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Texas cave climbers work to clean out caves with generations worth of trash

 Cave climbers from Bexar Grotto
Jennifer Gonzalez
/
Cave climbers from Bexar Grotto

These days, it's just common sense that pollutants and trash are bad for the Edwards Aquifer, which is San Antonio’s main source of water. But a hundred years ago, landowners thought nothing of using caves or sinkholes on their property as trash dumps. Landowners are much more ecologically conscious now.

During a recent sunny Sunday afternoon on a ranch in Comal County near Bulverde, north of San Antonio, people began to gather at a ranch directly over the aquifer recharge zone. About a dozen volunteers teamed up to clean out a cave on the property, led by Mio Kitano. Kitano is a surgical oncologist and also a member of Bexar Grotto, a chapter of the National Speleological Society. Another group from Austin is pitching in to help, too. The ranch owner gave the cave climbers permission to clean out the cave.

“So we've gone down into two different teams -- one team at the … bottom of the cave and then another team at the immediate bottom. [W]e've set up two whole systems to pull up all the trash from the different levels,” Kitano explained.

The quickly filled up eight trash bags full of junk, including cans, bottles and other items. Some of the items were over 100 years old.

 Trash retrieved from the cave
Jennifer Gonzalez
/
Trash retrieved from the cave

“People back then didn't think of the consequences,” Kitano said, “but there is one of the rooms that's completely filled with trash, and some of it is not biodegradable, so they're going to stay here for years unless we actually pull them out.”

Geary Schindel is president of the National Speleological Society and a member of Bexar Grotto.

“You know, It's only been in the last 50 years that people have really realized the importance of what occurs on the surface and the potential impact it may have on our water resources and our concern,” he explained. “This is that water on the recharge zone goes downward, through maybe some of this waste and then on into the aquifer where it becomes part of our drinking water or … discharges at the springs -- Comal or San Marcos Springs and San Antonio Springs -- and can potentially impact … the biological communities that rely on those surface water systems.”

 A cave climber lowers into the cave to retrieve trash
Jennifer Gonzalez
/
A cave climber lowers into the cave to retrieve trash

Brendan Gibbons is with the Greater Edwards Aquifer Alliance, a San Antonio based nonprofit that works to preserve the Edwards and Trinity aquifers and their springs and waterways. He said although trash in these caves is a problem, the recharge zone faces an even bigger threat.

“We need to progress to the point where we realize that the chemicals we use on our lawns, the things that we put on our pavement, auto chemicals and the ways we used land in general, that's also running off into the aquifer,” he explained. “So we should start to think about all the little things we do over and above the recharge zone as being equivalent to disposing of waste directly down a sinkhole because we're kind of just doing that indirectly with with our chemical use over and above the recharge zone.”

There are an estimated 600 caves in Bear County alone that potentially feed into the Edwards aquifer. Landowners can contact the Bexar Grotto Group or the National Speleological Society to have volunteers come and clean out their cave or sinkhole.

Copyright 2022 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

Jerry Clayton
Jennifer Gonzalez