Members of the Indiana Geological and Water Survey carry their equipment to the dock Thursday at Bluespring Caverns south of Bedford to do water testing. (Rich Janzaruk / Times-Mail)
Members of the Indiana Geological and Water Survey carry their equipment to the dock Thursday at Bluespring Caverns south of Bedford to do water testing. (Rich Janzaruk / Times-Mail)
Sitting on a dock in a cave, Sarah Burgess swirled water inside a flask to determine its alkalinity.

On the surface above her, Lee Florea helped feed a black cord 86 feet down a vent pipe. Once installed, the device on the end will record the temperature, oxygen level and turbidity of the water in Bluespring Caverns every 15 minutes.

Information transmitted by the device, data Burgess collects and other readings from the cave south of Bedford will be used to better understand how water moves through southern Indiana’s karst landscape. That knowledge can then be used to craft better responses to spills of fertilizer, diesel fuel or any other substance that could affect groundwater.

“It’s all linked to community health,” Florea said.

Florea is assistant director for research at the Indiana Geological & Water Survey. Burgess is a graduate student in Indiana University’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. They are part of a small team that recently started taking measurements for a project called the Mitchell Plateau Karst Observatory. It’s funded by a two-year, $170,000 grant from IU’s Center for Rural Engagement.

Established last year, the center uses IU’s resources to address challenges facing rural communities. One area of focus for the center is water resilience. A 2014 study by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce ranked the state first in the nation for the percentage of its economy that depends on water. Examining Indiana’s water resources, including karst aquifers, is a top priority of the center.

A greater understanding of Indiana’s water systems can have economic benefits for an area that hasn’t fully recovered from the Great Recession, Florea said. One of the natural resources in southwest-central Indiana is its karst topography. Over thousands of years, water has eroded limestone in this area, creating the state’s most well-known tour caves. However, the same processes that created these natural resources make them vulnerable.

About 23,000 people visit Bluespring Caverns Park each year. Tours typically involve a boat ride along the underground river that runs through the caverns. Water from sinkholes in a 20-mile radius feeds directly into the caverns, said Nic Kaufman, manager at the park.

© 2019 HeraldTimesOnline, Bloomington, IN