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In Arkansas Waters: Natural Springs + Spring Ecosystems

Waterfall trickling down rocks

“With every drop of water you drink, every breath you take, you’re connected to the sea. No matter where on Earth you live.”- Sylvia Earle, oceanographer

These words ring true whether you live on the coast or in the middle of the country. What differs is how we experience the ocean and form a relationship to it. This concept is beautifully explored in our current exhibition In American Waters: The Sea in American Painting. But if you’re not sure how a landlocked state like Arkansas is tied to the ocean, I’ve got two words for you: natural springs. These sources of water are abundant in Arkansas and are truly a unique feature to the region.

Equating springs with the ocean may seem like a stretch, but let’s go back to middle-school science and delve into the hydrologic cycle. Water is constantly moving and changing form. Take ocean water for example. Even though we cannot drink it, it evaporates into the atmosphere with a little help from the sun, finding its way into clouds and ultimately back to the earth in the form of precipitation. This is true of all surface water. But what happens to the rain water once it reaches solid ground? Some water flows directly over the land and eventually find its way back to the open water sources from which it came: rivers, lakes, and the ocean. Other times, water will manage to percolate back into the soil where it becomes known as groundwater and is stored in aquifers.

It is this groundwater that forms the basis for the creation of natural springs. A natural spring occurs when water moving underground finds a surface opening where it can be released. In some cases, emerging waters have been traveling underground for hundreds or thousands of years before reaching the surface. Amazingly, it is estimated that all of Earth’s water is recycled through submarine vent springs every 8-10 million years.

Crystal Bridges trail and water feature

Springs can be found in all sizes, from a dribble that you might chance upon in the woods to the mind-blowing quantity that is released by Mammoth Springs in Fulton County (nine million gallons of flowing water per hour!). At this scale, it’s no wonder that Mammoth Spring is the seventh-largest natural spring in the world.

Other areas in Arkansas are no less impressive. Take Hot Springs, for example, where a total of 47 springs emerge from the slope of Hot Springs Mountain, totaling a flow of one million gallons of water per day. Remarkably, radiocarbon dating of this spring water shows that it fell as rain 4,400 years ago. That is some old water!

natural spring in eureka springs
Bluff Shelter at Blue Spring, Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Wikimedia, by Mitchel23.

So why should we care about springs? Simply put, water is life. Historically, Indigenous people were dependent on the locations of springs to survive. At the Bluff Shelter (pictured above), located a few steps away from the Blue Spring in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, an archeological dig in the 1970s revealed artifacts dating back as far as 8000 BC. Historians from several local tribes—the Tsalagi, Osage, and Quapaw—have noted that their ancestors have been journeying to, and living intermittently, along this spring for tens of thousands of years. Remember, springs are simply a release of groundwater. Groundwater today accounts for about 30 percent of the water consumed by humans not to mention the myriad of animals, insects, and plants that depend on it.

The Blue Spring feeds the White River up to 38 million gallons of water per day. The White River, in turn, empties into the Mississippi River which ultimately connects to the Atlantic Ocean. And here we have an example of the connection between springs and the ocean!

natural spring in eureka springs
Blue Spring, Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Wikimedia, by Mitchel23.

From a purely ecological standpoint, it is fascinating to note that spring ecosystems support more than 10 percent of the endangered species in the United States. As with most sensitive environmental sites, springs are facing threats. Pollution and poor groundwater and land use practices have resulted in the loss of many springs which not only reduces human’s capacity to use this water, but also results in the loss of habitat for flora and fauna. The good news is that as long as a spring’s source remains intact, these areas can be restored with careful planning and community engagement.

In American Waters is open through January 31, 2022. Come explore over 250 years of marine painting and discover the sea as an expansive way to reflect on American culture and environment.

After you’ve enjoyed the show, be sure to visit our namesake, Crystal Spring! This serene spring releases 100-125 gallons of water per minute. Spilling from below a rocky ledge, it makes its way down a plant-covered ravine and spills into Town Branch Creek. Just a short walk from the museum’s south entrance, it can be explored by following the Art Trail until it intersects with Crystal Spring Trail.

Waterfall on rocky hillside

Written by Samantha Best, outdoor interpretation specialist.