave can lead to flooding of the cave. This morning, there was a front coming through bringing with it thunder, lightning, and heavy downpours. So I grabbed my rain jacket, and some clothes that had already been basically ruined crawling around in Lost River Cave.
The first few tours ran normally, but then it started. I didn’t initially feel the wind, because I was down in the valley, but I could hear it and I could see the tops of the tallest trees whipping back and forth. The creaking of the branches as they bent and arched was a little nerve wracking, so I moved under the forty foot thick limestone roof of the cave. Then, as if someone had tipped over a giant bucket, the deluge of rain came pouring down. There was no doubt in any of our minds that the cave was going to flood.
Even during a major storm event, there is time to make preparations. The cave doesn’t flood instantly, so we drove one of the boats to the back of the tour area, pulled the few spillway boards from the dam to get the water as low as possible, then proceeded to use our hoist to get the boats out of the cave. Once all the equipment was put away to wait for calmer water we went home, there would be no more tours that day.
Another year, a little later in the season, the water had again been running high, but the forecast gave us a better chance. That day the forecast called for a mere 30% chance of scattered storms. I came to work much more relaxed this time. The morning went normally, the sky was blue, with whisps and tufts of cotton blowing by, it was warm and humid, but there was no sense of impending doom.
Then, the river started to change color, the bluehole darkened, turned murky, then brown and the water started to rise. Another tour guide and I looked at each other confused. Why was the water rising when the sky was clear?
We ran up to the visitor center and pulled up the radar map. Although there was no storm where we were, a sever thunderstorm had blown up south of us right where our drainage basin is. The downpour wasn’t on us at Lost River Cave, but as it poured into the caves and sinkholes south of us it started rushing through the underground corridors in our drainage basin towards us. We went through the steps again, pulled the boats and put things away.
That flood, really made a solid impression on me about our drainage basin, it caused me to really start thinking about the fact that whatever we do in one place, will then affect everything downstream from there. If I go down to Basil Griffin Park in Bowling Green and dump a bottle of water there, it will end up in Lost River Cave, then travel under Bowling Green, under the campus of Western Kentucky University, all the way to the other end of town. It will come out at Lost River Rise, near Lampkin Park, and continue on its way to the Barren River.
If I go to Chaney’s Dairy Barn and drop my ice cream, it will melt, then sink into the ground and also eventually make it to Lost River Cave.
If I drop something less benign on the ground the same is true as well. This is called non point source pollution. Non point source pollution includes basically everything on the ground that doesn’t belong in our groundwater. There are steps we have taken at Lost River Cave to reduce pollution in our groundwater, and there are things that you can do to help keep our groundwater clean.
Our storm water treatment area, is not what you might think when you read that phrase. We have built a wetlands water treatment area, designed to allow soil and plants to remove waste from storm water before the water works its way into the groundwater. As well as being an effective way to treat groundwater, it has become a part of the attraction at Lost River Cave. The wetlands is a habitat for frogs, insects, and birds including families of ducks that come each year. The cattails, lilly pads, and other plants make this an attractive place for a short walk before heading down for a cave tour. We are very proud of our water treatment area that is also an attraction for guests and a habitat for a variety of animals.
If you are an educator, please consider bringing a field trip to learn more about our wetlands in-depth, hands on educational programs. You can find information on our field trip offerings here.
For great information on things you can do to reduce non point source pollution at home click here.