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INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT) and David Weisman (DW)

DATE:  February 17, 2206

LOCATION: San Antonio, Texas

TRANSCRIBER:  Melanie Smith and Denise Williams

REEL: 2343 and 2344

Please see the Real Media video record
of reels 2343 and 2344 from our full interview with Dr. Veni.  Please note that the recording
includes roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for
technical settings at the outset of the recordings.

 Note:  boldfaced numbers refer to time codes for the VHS tape copy of the interview.  "Misc." refers to various off-camera conversation or background noise. 

DT:    My name is David Todd, and I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas.  It’s February 17th, 2006, and we’re in San Antonio, Texas.  And we have the good fortune to be visiting with Dr. George Veni, who is a geoscientist who has become very skilled and knowledgeable about karst, and it’s geology, and it’s hydrology, and—and has lent a lot of understanding about its vulnerability to lots of land use (?) and—and water uses that are going on for the last several decades.  And with that, I’d like to thank you for spending time with us to explain something about your life, and about your—your work.

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GV:    I’m glad to be here.

DT:    I thought we might start by just a—a question about your—your early days, and if there were some insight you could offer about your—your childhood, about friends, or teachers who might have introduced you to an interest in—in the outdoors, in caving, or science.

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GV:    I have no recollection of anything that would spur me on to be outdoorsy or geology interested, or anything like that.  I grew up in a very urban environment in Detroit, Michigan.  For some reason, I couldn’t tell you why, I’ve always been interested in mountains.  When I moved to Texas I wanted to go climb mountains.  And so I did that.  I went out to Big Bend National Park and climbed a couple mountains out there.  Went to Guadalupe Mountains National Park and did some climbing up there.  I had no

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idea what I was doing.  I just kind of hiked on up, and it’s amazing I didn’t kill myself.  But next door to Gudalup—Guadalupe Mountains National Park was this thing called Carlsbad Caverns National Park.  So I thought, well, it’s a national park, must be something interesting, let me go check it out.  And I just fell in love.  You know, going into a cave was like climbing indoors in a sense.  Unlike mountain climbing, where you

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know where the peak is, you know where the—what the—what the goal is, in a cave, you don’t know what the goal is, you don’t know what’s around the next corner, you don’t know how you’re going to get there, you can’t map your route un—until you’re mapping your route.  So—so I came back to San Antonio from my tripe out—up to Carlsbad, and within one month read seventeen books on cave exploring, and wrote off to an

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organization called the National Speleological Society, which is a national organization of cave explorers and cave scientists, to find out where their local chapter.  Found that out, and started exploring caves.  And that was—oh, that was thirty—thirty years and one month ago. 

DT:    Can you describe some more of your visits to—to caves, small and large, famous and not?

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GV:    I’ve—I’ve looked at caves all around the world, in probably fifteen—twenty different countries, all over the United States.  It’s something I enjoy doing.  It started out very locally here in San Antonio exploring caves locally.  Many of the caves are quite small.  It seems the further you—off you go, the further distance you have from San

Antonio, the bigger and more interesting some of the caves get.  But we’ve found some

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fairly sizable ones here locally as well.  And enjoyed it tremendously.  It ended up after a while though—in a sense it kind of became boring, in the sense that, you know, okay, you’ve seen one cave, you know, what—what—what do I do now?  But what kept me interested was that there were different aspects to caves.  There was the geology of the caves I started to understand, without an—any formal schooling.  The biology of the caves.  You’d see old bones in caves.  And so you’d start to become interested, where did

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these things come from, how did they get there?  Originally I was a premed major, and decided after a while not pursue that.  I enjoyed medicine a lot, but—but ended up going to geology, partly because I’d been crawling through the geology, so to speak, for so long, for about four years at that point, and I wanted to learn more about it.  And before I knew it, I had this Bachelors degree in geology.  And my interest just kept growing.  And

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my Bachelors was at—the University of Texas, San Antonio.  And from there I went to Western Kentucky University for my Masters and to Penn State for my Ph.D.  Basically, going there to chase experts in cave and karst regions.  And things kept growing from there.  I came back to San Antonio to work on my Masters thesis, and my Ph.D. dissertation, formed a consulting firm for—for research in cave and karst terrains, and had the very goof fortune of getting paid to do what I love. 

DT:    You mentioned that you chased experts, chased professor, I guess, to teach you as much as you need to learn about the karst.  Can you tell us of some of these professors and what you learned from them?  What made them particularly influential in your life?

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GV:    The two primary professors are my two advisors for my Masters and my Ph.D.  For my Masters, Dr. Nick Crawford, who’s the director of the Center for Cave and Karst Studies.  What I learned from Nick, Nick is doing some of the best work in the country on applied karst problems, meaning dealing with issues like groundwater contamination, sinkhole flooding, water supply issues, things like this.  And so he was dealing with the

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applied aspect of geology.  And so it was a tremendous experience with him.  He had a lot of grants to study many of the problems that there were in Kentucky—in Bowling Green, Kentucky, in that area, and just fascinating problems.  And some really scary problems, really eye-opening in terms of the vulnerability of these groundwater systems to—to contamination.  From there I went to Penn State, and my advisor there, Dr. Will

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White, is one of the best people in the world when it comes to the theoretical aspects of karst, in terms of groundwater chemistry, hydrology, geomorphology, which is the shape of—of landforms, land features.  And so I was just thrilled to have the opportunity to work with these two top experts.  One of them telling me, in theory, this is how things work, and the other one telling me, okay, now once you to understand this, this is how

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you apply it, and how you can use it in particular real life situations.  And I just—in—incredibly valuable experience with both of them.

DT:    Maybe you could give us a little introduction in—as to what makes karst so special and so different from most other geologic systems, and from aquifers as well?

DW:        (Inaudible) and those of us who have no clue at all what any of this is.

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GV:    I’m going to do…

DW:        (?) name "karst" sounds to me like I’m mis-hearing something that hasn’t been pronounced right, and I’m…

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GV:    Yeah.  And that—I’m—I’m going to define it.  That’s the first thing.  Karst is—is the type of landscape.  Much like we can say mountains or prairies or plains, swamps, we get pictures of certain landscapes in our mind.  And karst is a particular type of landscape.  It’s spelled K-A-R-S-T.  It’s an odd word, Slovenian in origin.  But it’s a landscape formed primarily by the dissolving away of the bedrock.  Most landscapes

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form by water rushing over, running over the land surface, and mechanically breaking it down, rocks and grains of sand rubbing against each other, and carving valleys, this sort of thing.  But with karst, the rock is literally being dissolved away.  Most karst involves limestone, and that’s what we have a lot of here in San Antonio.  But there’s other types of the rocks that are karstified, that—that get dissolved.  But for the most part, you have

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to keep things simple.  And—and to keep things relative to Texas, we’ll talk mainly about karst.  I should actually point out that there’s some extensive gypsum karst up in the northwest Texas, and down in far west Texas in the Carlsbad area, near Carlsbad, New Mexico.  So we have some ex—extensive gypsum karst.  And gypsum is another rock that dissolves r—rapidly, relatively speaking in—in geologic—in geologic terms. 

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Features that are typical of karst are caves, sinkholes, underground streams, the lack of surface water because it moves rapidly and very easily underground.  And there’s a number of unusual features and problems that occur in karst.  Groundwater—or collapse, sinkhole collapse is a real good example.  When people think, for instance, of Florida, they’ll think about homes and Porches and buildings, you know, being swallowed by

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giant sinkholes.  Well, these are karst features.  And—and the reason they’re collapsing, part of it is natural, but part of it is exacerbated by human influences of what’s happening in that area.  Now that sort of collapse that we see in Florida, we don’t necessarily see here in Texas.  Our karst is a little bit different.  In Florida to see—they have that type of collapse, you need very thick soils.  In Texas, we don’t have much in the way of thick

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soils, and so we have a—we have a different system.  Karst is often characterized though by the ease of groundwater contamination.  The best way to describe it is I’ve been swimming in our aquifer, in our water supply.  In essence, I’m a big contaminant.  I did not get filtered out of the water.  With most aquifers—and let me define aquifer, because there’s a lot of misconceptions about that as well.  An aquifer is an underground reservoir of water.  When you use that term "reservoir," people think about underground lakes and

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rivers and streams, and in most types of the aquifers, that doesn’t exist.  Most of your aquifers are, for instance, south of San Antonio, east of Austin.  You have the Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer, you have the Gulf Coast Aquifer along much of the—much—much of the Gulf, where your water is stored in the spaces between grains of sand and pieces of silt and clay.  And so the water is basically flowing around through these little

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microscopic spaces.  And—and that’s the reservoir.  In a karst area, a karst aquifer, you actually can have underground rivers and lakes and streams, and—and so I’ve spent quite a bit time swimming around in them.  Now if I’m not getting filtered out, then think about things like chemicals, urban runoff, heavy metals, grease, anything coming off your roadways.  That’s going straight into the aquifer.  If the water’s going into a sand aquifer,

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then that sand is a great filter mechanism.  It’s going to hold back a lot of the contaminants.  You know, you’ll never catch me swimming around in a sand aquifer.  I don’t fit.  But in a karst aquifer, I fit down there.  And so because of the ease that contaminants can get down into these aquifers, how quickly they can travel, very complicated, extremely complicated flow paths that are very difficult to predict, make these aquifers a very difficult to manage and to—and to study as well. 

DT:    I think that you’ve often pointed out that—that karst wasn’t well understood for many years, and is still only partly understood.  What have been the difficulties in studying it and understanding it well?

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GV:    Part of the difficulty in studying karst is that a lot of it is underground.  And people, many people don’t like to go underground.  Those of us who do, we aren’t big heroes or anything.  We—you know, it’s—it’s just something we enjoy doing.  We—you know, it’s the Captain Kirk thing to go where no one has gone before.  And as I started by exploring caves, that was my inspiration, was to go and see something that no one had

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seen before.  But with time you learn to understand that these caves are the natural plumbing system of karst aquifers.  Caves are formed by water moving through the ground, dissolving away the bedrock.  And so if we understand how these caves are formed and where they go to, we can understand a lot of how this aquifer’s organized, where the water will go, where it will not go, how fast it’s going to take to get there. 

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There’s a tremendous in—a lot—a tremendous amount of information that’s available underground.  Traditionally, geoscientists, what they do, hydro geologists, people who specialize in groundwater, what they tend to do is they drill holes into the ground.  And that works very well for things like sandstone aquifer, what we call a porous media

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aquifer.  In a porous media aquifer, like a sandstone, like some gravels, the conditions are fairly uniform.  You don’t see much variation from place to place.  So you can drill a hole here, and drill a hole somewhere else, and you can interpolate from those conditions how water is moving and where it’s going to. You can understand, get a pretty good picture of the—of the conditions.  But in a karst system, we have what we call a "triple permeability

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aquifer."  And maybe this is getting too—too technical.  But we have for instance, water flowing through fractures, little hairline fractures.  People ask me how old is the water underground?  Is it thousands of years old?  A few years old?  A few—a few weeks old?  Minutes old?  And the answer’s yes.  We have water flowing through these cracks that may be tens of thousands of years old.  We many have—we’ll have water flowing

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through slightly open—slightly larger fractures that may be a few years old, a few months old.  We’ll have water flowing through caves, like one I was in just yesterday, and the water’s dripping on my head that just recharged, you know, a few hours earlier.  And so water can move very quickly and very slowly, and under different conditions through these aquifers, and very—making them very complex.  There’s a number of

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cases in the literature, for instance, where you’ve got, let’s say, a landfill.  And the landfill—the—is being monitored to make sure it‘s not leaking.  The t—the typical way of monitoring a landfill for contamination is what we "call three-up and one"—"three-down and one-up," where you have one monitoring well up gradient, or up stream—gradient means to—well, it’s just a the groundwater flow.  You have one monitoring well

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up gradient to the landfill and three down gradient.  And so as the co—if contaminants leach out of the aq—out—out of the landfill, they will hit those wells, and you’ll say, aha, we’ve got a contamination problem, we need to do something.  But in karst what happens, is you can have a number of monitoring wells, and those wells will be spaced there, and the water will shoot right between them and never show up at the wells, and

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yet they’ll show up at the spring, or some other well further down, because we’ve got very distring—distinct flow paths through various fractures and conduits.  If a conduit gets large enough for me to crawl through, for a person to craw through, we call it—we call those conduits "cave."  And a lot of times people don’t believe its’ coming from the landfill, or from whatever spill site because we’ve got this monitoring system.  It’s protecting us.  But, okay, let’s do an experiment. Let’s inject some nontoxic dye and see

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where it goes to. And you put it there at the landfill, and it shows up down at the spring.  So that’s something, if you didn’t believe it, let’s repeat it.  And so it’s good empirical data.  You can repeat it over and over and show that, yes, it really is going from point A to point B, and it’s not being captured by the wells.  And so it shows that we’ve got a lot of differences that occur in conditions in karst aquifers.  And so your traditional karst—your—your traditional geologist who has been trained to think about drilling a well and

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characterizing the aquifer based on that information, is not prepared to deal with karst.  In karst, that well bore will give you good information, but it will tell you what’s going on right around that well.  And you move just a very short distance away, a couple meters away from it, and the situation can be completely different.  There’s actually two wells, two monitoring wells here in San Antonio that the (?) aquifer monitors, and they’re like

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about four or five meters, twelve—fifteen apart, and yet if you look at the—their response to recharge, to rain fall, to pumping, there’s significant differences between these wells, because there are significant differences within even that short a space within the aquifer.  So there’s a tendency for people, for geologists to not really appreciate what’s down underground.  Unfortunately, there’s also been some bias, and some prejudice over the years.  It’s getting better, but—

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but there’s been some bias among traditional geologists against those of us who do study karst.  My professors has to fight the battle of trying to submit a scientific paper, and if it had that four letter word "cave" in the title, there was an automatic rejection, because you were just some weirdo who liked to crawl underground.  I won’t deny being a weirdo.  But there is something valid to be gained by going into this environment and getting

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direct information on the plumbing system.  Most geologists now are a bit better with it.  They recognize the karst word.  They use it.  And not everyone really has a good appreciation of what it means, but they’re more open to, you know, to it, and to more—and more open to learning about it.  But still, many people struggle.  They think, well, you know, you’re just some hobbyist who wants to go crawl underground and have fun. 

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Think about it this way.  If you were a planetary geologist, and I said, David, I can take you to mars safely.  I can take you to Mars, put you up there on the planet, you can grab samples, you can make observations directly.  Okay, so you’re claustrophobic.  You don’t want to be in the spaceship, I’ll send people up there to go and get the stuff for—you know, to go and get the samples and bring them back to you.  You’d jump at the

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chance.  And yet, in many cases, when you tell geologists I will take you to Mars, I will take you underground, they look at you if—you know, they look at you as if you’re crazy.  Okay, I understand claustrophobia, but still, some people will even reject data coming from caves, because they don’t really understand that the caves were formed as the plumbing system for the aquifer.  If we understand how these—how these major

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conduits formed and how they move water through the system, then it tells us so much more about the—about the plumbing of the aquifer than any well can tell us.  We’re coming along.  But we’re cut—we’re—we’re coming along.  I think most geologists out there really want to do well, really want to understand these systems, they just haven’t been taught good information about them.  One of the leading groundwater textbooks in the country, it’s about five hundred pages long, and I think there’s like five pages that deal with karst.  So that’s what, one percent, that deals with karst.  And yet, karst aquifers cover about twenty to twenty-five percent of the United States.  Forty percent of the United States east of the Mississippi River is karst.  But historically, karst aquifers have

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also occurred in some of the poorest areas of the country, where there were no mineral resources, economic incentives, population centers to really deal with them.  But in the past thirty years or so, we have been building and growing more into karst areas and having to deal with karst problems.  And so it’s become more imperative that people learn about these systems.  And we’re getting there.

DT:    Well, can—can you give us a—a introduction to the kind of tools and methods you might use to—to document and better understand karst?  Whether it’s mapping it, or using tracers, or using monitoring wells?  Some of the field work that you rely on to—to characterize the system?

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GV:    There’s a number of techniques that—that can be used.  The most fundamental technique, the most fundamental piece of equipment for me is a cave map.  A lot of people will look at a cave map and say, okay, so it’s a map of a cave.  Big deal.  The shape of that cave, the way it’s organized tells me a lot about how that aquifer’s organized, how that aquifer sh—functions.  And so it’s telling me a lot about how that aquifer formed, and it gives me a very firm foundation about that.  So that’s one very key

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initial piece of information.  Other things we use, that’s in our arsenal, one of the more common tools that until recently was not being used hardly at all in Texas, is dye tracing.  Where we take a nontoxic dye and we inject it into a cave, a sinkhole, a fracture, a well, and then we see where it goes to.  What other well or spring it may come out of.  And we can use that to map the direction of flow, how fast it got there, how much it’s been

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diluted, how much it’s been dispersed to different locations.  We can analyze a lot of parameters of groundwater movement and aquifer behavior based on dyes.  Geophysics is something that’s—that’s used also somewhat commonly.  It depends on the area.  We’re starting to see it more and more here.  Geophysics can use—can be used to detect voids. 

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Geophysics can be used in wells to understand aquifer properties within—within the rock to tell you which section of the rock transmits water more efficiently than other sections of the rock.  Certainly geological mapping I should—you know, for—for me the—that—that’s a given.  But—but I should mention, geological mapping is—is critical.  There is some work I was doing here in northern Bexar County a few years ago where the

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mapping was highly inadequate.  And the client asked me way—you know, what do you do?  What—you know, what should we do first?  And I said contact the U.S. Geological Survey, because they know how to map this rock in detail.  And have them map it in detail because then I can interpret how the water’s moving if I understand how this—you know, how this rock is—is distributed throughout this area.  And they did that, and it was a tremendous—tremendous boost to this research problem we had in the northern part of

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the county.  So geological maps are useful.  Some of the things I’ve used that are less common are biological indicators.  For instance, oh, there’s—as a simple example, one of the earlier examples here in the state, the longest cave in the state called Honey Creek Cave, we knew that the cave was in one river basin, because that’s where the sp—it’s—it’s a spring, and the water comes out of this springs and pours down through this—into

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this river.  But we knew that somewhere this cave crossed over into the next stream basin, into the next watershed.  Why?  Because the entrance to this cave had two types of salamanders.  One type know from this one river basin, but the other one known only from the other basin.  And so—and these are cave-adapted salamanders living underground.  And so somewhere there had to be an underground connection for that

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salamander to get from point A to point B.  And so you can use the biology as well to better understand what’s happening.  A friend of mine, a student of mine, just completed her Ph.D., and she was using DNA of—on several aquatic isopods.  Basically, if you’re familiar with—with, like, pill bugs, rolly-pollies, that you’ll see on—one the surface,

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there are aquatic versions of these that live in the aquifer.  And she was doing DNA research to see how well connected these guys—how—how well related to each other to tell us about how the aquifer has evolved over the millennia.  Fascinating research.  And so, you know, so you—the biology can be used again as a—as—as a—as a tool to—to

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investigate these—these aquifers.  So there’s—there’s a variety of—of different techniques that—that are possible. 

DT:    Well, once you characterize the aquifer to some extent and some detail, what kind of models can you use to predict what will happen to the—to the aquifer, either in terms of flow or water level or contamination?  How do—how do you make predictions based on—on what you learned?

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GV:    Oh, when the topic of models come up, I have to quote a dear late friend of mine, James Quinlan.  He was the geologist for Mammoth Cave National Park.  Mammoth Cave is the longest cave in the world.  And Jim went into private practice consulting for—for several years before he died.  On his business card he said that one—oh, let me see—one exp—ex—well-designed—expertly designed, properly conducted dye trace is worth one hundred expert opinions, or one thousand computer simulations of

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groundwater flow.  Now, okay, Jim was a smartass.  But he had earned that.  And he had proven it, though the—what—what was on his business card.  In karst aquifers, we can use models.  Any aquifer, you can—you can use computer model.  And they are valid tools.  Okay.  Let—I—I don’t want to sound like I’m co—like I’m completely dismissing them.  Every tool has its functions, and every tool has its limitations.  With a model, what

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happens is that it’s a generalization.  It’s a—it’s a predication of reality based on—on some known data points.  And the problem with karst is that you have so much local variability within karst that it’s very difficult for a model to predict exactly what’s going on.  If you look at the Edwards Aquifer, and you step back and create a model, and then you take this aquifer and you just put it down to a s—you know, to a page sized scale,

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something that you can, you know, plug there into—into—into the aquifer each cell of the—of—of the model, because you take the aquifer and you divide it into certain cells, are miles across, you can develop a reasonable model that tells you where the water’s flowing, you can predict how it’s going to respond to re—you know, to recharge, and—and pumping, and they work fairly well.  The—but if you want to look in more detail, if

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let’s say we had a spill outside of our door, you know, the—some trucks flipped over, spilled dimethyl ethyl went down to the creek and went into a sinkhole, where’s it going to go?  Is it going to be your well, his well, his well, that’s going to be hit?  You know, we—but these models don’t tell us.  They don’t have that level of detail.  One of

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the other problems with models is that they have in some sense the solution of what I call "magic happens."  Occasionally you have a model, and you’re putting the model together, and the numbers don’t come out right.  And so what you do is you say, well, let me just add this number here, "magic happens," to make the—to fix the model.  And that makes the model work. It makes it fit the observed behavior.  Now I’m not being too critical—I

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mean it—it may sound like I’m being critical, but it’s—it’s a—it’s a reasonable thing to do  for this—for the level of sophistication, the level of information you have.  The problem is that a lot of times the general public, and many politicians, land managers, decision makers, will look at the model and think that it’s all written in stone, it’s all based on hard data.  And some of it isn’t.  The model will give you a number.  It will give

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you an answer.  But what was the question?  If the answer’s ten, what was the questions?  Ten times one?  Twenty minus ten?  A hundred divided by ten?  And so the model can get you there a number of different ways, but it may not be the way the aquifer is really working.  And so I have tremendous respect for modelers.  They’ve got incredibly tough time.  They are using new methods, they are improving their methods.  But if you want the details of where that spill is going to whose well, the old fashioned method of tracer

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testing, in my opinion, is the most effective way of getting those answers.  Some current modeling efforts are actually trying to incorporate tracer results, and into—into models.  And that’s—I think that’s a very good step.  We’re talking about very complicated mathematics.  It’s not an easy thing to do.  For anyone that says, yeah, you just plug the numbers into the computer, you know, computers aren’t that smart.  You know,

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computers take someone who is smart to program them and do the math and make—and make it all work.  The models are improving, but right now, for—for very detailed views of—of karst aquifers, you need to do tracer testing, you need to get up out there and literally crawl through the cave, and map those conduits one on one if you want that level of detail. 

DT:    So far you’ve given us a—just a real cursory, I’m sure, for your level of understanding.  But a—but a—a—a good introduction to so—some definitions of karst, and—and—and how karst is described, and—and maybe modeled, simulated.  Can you talk a little bit about—about some of the—the ways that you apply some of this understanding?  I understand that—that for your Masters you did some research on how land use can affect the behavior of—of an aquifer that’s in a karst system.  Can you talk a little bit about that?

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GV:    I hesitate talking about my Masters thesis because it was somewhat of a bust.  Like my—the—my title was, you know, Studying the Effects of—of Storm-Weather Run-off on the Quality and Quantity of Water Recharging Caves Into the Edwards—in the Edwards Aquifer in Bexar County, Texas.  It didn’t rain.  It’s hard to study storm-weather run-off when it doesn’t rain.  I ended up using some other—some other data to—to kind

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of back into some answers.  But—so—so I’m not really happy.  I’ve—I—I—I didn’t get as much good, hard data out of my Masters as—as I—as I would have liked.  But with—when you look at a ground—at land use issues, some of the better examples I can give you, some of the more dramatic examples, are those that I experienced as a grad student, for example, at—at Western Kentucky University in—in Bowling Green, where you have

00:32:30 - 2343

an aqui—an aquifer under the city of Bowling Green that’s not used as a drinking water supply.  It is contaminated beyond redemption.  It’s—I—perhaps that’s putting a st—that’s certainly putting it too strongly.  But—but they don’t use that aquifer a drinking water supply, and I don’t foresee when they ever will use it as a d—as a drinking water supply.  There is so much urban runoff leaking—underground storage tanks from

00:32:56 - 2343

gasoline station, hazardous materials, various dumps and spills and accidents, indust—industry over the—over the—over that aquifer, a lot of agricultural use in the area with pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, manure from feed lots, and all this going into the—into the aquifer.  You—you don’t want to drink this stuff.  I was working on projects where we would go in there, for instance, with the—with the EPA going through caves, and you

00:33:30 - 2343

would smell pesticide fumes, you know, gasoline, diesel fumes, various scum floating down the water.  You’d take samples of the water, there’d be fourteen carcinogenic chemicals in excess of drinking water standards in the water that you’re wading through.  And so it’s just a great example, if you want to call it great.  But it’s a—it’s—it’s a very dramatic example of bad things that can happen in a karst aquifer.  We’re lucky here in

00:33:58 - 2343

San Antonio that we don’t quite have that problem.  And the reason we don’t have it, there’s—there’s two rea—two reasons.  For one, Bowling Green is built entirely on the karst aquifer, on the recharge zone.  There’s no place for the city to escape that location.  So they are restricted to be there.  San Antonio actually has a choice.  Our sense varies to the north, which is unfortunately is the direction that we’re building.  It doesn’t make

00:34:24 - 2343

sense in terms of water quality, environmental protection, for us to build northward.  We’re building on our most vulnerable area.  We could grow east, we could grow west, we could grow south.  But we’ve grown north in the area that is—essentially may foul our own nest, may foul our water supply.  But—so for one, we don’t have as much development out there, and that’s—that’s protected to somewhat. Additionally we’ve had

00:34:48 - 2343

some regulations that have also reduced the number of contaminants.  For instance, we do not have landfills over the aq—over the recharge zone.  The recharge zone is the area where water goes into the aquifer, where—where it recharges the aquifer.  And it—so it’s, as such, it’s the most vulnerable area for the aquifer.  We don’t allow feedlots on the recharge zone.  There’s a lot of hazardous activities that are not conducted, are not allowed on the recharge zone.  But that said, contaminants are showing up.  They’re

00:35:26 - 2343

showing up in the aquifer.  Many people—excuse me—let me try this again. 


00:35:57 - 2343

GV:    Yeah.  What—we’ve got—many—many people feel that there is not a problem with groundwater contamination at the Edwards.  They feel that—well, for one, it’s—it’s not an issue.  If there are con—any contaminants that go into the aquifer, it’s okay because the aquifer will filter the contaminants before the water goes over into the Comal Springs and San Marcos Springs.  They forget the fact that if we contaminate the water in

00:36:24 - 2343

Bexar County, it has to flow through Bexar County before it gets to the next county.  And wells here are being contaminated.  We are seeing incred—you know, more and more cases of contaminants showing up in the wells.  The aquifer as a whole is not contaminated.  But stuff that doesn’t belong in the aquifer is there.  And from what I’ve seen—I would really like to see some statistical studies on this, and I believe I’ll be

00:36:52 - 2343

proven right if—if it happens.  But from what I’ve seen, the more we’re looking, the more we’re finding contaminants.  As time goes on, more and more instances are showing up of contaminants.  And where are they focusing on?  Primarily around the urban areas where we have a lot of activity going on. 

DT:    Well, can it be just general urbanization, or does it have to be feedlots…

00:37:15 - 2343

GV:    No.

DT:    …landfills, sort of concentrated sources like (?).

00:37:20 - 2343

GV:    That—that’s exactly my point.  It—you know, certainly the heavy industry and the feedlots and the landfills are—are bad news, and you definitely want to avoid them.  But even the lighter industry.  Now think about this.  Have you ever had a great desire when it’s raining to go out to the street and put your face down to the—you know,  

00:37:40 2343

down to the asphalt where the water’s flowing along the curb and suck water off, you know, you know, off the ground there?  No.  Because what’s in that water?  It’s all the oil and grease and heavy metals, and you know, that—that—that’s in it.  And that’s the stuff you think about. The things you don’t think about is in your urban—assuming you live in

00:37:59 - 2343

a urban neighborhood, is all the dog and cat poop that’s also washing off.  If you do some—some st—some research into urban runoff, you’ll find that at times it’s not unusual that the—the fecal counts, the fecal contaminants in urban runoff, you—you’d think you got a barnyard right there.  I mean the—the c—the fecal counts are just skyrocketing just because the amount of dog and cat poop that’s—that’s out there on the yards.  Well, where’s the stuff going?  It’s going down to the aquifer.  And aq—karst

00:38:32 - 2343

aquifers do not filter contaminants.  They will dilute contaminants, but they don’t filter them.  Bacterial will die off with time, but in karst aquifers you have very rapid movement of groundwater flow.  And there may not be enough time for those—excuse me—for those contaminants to die off before they go to someone’s well.  We do have gasoline stations over the recharge zone.  There are various protection measures to make

00:39:08 - 2343

sure they don’t leak and that they don’t get into the aquifer.  There are other activities over the recharge zone.  But how many people do you know, or have you heard of, who are out there changing their motor oil, for example, and they have the used oil, well, I’m just going to dump it behind the bush here and no one’s going to notice.  All the pesticides, the chemicals that go into the lawns.  It’s interesting when you think about it,

00:39:34 - 2343

that are more affluent construction, or more—more affluent homes are being built northward, where people are more likely to hire a company to come out and spray an ungodly amount of chemical, pesticides and fertilizers on their lawn.  Farmers who also use these same products tend to me very conservative in terms of how much they use, because they’re trying to make a living.  You know, they—they want to use a—just enough to get the job done so they can grow a good product, but not so much that they

00:40:11 - 2343

can’t make a profit off of it either.  So they are very conservative in terms of how much they use.  But your typical homeowner, a lot of them are the more the better.  I’ve read a few studies which have all—who—which have documented that your affluent urban areas tend to produce higher volumes of fertilizers and pesticides than some of your agricultural areas because of that activity, because people are concerned, they want—they

00:40:36 - 2343

want those green, green lawns.  So it causes problems.  And the problems are growing, as far as I’m seeing.  We are still seeing contaminants, we are still seeing them more often, we’re still building.  In my opinion, the best thing to do is to stay off the recharge zone entirely, to make it into a green space, to make it into a parkland, and to encourage growth in different directions.  This is not a statement against growth, its’ a statement of

00:41:06 - 2343

responsible growth, of where does it make sense, you know, to—to grow so that it does not harm the community.  But unfortunately, there are a lot of people who are developing and invested in those areas who scream bloody murder when you try to regulate them because you’re trampling on their private property rights.  And I feel that speaking as a citizen, not as a geologist, that my rights stop where they harm someone else, or may

00:41:39 - 2343

potentially harm someone else. But in the name of private property rights, there is a whole lot of leeway that’s given to development, and—it’s—it’s—it’s an interesting situation in that in the medical field, and I relate a lot of the medical field because that was m—my original interest when I went to school, if you look at the—you—you—Food and Drug Administration, they go by the principle of guilty until proven innocent.  They’re not going to give you a drug, they’re not going to have you inject some sort of

00:42:11 – 2343

chemical in your body unless they absolutely know for sure it’s not going to hurt you.  And yet, when it comes to aquifer protection, it’s just the opposite.  We are assuming that there will not be any harm, rather than assuming that there will be.  And so we—we allow a lot of development that goes on that at least in my mind is questionable, using methods that are not as good as they could be.  And if they were as good as the regulators say they are who are monitoring this, then why are contaminant levels increasing?  I

00:42:46 - 2343

mean I’ve—I’m speaking as a scientist, not as an environmentalist.  Objectively, I’m looking at the data.  I’m finding more instances of contamination.  If—if your regulations to protect this aquifer are so good, why are the contaminants being found more frequently?  You know, it—it’s—tells it—tells me that there’s a problem.  So I think we should handle our water supply as guilty until proven innocent, because that’s just being responsible to the public.  But so far, unfortunately, we don’t do that very often. 

DT:    You—you’ve been talking about some of the evidence that you’ve been finding of—of, I guess these contaminant levels rising.  And I was wondering if you can give us some examples, some case studies, some projects that you’ve worked on where you, you know, explored some of these issues and—and, you know, brought back some data that-that’s relevant to the whole problem of land use and health and the quality of the water and—and (?).

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GV:    Describing some specifics is difficult because as a consultant, I do have to respect some degree of cl—client confidentiality.  I can say that there’s a lot of information in the public record, a lot of information has been in the newspapers.  But in terms of giving too many specifics, I n—I need to respect—re—respect that.  But I would strongly

00:44:02 - 2343

recommend someone to go into the public record, to talk to the water agencies, to look at—to look at what’s out there, to encourage the—the water agencies to do a statistical study.  Maybe I’m, you know, maybe I’m full of hot air, and—and the relationships that I’m seeing are not there.  The—what’s—I think it would be worth while to find out. 

DT:    You mentioned that—that one of the most promising ways of protecting the Edwards Aquifer may be to protect the land that—that sits atop it.  I think you’ve—you’ve been on the board of the Government Canyon Natural History Association, and also been an advisor to the Bexar Land Trust.  And I was curious if you could talk about some of their efforts and your advice to help them direct their—their program.

00:44:47 - 2343

GV:    Government Canyon is a great example of good things and bad things that—or not—not so bad things, but lost opportunities.  Government Canyon was acquired during the savings and loan crisis.  A lot of—lot of banks at that time in the early ‘90s went out of business.  They were holding a lot of properties.  And Government Canyon was purchased dirt cheap as—as a result.  Or through—you know, through—through that

00:45:17 - 2343

whole process.  And it was set aside, and now it’s about—there’s about eight—ten thousand acres, Government Canyon and some surrounding properties not owned by Texas Parks and Wildlife, but owned by the city and other—and other agencies.  But—but there’s about ten thousand acres pre—preserved there in western Bexar County, which is wonderful.  Great success story.  The lost opportunity though is that when we

00:45:44 - 2343

tried to make that happen, and "we" being an or—and ag—an organization, a loose organization called The Government Canyon Coalition that I was involved with.  There were forty-five environmental business civic groups, some public agencies, getting together to try to protect Government Canyon.  But before we focused on Government Canyon, we tried to focus on just getting as much land purchased as we could.  And we

00:46:08 - 2343

met incredible resistance.  The city of San Antonio at that to—at that time, for example, we had several city officials tell us it’s crazy to go out and buy land to protect your water supply.  And we were saying have you heard about this little town called New York City?  You know, they owned the Catskill Mountains.  I mean that’s their wa—that’s not a recharge area because they’d get surface water, but their surface water comes from that area.  They basically own those mountains to protect their water supply.  We’re not

00:46:37 - 2343

talking about re—about inventing the wheel.  It’s already been t—invented.  You want to protect your water supply.  It makes sense.  It’s the most reasonable way of doing it.  You—you don’t have people yelling at you and filing lawsuits because you’re withholding provate—private property rights.  It’s yours. You can do with it as you please, which is to protect water, and to—to protect the be—you know, the—the health and welfare of your community.  The city wasn’t interested.  We talked to Te—to Texas

00:47:03 - 2343

Parks and Wildlife, they didn’t have money at the time.  We talked to the Edwards Underground Water District, which was the predecessor agency of the Edwards Aquifer Authority that we have now.  They weren’t in the land management business, they told us.  So at first it was pretty negative.  You know, all the major players, you know, just didn’t seem interested, or weren’t able to get involved.  But with time, and with some good partners, for instance, the Trust for Public Land, had come out and they—they were

00:47:30 - 2343

a great partner in this, and (?), we made people realize that, yes, protecting your water supply is in the public interest, it’s—it is in the city’s interest, and now the city has moved forward on that.  And the—the Edwards Underground Water District though, yeah, well, let’s—let’s think about this again.  Yeah, maybe this—maybe this is a good idea, and—and if we could work with a partner on this, well, we don’t actually have to manage the land, we’ll put some money into this.  And they did.  And that—that partner

00:47:56 – 2343

was Texas Parks and Wildlife, which didn’t have the money, but they were set up to manage land.  And so it was a great partnership, but unfortunately by the time Government Canyon was purchased, it was the last big piece of property left from—from that—from that period, from that savings and loan crisis.  We could have bought the recharge zone for a song.  At least the recharge zone in Bexar County.  Government Canyon, that—we—we bought it for two million dollars.  It was about—about five

00:48:29 – 2343

thousand acres at that time.  And, like—like I said, it’s grown now.  I believe the—just kind of looking at p—at—at values in that area, that—it—the property is worth something like eighty million now.  I mean the property values have gone up like forty times.  So the city has twice voted to tax itself.  The citizens have voted to tax themselves to raise money to buy land to protect the Edwards Aquifer, so it has been a concern for the city.  But the land’s a lot more expensive, and so we’ve lost an opportunity because

00:49:07 - 2343

now our—the—the last bond that we passed, Proposition 1, is raising ninety million.  During that savings and loan crisis, ninety million could have bought the entire recharge zone pretty much in northern Bexar County, or at least a large portion of it.  And—and many of our water wells right now in certain—or at least our concerns may have—may

00:49:29 - 2343

have been taken care of.  But—but there’s very little land that’s available in Bexar County that’s sort of—you know, that’s—that’s undeveloped now, and available for sale. 

DT:    You—you mentioned that the city of San Antonio had recently passed a bond issue to—to buy land.  And I understand that you were one of the advisors to help them select tracks that would be strategic and—and effective in trying to protect the quality of the aquifer.  How did you—how do you determine what is a more useful piece of land to buy geologically? 

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GV:    It’s—it—it’s tough.  One of the debates we had early on was that we’ve got lumpers and splitters.  Some people want to lump everything together, and some people want to split up fine details.  But we basically put together a GIS model, a geographic information system model, where we had layers of land data, geology, cave locations, faults, streams, endangered species, all sorts of things that went into this model to help

00:50:31 - 2343

identify the—the most vulnerable lands.  And by vulnerable, what I mean is the most permeable land.  Permeability I—it’s something I—it—it’s a geolog—hydro geological term.  Permeability refers to how easily, how rapidly water can move through the rock.  And so the easier the water can move through the—through the rock, the faster it can move through, then the more easily it can get contaminated. So for instance, if you’ve got

00:51:01 - 2343

a big hole in the ground, that a zillion gallons a minute can rush down to that hole, and carry me with it, then obviously that’s highly permeable and it’s highly vulnerable to contamination.  Well, we trying to—trying to identify these vulnerable areas, but to—but to look at some other factors in—in addition.  One thing that was not in that original vote was endangered species.  And what we did, we gave different things in the model of

00:51:29 - 2343

different weights. Endangered species, we ended up giving it about twenty percent weight.  We found that without the endangered species, a lot of the land kind of ranked very similarly.  And it’s like, well, it’s six to one, half dozen of the other, which one you want to go after.  But by adding the—the endangered species, it actually helped highlight some property, so that if you’re going out there to buy the land for protection for

00:51:51 - 2343

the aquifer, and we have endangered species issues here that we also want to deal with, we can get more bang for the buck by identifying lands that give us good aquifer protection, but also give us good endangered species protection too.  Or at least some endangered species protection in some cases.  So it was—it was a complex model.  There were a lot of people involved, a lot of good people involved in—in developing that

00:52:13 - 2343

model, and it worked quite well.  One of the things we were very careful about, I was part of the scientific evaluation team.  And we were just basing our work on the scientific reality of the aquifer, assuming no development, no human impacts on the land.  After we got done, land (?) would go out and look at some of the different possibilities according to how things were prioritized by our model, and then they would bring them back to the Conservation Advisory Board, and it was a different group of people.  And then they

00:52:42 - 2343

would weigh other factors.  They would weigh things like how—how much impact is there in this area?  Is it too much, and we want to avoid this property?  Is it—do we want to use this property as a buffer for the impact that’s already out there?  And so they would weigh things like that.  They would weigh things like cost and value.  All the purchases from the original proposition have been made west of the Interstate 10, not to the east. 

00:53:09 - 2343

And the reason is because of cost.  There was one property that was very close to being purchased in the northeast part of Bexar County.  And then the PGA came to town.  And there was a big brouhaha here about the PGA.  But essentially, this property was adjoining this PGA property, and the property value skyrocketed from pro—from—as I—as I understand, they were looking at prices and negotiating like ten—fifteen thousand

00:53:41 - 2343

dollars an acre, and then overnight, you know, the prices went up to thirty—thirty-five thousand an acre.  And so people had to decide, well, you know, Conservation Advisory Board, do we want to go with this property here and use up all our money on this one piece?  Or do we want to go to the west side of the county where property values are less, we can buy a lot more land?  So we do—do we buy a small piece here for a lot?  Or a lot of land here for a little?  And it’s—it’s—it’s a tough—it’s a tough choice.  And because

00:54:10 - 2343

that one little piece may be strategically located to help buffer impacts, and you know, maybe you don’t know the—as much—as much protection further—further west.  It’s a judgment call, and it’s—it’s—it’s a tough decision.  I—I was not involved with that side of the arrangement, with that side of the assessment.  But overall, I think it was a very—a

00:54:30 - 2343

very good process in showing that San Antonio has made tremendous progress from that point, what, fifteen—sixteen years ago when they were saying, well, it’s ridiculous, you know, to—to—to buy—to—to buy your recharge zone.  So they’ve made tremendous progress I’m pleased to say. 

DT:    Let’s talk about water and quality and not from maybe another point of view.  Instead of top to bottom, more bottom to top.  I’ve understood that—that there’s something called a bad water line, or the saltwater line, that—that there’s more saline water that’s underneath the Edwards, and that it would pump it’s—the upper part of the Edwards, then you can possibly move this bad water line up.  Is that—is that true?  And, you know, how—how would you describe it as the—geoscientist?

00:55:18 - 2343

GV:    The—the bad water line is the boundary between what we call the "fresh water zone" and the "saline zone."  Saline is really misnomer because saline refers to, like, saltwater, seawater.  And it’s not truly saline, it’s brackish.  That—the water is—is—the line is drawn where you have more than one thousand parts ch—parts per million of dissolved solids in the water.  And aesthetically, it’s really not drinkable.  You know, you ought to—take my word for it.  You don’t—you don’t want to drink this stuff. You—you

00:55:48 - 2343

won’t be happy.  But with many aquifers, especially deep aquifers like—like the Edwards, they get to a zone down deep underground where water doesn’t’ circulate as easily.  And as a result, what happens is the water is more in contact with the rock, it dissolves more of the minerals, and because the water flows very slowly, those minerals just kind of sit there and accumulate.  And so that bad water zone is down in that zone

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where there’s not that much water circulation.  There’s wa—there’s full of water, but—but because there’s not so much circulation we’ve got this—this high mineralization.  Now during the record drought of the—of the 1950’s, at that time we did not have any water agencies, or at least we didn’t have an agency designed to study the Edwards Aquifer.  In fact, the Edwards Underground Water District was created in 1959 in

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response to the record drought of the ‘50s.  So one of the problems with the—with this drought of the ‘50s is we have anecdotal data where you said something and someone else said something, but no one really went out to make measurements to prove exactly what happened.  But there’s a number of stories of—of farmers saying that my well turned saline.  My well—my well got salty.  The bad water line moved, because the water pressure was down, the water levels in the aquifer were—were down.  And so with less

00:57:16 - 2343

pressure, the bad water line was able to migrate and affect some wells.  Since then there’s been a number of studies trying to test that possibility.  In some locations there’s just no way that the bad water line’s going to move.  Because, for instance, where you’ve got faulting, where you’ve got the rock shifting, and here you’ve got aquifer rock, and here you’ve got aquifer rock, but they—but they’re not in contact with each other.  You know, they’ve—they’re basically two different levels.  And so if you’ve got—you have bad

00:57:48 - 2343

water down here and fresh water up here, you know, they’re not going to mix.  But there’s places where they may overlap some.  And so in those areas, you know, there may be some movement.  It’s speculative right now.  There’s no clear indication if it will move.  There have been a l—a number of pump tests trying to simulate drought—drought conditions, but, you know, pumping and an actual major drought are two different things. 

00:58:16 - 2343

So at this point it seems that if there’s bad water line movement, it should be fairly localized to only a few locations very near the bad water line.  It should not affect the aquifer as a whole.  But also, if—if we stay within the pumping limits, and the aquifer levels that have been regulated, then it should be a non-issue because we won’t—we wouldn’t get back to those record low levels to—to cause those conditions. 


[End of Reel 2343]

DT:    When we left off we were talking about draw down and drought, and the problems with the water level in the Edwards Aquifer dropping to the point where the bad water line might—might rise.  And another related concern is—is if the Edwards Aquifer drops, then spring flows might decline or actually cease and the endangered species that rely on those springs would suffer.  One of the proposals that’s been floating around for a number of years is to actually use water that’s already been pumped to recharge the aquifer and try and keep these spring flows going.  And I was curious what you think that is, you know, in respects of—of being practical, and—and whether you think it’s worth pursuing that.

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GV:    Augmentation has been controversial over the years.  Part of the problem with the—with augmentation is just definition of terms.  That one person says augmentation, but it’s understood to mean something else by some, you know, by a different person.  There’s different ways—there’s different types of augmentation.  And one of them is aquifer augmentation. It’s—that—that term is almost never used.  But essentially we

00:02:36 - 2344

have dams built out over the recharge zone to force more water into the aquifer, so we’re augmenting the amount of water in the aquifer.  And that’s one type of augmentation that’s already in place.  The more—the more common types of aug—augmentation though are called spring flow or stream flow augmentation.  The idea for stream augmentation is that when the springs dry up, or if the springs dry up, that to the—the

00:03:06 - 2343

streams that are fed by those springs, you provide water to keep those streams flowing, even if the springs are not flowing.  That has some problems.  For one, you have engineer it so that the water just doesn’t go back down the hole that’s—that’s now a dry a spring, because you’re just losing your water and it’s not going down stream.  But the other more significant problem is that the reason part of this augmentation is going on is because of

00:03:34 - 2344

endangered species that depend on the spring flow.  And many of these species depend on the conditions at the spring orifice.  And so just providing stream flow by itself doesn’t take care of these guys.  So the other type of augmentation is spring flow augmentation to try to augment the springs.  The idea has been that you take water from one part of the aquifer, and then you pump it over to near the springs, and you pump it in

00:04:04 - 2344

the ground to raise water levels locally near the springs so the springs will continue to flow naturally, or somewhat naturally, during periods of—of drought when the water levels are low.  There’s a couple of problems with this.  The main problem is a technical problem.  That we have this highly permeable aquifer, remember that term "permeability."  Water moves very quickly in the Edwards Aquifer, very easily.  So what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to create a mound of water in the aquifer to rise up high

00:04:39 - 2344

enough to spill out.  Now this room that we’re sitting in has essentially infinite permeability.  So imagine if I brought in a fire hose here and I poured water on the ground trying to create a mound of water, it wouldn’t happen.  It would just rapidly spread out all over the place.  And unless I actually got to the limits of the room and started flooding the room as a whole, I really wouldn’t be creating a mound right here in

00:05:03 - 2344

the middle of it.  Same thing happens in the aquifer.  The aquifer, especially down there at the springs has very, very high permeabilities.  And so if we start pumping water down in that area to create a mound of water, most likely it’s just going to spread out and distribute itself through the aquifer, and try to l—raise aquifer levels as a whole higher, which is going to be v—technically very difficult and require a huge amount of water. 

00:05:27 - 2344

There’s some other problems with that, in—in that for one, making sure the chemistry and the temperature of the water are adequate for the liv—for the endangered species that depend on that spring flow.  Chances are, if you’re taking it out of the aquifer and putting it into a different—you know, from one part of the aquifer and putting it—putting it to the other, the chemistry and temperature should be pretty good.  You need to make sure that your pipeline doesn’t heat too much because the—you know, there’s many of these

00:05:54 - 2344

species are evolved to live in very restricted conditions, very narrow conditions of temperature, salinity, factors like that, dissolved oxygen.  So you need to make sure that that would—that that wouldn’t be affected.  But—but the most fundamental problem though that I find with—with augmentation is that why are—why is the aquifer level low?  Well, because we don’t have—basically have more water going out than what goes

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in.  If we understand the way the aquifer works, it’s really no different than your checkbook.  If you spend more than what you make, you’re going to run out of money some day.  It doesn’t matter if you have a million dollars in the bank.  If you do it consistently, you’re going to run out of money.  The endangered species have been made bad guys with regard to spring protection and aquifer—and aquifer regulation because

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people have put forth this idea of—of salamanders versus jobs.  It’s—it’s a false argument.  Because if we use the aquifer sustainably, that means we don’t use more water than is naturally recharged on average.  Now there’s some complexities here.  You know, there’s some subtleties that we don’t have time to get into.  But if we can agree to that in principle, then these springs, except for major droughts, natural droughts, should not go

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dry ninety percent of the time.  You know, there might be, you know, ten percent of the time with droughts when—when they will go dry and you many need to do something creative to protect the species.  But if we can agree that ninety percent of the time we will use the aquifer in this way to protect the species, to protect the strea—to protect the spring flow, then the species get protected automatically.  And the water isn’t being wasted, as some people have argued, because there are communities down stream that

00:07:47 - 2344

use and need that water.  It’s vital to their survival.  So even if you don’t care about the critters, hopefully you care about your fellow man living down stream.  And—and so if we’re in a situation where we’re routinely needing to augment our water supply, that means we’re not balancing our checkbook.  We’re taking more water than what goes in and just taking it out of a different part of the aquifer, pumping it over here so it can spill

00:08:13 - 2344

out.  That’s just adding to the deficit.  That’s deficit spending.  Because we’re forcing more water out of the aquifer than still is what’s going in.  So augmentation has some severe problems.  And—and unfortunately, also some of the endangered species have—have gotten the bad rap, you know, through this false argument of species versus jobs.  We take care of the springs, we make sure the springs flow, for human needs that are down stream, the species become most of the time a non-issue. 

DT:    So far you—you’ve told us a good deal about—about karst and—and its geology and hydrology.  But I think it’s fair to say that a lot of what you’ve learned in—in recent years is—is in your role as both a scientist and a consultant.  And—and I was wondering if you could talk about any tensions or overlaps that you see between those two hats that you wear as sort of a business man, but also as a scientist.  Somebody works for a client, but if someone is also in surface for science and the truth.

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GV:    As a—as a consultant, most of my work are for agencies, federal, state, local, city.  To be quite honest, private interest developers rarely call me.  A lot of people, especially in the private sector, want an advocate.  I know many people have labeled me an environmentalist.  I’m a scientist.  I will say what the science shows.  I will say what

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the data have proven, or what the data suggest is the likely situation, the likely scenario.  It’s good science.  It’s common sense to not want to follow your own nest.  It’s good science to—to use the information to protect yourself, rather than to stumble forward on a hope that everything will be okay.  The science has shown that karst aquifers around the world, whenever they’ve seen significant development, they have been significantly

00:10:21 - 2344

contaminated.  I don’t know why people think that San Antonio that the Edwards Aquifer’s going to be all that much different.  You know, why do we want to play out that experiment?  You know.  And so I feel we should be cautious, because the science has shown that this is a problem with this type of aquifer.  Let us be very careful.  I don’t

00:10:38 - 2344

think that’s unreasonable.  But there are consultants out there as well who are advocates.  When someone hires me, I tell them, especially if—if it’s in a situation where we may go to court, or there may be some management issues involved, I make it very clear that I will report on what I find.  I will not move my data, or push my opinion one way or the other to make the client happy.  If the client wants good solid information, and an

00:11:08 - 2344

impartial interpretation of that information, and one that’s—where it has to be somewhat partial, it errs on the side of public health and welfare and sound management, then they will be happy with my product.  There’s some people out there who don’t do that.  I mean we joke about them as biostitutes and hydro-whores, but that—and it’s—it’s—it’s very sad.  There are people out there.  Usually when I get contacted by a—by the public sector

00:11:36 - 2344

who’s—has a certain special interest, it’s kind of funny because they’ll—they’ll—they’ll say we’re calling you because so-an-so likes you.  And they’ll mention some agency.  Apparently they feel that they’re going to get a higher degree of scrutiny so they’re going to take the risk and bite the bullet of calling me.  Yet, I’m not going to find something

00:11:53 - 2344

that isn’t there.  But—but unfortunately I’ve seen cases where things are there.  And for some reason, certain consultants can’t find these critical features, or just have assessments that at least I would not consider accurate or honest. 

DW:        Does that have to deal with maybe because the answer could be near the (?)?  Not asking the right question?

00:12:19 - 2344

GV:    Some of—some people actually know the questions.  Ah…


00:12:26 - 2344

GV:    Some people will actually know—know the questions.  Well, for instance, let me—let me give you something that—that just came up recently.  There was a lawsuit I was involved with, where someone who took one of my classes, who understands what a karst feature is, who understands what a cave is, basically evaluate a cave, which according to the state’s Geologic Assessment System for the Edwards Aquifer, gets a lot

00:12:50 - 2344

of points, so it could be protected.  They ranked it as what was called a "solution cavity," which gets very few points.  And as a result, this thing got filled with concrete, and the—the issue has gone away.  The sad part about it is that the regulators who reviewed this report didn’t catch it.  And I don’t know if they were just too busy, I don’t know if they just didn’t care, I—I don’t know what happened.  I’m hoping they were just—you know, maybe they were too busy, which is also a problem because we tend to—the regulators

00:13:25 - 2344

have deadlines.  For instance, the Texas Envorn—Commission on—for Environmental Quality, they have deadlines that they have to return your results.  You know, if you do a geological assessment, if you submit a water pollution abatement plan, they have deadlines to return answers on these things.  It seems to me that there shouldn’t be any deadlines, that they should return them however long it takes to give a good, sound, reasonable answer.  And if they’re overworked, if they’ve got too many things coming in

00:13:50 - 2344

at once, then we want good results, we want a good review process coming from the state.  Not one that’s rushed to try to meet this artificial deadline to do this activity that’s innocent until proven guilty.  And when we know that it could pote—potentially, you know, harm our water supply.  So there’s a—that—there—there—there’s some no—there’s some problems with—with management out there unfortunately.

DT:    This timing issues also seems to come up in parts of the Edwards Aquifer that are affected by land use that is in turn influenced by whether a—a land development scheme is grandfathered or not.  How do you do those things when the science is—is continually developing, and yet the regulations that effect a particular piece of land may be frozen in time, and—and in many years past?

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GV:    I’m not an attorney.  But what I—what I would hope—I—it—it seems to me that there should be some way for attorneys, either at the city or the state level, to overturn this grandfathering nonsense.  And that’s in my opinion what it is.  If we don’t know that something is wrong or harmful today, we can be excused.  But tomorrow, the next day, next year, we learn that something is causing a problem for the community, and yet that’s

00:15:16 - 2344

okay?  It’s still okay to continue that?  Let me take it to the ridiculous extreme.  Let’s say, you know, I’m—I’m a known murderer, and murder is legal.  Tomorrow lur—murder is—is illegal, we can say that I can continue murdering because I’m a grandfathered murderer.  We don’t do that.  It’s ridiculous.  It’s—it’s clearly ridiculous.  But yet we can say that we—we didn’t know this activity might pose a risk for our ground water ten years ago.  Now we do know it poses a risk, but it’s still okay because you’re

00:15:45 - 2344

grandfathered.  Then that’s—that’s—that’s not—I—I—that’s not good management.  And frankly, for—for people who take that position with their properties, I would be embarrassed to be that sort of person, because it—its shows that they are not good citizens, that they are putting their financial welfare—and they’re going to still make a good buck off that property anyway, but they’re putting their financial well-being above the well-being of the community.  And I—I—I find that scandalous. 

DT:    You’ve worked for many years to understand karst systems and—and—and a lot of your data’s been used to protect them in the future.  And I—I’m curious about another angle of your work, which is this aspect of—of restoring caves that have already been damaged.  And I think you’ve been working on the caves of Sonora for a number of years.  And I was hoping that you might be able to tell us about that experience.

00:16:43 - 2344

GV:    Cave restoration, and—le—let me qualify this.  The work I do at—in cave restoration is as a volunteer, not as—as a consultant.  The—I started at—early on as a cave explorer, and I’m still a cave explorer at heart, and I still do a lot of it whenever I can.  And this is a volunteer project, the Caverns of Sonora.  Caverns of Sonora are

00:17:11 - 2344

inter—internationally recognized as the most beautiful show cave on the planet.  And that’s not Texas brag.  It—it really is—it’s—it’s incredible.  It’s a beautiful cave.  And we have many fine show caves.  I don’t mean to slight any of the other show caves here in Texas, but Sonora really has a—has an outstanding reputation.  And what had happened in Son—in Caverns of Son—Sonora, it was—it’s privately owned, and when

00:17:31 - 2344

they developed the cave, they had to enlarge certain passages so people could get through, and they have all this rubble, you know, that resulted.  Tons and tons of rubble.  And it got kind of dumped here and stuck there in places.  You know, generally the public didn’t notice it because they—they didn’t light it up either.  But about fifteen years ago the owners were telling me, you know, boy, we’d really like to get rid of that stuff

00:17:55 - 2344

but it’s just an enormous job.  And I said, you know, there’s this organization.  You know, there’s a statewide organization of cave explorers, the Texas Speleological Association, and we do a lot of volunteer projects for—you know, for cave owners.  Yeah, I bet we could set something up to come out here and clean up this mess.  And—and we’ve been at it for fifteen years.  And this November 2005, that just passed, we finished the main bulk of rock hauling.  And I believe we’ve pulled out two hundred and

00:18:23 - 2344

five tons of rock and rubble from way back in the cave.  Typically, what will happen—and this is just one trip a year, one weekend a year, one—one day of the weekend.  To get a sense of volunteerism about cavers is, I will announce this by e-mail and say I have seventy slots, you know, to fill on the project.  And within three to six hours, all seventy slots will be filled.  And then I’ll have a waiting list of another forty-fifty-sixty-seventy

00:18:52 - 2344

people, you know, wanting to go, as, you know, if a cancellation develops.  So these are people are basically giving up their weekend to go up to Caverns of Sonora and do prison labor, and—and pull these rock south of the cave.  It—it says a lot for—for—for cavers, for cave explorers.  People sometimes are concerned about allowing cavers on to their

00:19:16 - 2344

property.  You know, what about liability and whether, you know, they’ll sue me, or whatever.  And that—that’s never happened.  A caver has never sued—has never sued the land owner.  I mean we—we value our land owners, and we’re very interested in caves and we go out of our way to try to take care of them, and to try to take care of our land owners.  There was a—many examples, one of them I just think of off—off hand,

00:19:42 - 2344

the owner of the longest cave in the state.  Elderly gentleman, arthritis in both knees, had some floods come through his property a couple of years ago, and a group of cavers went out there and fixed his fences.  You know?  I remember when I first started caving, we would help make bulls into steers.  Just a—to help out the—to help out the rancher who needed—who needed a hand.  Now we were already done exploring his caves, you know. 

00:20:05 - 2344

We—we were going out—back out there anyway, just—but just to—just to be—just to help people out.  So I would encourage people if they’re interested in caves, to contact cavers.  We—we know—you know, we—we—we’re interested in caves, we’re interested in surveying and studying them.  Many cavers can get—can get you—can produce maps of caves, photos, good basic information.  As a scientist, the very first thing I, as I

00:20:32 - 2344

mentioned earlier, the very first thing I need as a scientist is a ca—is a cave map.  And that’s something that a caver will produce, to tell me what’s going on with—with this cave, geologically.  A biologist may be able to use it to understand the be—the ecosystems, archeologists may be able to use it if there’s some archeological materials. 

00:20:49 - 2344

They’re fairly rare in Texas, but—but occasionally you’ll find them.  But if someone’s interested in caves, I strongly urge that they contact cave—cavers.  If they’re interested either in having their caves explored, or if they’re interested in cave exploring, the most dangerous thing about cave exploration, if you know what you’re doing, and if you

00:21:11 - 2344

follow the rules, the most dangerous thing is driving to get to the cave.  It’s as simple as that.  We’ve got a—it—outstandingly good safety record.  I won’t say that accidents don’t happen.  Accidents do happen.  And they—and they’re just that.  Either accidents because something freakish occurred, or unfortunately sometimes if someone’s really

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pushing the limits of the technology and their abilities, yeah, then accidents do happen in those cases.  But they’re fairly—fairly rare. 

DT:    Well, maybe you can tell us about the same percents of fellowship among cavers, and talk about some of the rescues I think that you’ve been participating in.

00:21:47 - 2344

GV:    Oh, I’ve—I’ve worked on some rescues, and—people will sacrifice a lot to go out there to participate on a rescue.  They know that—I mean they’ll drop everything.  They will—you know, they’ll tell their boss to take a flying leap if the boss won’t let them off work.  You know, they’ll risk their jobs, they’ll risk their vehicles, they’ll risk—you

00:22:10 - 2344

know, they’ll take all sorts of supplies and equipment and risk losing it all in the cave in terms of being damaged or consumed one way or the other in the rescue, because of that sense of fellowship.  And the unspoken part of it is that they realize that could be me down there.  And I’ve been involved in, fortunately, relatively few rescues, and I—and

00:22:36 - 2344

I’d like to keep it that way.  And—and partly it’s because of—you know, that it’s—that it’s fairly rare.  You know, people really take—take good care.  But it’s—it’s highly specialized.  There’s some rescue units in Texas.  Fire, police rescue units are—are—are now cave trained, which is good.  One of the problems that has happened in the past is people—rescuers without cave training have gone to rescue someone and done more harm than good.  There’s a cave on—a—a grim story, a cave near Boerne that we call

00:23:16 - 2344

"Drop me twice until I die" cave, because that’s literally what happened.  The rescuers from a local fire department went out to rescue the guy—this was thirty years ago—and dropped him twice down the hole and killed him.  They went out with the best of intentions, but they didn’t he didn’t have the best knowledge.  And what was the—the—the—the most unfortunate thing was that there was a cave rescue training seminar going

00:23:39 - 2344

on at Cascade Caverns only a few miles away, with all of the equipment, all the knowledge in the world right there to affect a safe rescue.  But for the most part, we’re past that, because here in San Antonio, we’ve got—we’ve got people in the San Antonio Fire Department who are cave rescue trained.  Austin area, there’s many people that are cave rescue trained, and some other areas.  So cavers still get involved with—with cave rescue.  Sometimes we have to self rescue, depending on the situation.  And self rescue

00:24:08 - 2344

may be as mild as, you know, I’ve strained my—twisted my ankle, I just need an extra hand, you know, to—to hobble out of—out of the cave.  Sometimes we—you—you have to self rescue.  I was in Belize in the jungles years ago, and a guy sl—slid off a slope and busted his leg up, and we needed to get him out of the jungle, you know.  So, you know, the EMS is not around the corner.  But—but again, it’s—overall, it’s—it’s a—it’s a pretty safe activity if you follow the rules.  And most cavers do.  We’ve—we’ve got an

00:24:42 - 2344

excellent record.  And I encourage people to contact us because if you’re interested in caving, we can teach you the good safety methods of—of caving.  We can teach you how to not violate land owner rights, you know, to—to—to make sure your land owners are happy with you.  To—so you’re welcome back onto—onto a part—particular property. 

00:25:01 – 2344

Also, safety for the cave.  We don’t want to destroy the cave.  We don’t cover the caves with spray paint, we don’t break off all the stalactites, stalagmites, and all that, you know, and destroy it.  They—they don’t look very good when they take them at home anyway.  They look much better in the—in the cave environment where they belong.  So…

DT:    Speaking of teaching, I think that you—you’ve taught fieldtrips for—for students interested in karsts and caves from western Kentucky and perhaps other schools.  Can you talk ab—about some of these fieldtrips?  And then maybe more generally, talk about maybe a message that you might want to pass on to younger people who are just getting interested in geology, karst systems, maybe conservation in particular?

00:25:47 - 2344

GV:    Western Kentucky University has what they call the Mammoth Cave Program.  And what it is—is a series of courses taught at Mammoth Cave using Mammoth Cave and some surrounding caves as examples of karst geology, biology, archeology and so forth.  I’ve been teaching some courses for them down here using the Edwards Aquifer and surrounding area as examples.  The people who take these classes are usually not

00:26:11 - 2344

from Western Kentucky University.  Most of them are consultants, like from TCEQ, city of San Antonio, Edwards Aquifer Authority, U.S. Geological Survey.  These are the people that have been taking these courses.  Many consultants have taken some of these courses.  To better understand how karst aquifers work.  And these are one week long, very intensive courses.  In a six day period we put in usually ninety hours of field and

00:26:33 - 2344

class time.  So we start about eight in the morning, and we finish close to midnight everyday.  But I try to squeeze in a lot of information because there’s a lot of good stuff that’s there.  If people are interested in—in karst research, there’s a variety of avenues to—to—to look at.  Of course there’s geology, which we’ve been focusing on.  Biology,

00:26:53 - 2344

there’s some very interesting things going on that we don’t have time to talk about in cave biology.  Many endangered species live in caves in this area and they need proper management.  One big educational opportunity that I hadn’t mentioned to you before, in 2009, July 19 through the 26th, Schreiner University in Kerrville will be the fifteenth

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international Congress of Speleology.  Basically, the world of cave science and cave exploration is going to come here for a congress that happens once every four years, and we’ll hosting it here—here in Texas in 2009.  This is going to be—this will be only the second one held in North America out of the—this conference series.  And one of our intents with this congress is to—is to kind of show that speleology, cave science isn’t just

00:27:49 - 2344

for cavers anymore.  There are lots of people out there doing cave management who have no formal background in caves, who have no explorational background in caves, but they show that, you know, there’s a lot of knowledge here that—that you guys can benefit from.  At the same time, those of you who aren’t coming from a trad—traditional cave

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background, you’ve got knowledge and experience that we can benefit from too.  And so we’re going to try to make it a very good exchange and try to break these barriers between the cave people and the non-cave people, the karst people and the non-karst people.  We all have something—excuse me—something to learn from.

DT:    And—and what would you offer to those who are not cavers, not karst specialists, but who are general lay people about what you’ve learned and—and what it might mean to those concerned about conservation?

00:28:34 – 2344

GV:    Oh, holes in the ground.  That’s what—how a lot of people view caves, is just a bunch of—just a hole in the ground.  We’ll throw a bunch of trash in there and not worry about it.  Out of site, out of mind.  Karst aquifers tend to be some of the most plentiful water supplies in the world.  Karst ecosystems, caves tend to be some of the more unique and interesting biological settings in the world.  Some of the greatest paleontological, archeological finds in the world have been made in caves.  There is so much we can find

00:29:03 - 2344

about—find out about past climates.  You know, you want to talk about global warming, you know, what’s—what’s the historical record?  Yeah, we’ve got records that go back a hundred years.  I can take you into a cave and collect some data that goes back thousands of years for actual comparison.  So we’ve got these incredible storehouses of information that we call caves, and they’re not just casual holes in the ground.  They—they’ve got

00:29:25 - 2344

tremendous practical benefit for us.  For instance, among the biologist who’s—who are studying vampire bats—and vampire bats really do exist.  But the vampire bats, they have an anticoagulant in their saliva.  And so what they will do is they won’t do the—you know, the Dracula thing, you know, and s—and suck blood out of major blood vessels, but just put a very small nick on the bottom of a foot of a—you know, of a chicken, or onto a—or onto a cow, just a very small cut, and their—and their blood, the anticoagulant

00:29:57 - 2344

will just keep the blood flowing, the saliva will keep the blood flowing.  Well, they’re finding that that anticoagulant is vastly superior than anything we use in human medicine to keep bloods from clotting, to keep blood from clotting.  And so that’s being looked at as a very real possibility to use for heart patients, and—and many other, you know, post

00:30:17 – 2344

surgical patients in—in medicine.  So there’s a lot of benefits that—that are—are to be gained, and we shouldn’t view these things as—as holes in the ground.  They’re—they’re deep, they’re dark, they’re somewhat mysterious.  But they’re really valuable assets too.

DT:    Well, speaking of holes in the ground, we often ask people at the very close of the interview how they—if there is a—a special place that some people might not appreciate until you explained it.  And I was wondering if there is a place that you take great pleasure in visiting, whether it’s a cave, or—or some place above ground that you might want to share with us.

00:30:56 - 2344

GV:    I’ve—I’ve never had much in the way of favorites.  I don’t have favorite foods, favorite music, favorite colors, and I don’t have a favorite cave.  There are some caves that are—I’m extremely fond of, places I love to go.  I like to go where someone hasn’t been before.  I love the desert, I love the mountains, I love the jungles.  I’ve been lucky enough to—to see many of these different settings.  But—but part of that is the way I was

00:31:22 - 2344

raised as a caver.  When I first started caving, there was this schism in Texas between cavers who would go caving in Mexico, and those who were caving in Texas.  And Mexico had big and beautiful and tremendous caves.  And Texas, you know, was kind of pooh-poohed because our caves weren’t as big or spectacular.  And my attitude, and several

00:31:44 - 2344

other people’s attitudes at that time, was that appreciate what you have.  If I’m in Mexico, I’m going to love it.  But if I’m here in Texas, you know, the caves may not be as big or as deep, but I’m going to love them too.  Everything has a unique, you know, ha—you know, has—has a unique character.  You know, it’s—it’s like saying—I mean I love my wife, but because I love my wife I’m not going to like you.  Does that make

00:32:06 - 2344

sense?  No.  You know, you’re a fine person.  I should—I should be able to, you know, to—to have a good relationship with you, even though I love my wife.  You know, and it’s—it’s the same thing.  And fortunately, many people have, you know, have that—that Texas-Mexico attitude has pretty much faded, but it’s—but it’s stuck with me though in the sense of just appreciating wherever I’m at. 

DT:    That’s a—that’s a fine note to finish on.  Thank you very much.  I appreciate your time. 

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GV:    You bet, Mm-mmm. 

End of Reel 2344

End of Interview with George Veni

Conservation History Association of Texas
Texas Legacy Project

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