Big news broke in the world of water on Wednesday when the Obama administration released its revised Waters of the United States rule, clarifying which of the nation’s rivers, lakes, streams and wetlands fall under federal protection.

But there’s one place where the water is, figuratively, still murky.

The regulations have yet to definitively address springs, said Larry Stevens, director of the Springs Stewardship Institute at the Museum of Northern Arizona. And that omission historically has had a big impact. For example, just six springs on the Peaks are healthy while dozens are drying up due to groundwater pumping in the Inner Basin

“Presently springs are only vaguely recognized in that document,” Stevens said. “Springs haven't been studied enough to attract EPA attention.”

Filling that gaping hole in springs knowledge is where Stevens' work comes in. He and Abe Springer, a hydrogeologist at Northern Arizona University, have together been working for more than 20 years on what has become the largest study of springs ever conducted. So far, their work has included mapping thousands of springs across the West, including 10,300 in Arizona alone.

The duo’s goal is to create better tools and techniques for inventorying, monitoring and assessing springs in order to better inform and improve future decision-making about springs management and stewardship into the future.

"Everywhere in the world springs are functioning as incredibly important parts of life,” Stevens said. “We’re trying to open doors of understanding them as ecosystems and improving stewardship.”

Hotspots of life

One aspect of the NAU and Springs Stewardship Institute’s research involves tracking the biodiversity that springs support. In a study of 56 springs in Alberta, Canada, a research team led by Springer found that the springs, which cover a total of less than 10 acres or about 0.001 percent of the provincial land area, supported 25 percent of Alberta’s plant species.

Studies in areas like Nevada’s Spring Mountains and the Grand Canyon region indicate that proportion is consistent across other landscapes as well.

“These are really remarkable points of life,” Stevens said. “In the United States we maybe have a million points of life we haven’t paid attention to.”

And yet human activities have already had a major impact, even on local springs. Of the four dozen springs in the San Francisco Peaks region, fewer than six are in a relatively healthy state, Stevens said. The flows of the others have been drained as water in the peaks' Inner Basin has been diverted to the city of Flagstaff’s water supply.

Springs lexicon

Another major goal of the local scientists' research is to create a searchable, publicly accessible database of springs and certain characteristics about them, Springer said. For forest managers, such a database could aid in better prioritizing springs stewardship efforts, said Kit MacDonald, a soil scientist on the Kaibab National Forest. Springs that the database shows are remote and therefore a more locally important water source might get moved higher on the list, as well as ones that are of historic or cultural significance, MacDonald said.

The Kaibab has for the first time made springs restoration a priority on the forest and has a goal of restoring at least five springs over the next five years, thanks in part to the work of Springer and NAU students as well as the Springs Stewardship Institute, MacDonald said.

NAU researchers have mapped dozens of the forest's springs, including wildlife and plant species that occur around them and any cultural and historical significance they hold. Even on the Kaibab, the driest forest in Region 3, there are about 50 perennial springs and an even greater number of intermittent and ephemeral springs, MacDonald said.

Across Grand Canyon National Park, the Springs Stewardship Institute has mapped about 1,000 springs, Stevens said.

Another element of the springs research is a project headed by Springer to study springs within the Four Forest Restoration Initiative. Springer has mapped 74 springs that he will continue to monitor in order to assess the effects of forest restoration on spring flow.

Over the longer term, another goal of the researchers is to create a consistent, uniformly applied classification system for springs. So far Stevens and Springer have collected enough data to confirm three types of spring classes, including hanging garden and a pool-forming springs.

"Springs are a complex interface between surface water and groundwater," Springer said. "Hopefully this would create a national and international approach." 

Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com

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Emery Cowan writes about science, health and the environment for the Arizona Daily Sun, covering everything from forest restoration to endangered species recovery efforts.

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