Bayou-Diversity (8 March 2020) In the mid-1970s I lived for a while on an old homestead in the shadow of Driskill Mountain, the highest elevation in Louisiana. There the sole source of water for drinking, cooking, washing, and life in general was a small spring behind the dog-trot house. For many people in the hill parishes, shallow hand-dug wells and springs provided water until subsidized community water systems, which rely on deep bored wells, were developed. Dependable springs, in particular, were once a treasured resource on any property.
Where springs exist, they are conduits in the water cycle. Rainfall seeps underground by percolating through tiny spaces between soil particles and is stored in porous sands or rocks. The exact land surface where water seeps underground and contributes to a specific spring is called that spring’s recharge basin. In areas where soils are mostly heavy clays such as the delta parishes, rainfall doesn’t soak in as fast, and runoff into lakes, rivers and other wetlands is a more natural process. For this reason springs are rare east of the Ouachita River, and most early settlers in that region depended on cisterns for a water supply.
Springs were very common in the hill parishes though. They formed where groundwater was forced up to the surface as a result of differences in slope in the shallow aquifers. As rain falls and percolates underground, pressure is exerted on water already in the aquifer and forces some out through natural openings. The unique habitat created by springs attracts unusual animals as well as humans. A spring in Jackson Parish is home to five species of caddisflies found nowhere else. Others harbor rare salamanders.
A spring near my house in Union Parish once served the household needs of several families and the boiler of my great-grandfather’s small, steam-powered cotton gin. Fresh milk was kept in the cold spring box, which also served as the home of a goggle-eye bream specially chosen to control mosquito larvae and other insects in the clear pool of water.
This spring and most others in the region are mere remnants of their once flowing glory. Many have disappeared completely as a result of depleted water tables and developed or disturbed recharge basins. Shallow aquifers are particularly susceptible to contamination from fertilizers, pesticides and other pollutants making even the survivors unsafe as drinking water. Had we been more astute, their unheralded loss could have been an early warning of the problems that we face today with the critical deep aquifers that fill our iced tea glasses of mid-summer with increasing reluctance. (adapted from Bayou-Diversity: Nature & People in the Louisiana Bayou Country; LSU Press. Photo: Elgin Spring, Union Parish)