Detective Mission; We trace where disappearing water winds up

Protem, Missouri We can guarantee the conclusion of this next story will not be appetizing.

As part of our series, Celebrate Ozarks Waters, I went on a detective mission -- Tracing the water from one stream-- and finding out where it goes.

Fluorescein is the stuff we poued into Hampton Hollow. It turns bright green (see the picture or the video) in the water. This non-toxic dye -- can solve a mystery. Where does that water go when it sinks into the ground near Protem?

Tom Aley of Ozarks Underground Laboratory comments, "It's a very effective way of tracing..."

Paul Adler reports that, "you might think that you'd find the dye in the water downstream. But, really you find it with one of these... this is a charcoal packet."

Tom Aley responds, "It will absorb the die and retain it.... in this packet there's over an acre of surface area."

Tom really wanted to know the answer to the creek's disappearing act. Because, he owns this cave just 800 feet away from Hampton Hollow's sinking stream of water.

Tom Aley bought Tumbling Creek Cave in 1965. He wanted to establish an underground lab, a move that had some former co-workers wondering if he was a mad scientist.

Tom Aley reflects, "this has a lot of physical diversity... it was in very good condition as it still is... and I was fortunate enough to be able to buy it."

170 feet below ground, nothing mad is happening. Instead, it's all science and study in the cave.

Scientist Nathan Keith says, "we have a few different probes set up in there... "

Nathan is measuring Tumbling Creek's oxygen, temperature, ph and more.

Tracking the health of the stream is a way to protect the unique species in the cave. There's a one of a kind millipede. Tom named it after himself. It's called Aley's Millipede. From their study, they know that what happens above the cave, doesn't stay above.

Nathan says, "it's an out of sight, out of mind kind of issue.. they're not worrying about it. Down here we're seeing that it's not out of sight..."

Very little water in the cave gets filtered in a slow drip way. Most of it races down here in waterfalls and in Tumbling Creek. You'll understand the importance of knowing that in just a couple more sentences.

First, remember those charcoal packets? There are a bunch in the cave.

Nathan says, "we strip anything that's absorbed onto the charcoal (in the lab)."

Back on solid ground (in the video), the crew is heading to the spot where that disappearing stream reappeared.

Tom says, "This is a mile from where we put the dye in the ground... It didn't go to the cave.. "

While the results from our study aren't ready yet, Tom knows where the water popped up from a previous dye trace.

Tom tells us, "It went to the well that was down here.. "

That water did not get filtered. Instead, it raced through the ground, carrying the parasites from the manure, that the cows used to leave along Hampton Hollow. That's why the well is now sealed up.

Paul Adler asks Tom, "Would you say the old well was dangerous to people? Tom Aley responds, :"Sure. Because in the Karst system, it's a lot of wide open passages.. that does not filter out materials like the Cryptosporidium. "

Tom hopes his studies here keep the little cave creatures safe; and us too.

Tom Aley says, "In the long run we're part of this eco-sytem, if the eco-system is not protected... Then, that's not good for us either..."

Tom does recommend that you test your well water once a year if you use a private well.

Meantime, when the latest dye test comes in we'll let you know if Tom found any surprises.