Uncovering the secrets of the springs


An IU research team investigates 100 springs—some famous and some unknown—across the Indiana Uplands region.

Natural springs have played an important role throughout the history of Indiana, yet for many of the springs, little is known about the specific characteristics. In partnership with the Center for Rural Engagement, a team of researchers from the Indiana Geological and Water Survey (IGWS) is hoping to uncover some of those secrets held in the springs of the Indiana Uplands to better understand the past and future of these water sources.

Tracy Branam is a scientist with IGWS and is directing a research project to collect data about the location, chemical composition, and water quality of 100 perennial springs in the eleven counties that make up the Indiana Uplands region. “I first became interested when reading a [1901] report by the former state geologist William Blatchley,” he says. “At the time mineral springs were very popular and provided a sizable economic industry to the state.” Historically, springs have been the source and site of economic growth, providing power to gristmills, drinking water, and agricultural irrigation to the towns that grew up around them.

Even today, many of these springs provide water in areas with limited groundwater resources, says Branam. Some uses include drinking water for people and livestock, recreation, and even bottling. “Many of these uses depend on water quality and character,” says Branam, but there’s never been a large-scale collection of that data. Branam and his team hope to change that.
Branam’s team travels to each site and records a GPS location, flow measurements, and field chemistry data, as well as a water sample to be brought back to a lab and tested for alkalinity, nutrients, and bacteria. Many of the sites are on private property, and the team needed permission from the property owners before they could sample the springs. “I really enjoy getting to talk to the landowners,” says Lindsey Rasnake, a master’s candidate in the Indiana University O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs and a graduate research assistant working on the project. “Many of them are farmers and have been living in this region for generations, and for the most part have worked hard to conserve their resources and be stewards of the land.”

One of the more prominent examples of the historic importance of springs in Indiana are those in Orange County, Indiana, where French Lick Resort is located. “Prior to statehood, this area was well known for the mineral springs, which were initially used to support the early settlers as a hunting grounds,” says Justin Harris, director of facilities at French Lick Resort. “The waters were quickly discovered to have medicinal qualities, which gained a lot of attraction from everyone, including the national government,” says Harris.

The federal government claimed the land near the springs in hopes of extracting the minerals from the ground. When this proved to not be possible, the land went up for auction, and it was purchased by William Bowles in 1845. Bowles built the resort there and sold the opportunity to bathe in the springs.

The French Lick Springs Hotel originally had four springs. Over time, development has cut that to just two, one of which is Pluto Spring, a mineral-rich spring that has natural laxative powers. The water was bottled and sold as a medicine across the country until the 1970s when the lithium it contained became a controlled substance. “Guests are welcome to visit the springs...but the only use of the water is in our spas where guests can take mineral baths,” says Harris.

“Pluto Spring was one of the highest priorities on my list,” says Branam. “There is chemical data on Pluto Spring dating back to the late 1800s, providing me an opportunity to compare and see what if any significant changes have occurred in the spring composition over the last 100 or more years.” The research team contacted Harris for help with access to springs, and he was glad to help. “It doesn’t take much to convince me to talk about the history of the resort and get involved,” says Harris.

Any interest in these springs and in this area helps to expose these hidden gems and attract more people to this area.

Tracy Branam, Indiana Geological and Water Survey

While the data is valuable for Branam’s research purposes, he says it may also renew interest in the French Lick region. “Knowing that this unique spring is still functioning at the same level as when it was first tasted and sold would add to the interest as a growing tourist attraction for the area,” says Branam.

Harris says he hopes that Branam’s research will help them understand the history and origin of the springs’ water, as well as reignite some of the excitement that French Lick used to hold. “Any interest in these springs and in this area helps to expose these hidden gems and attract more people to this area.”

Not every spring is as well known. Most, in fact, are small springs that run through private property. Lois and Dick Clark live in Greene County, Indiana, and the springs on their property have been sampled a few times by Branam’s team.

“I have been involved in agriculture my whole life and currently have approximately 500 diverse acres of pasture, hay fields, and forestry with a creek and several natural springs.” says Dick.

The Clarks are one of many who live in a rural area and rely on spring water in some capacity. “These springs have played a vital role and have a nutritional benefit in raising the cattle and sheep as well as being a nice place to visit with lots of wildlife to see.”

Dick says he enjoyed working with the researchers, and he understands the value of the data they’re collecting. “Any study that promotes how important it is to protect water is a benefit,” he says.

Deanna Davis, a Washington County resident, has also had her springs sampled by the team, and she was eager to participate as well. “We are extremely excited and grateful for the interest in the quality of our groundwater,” she says. “Most landowners, myself included, want to be good stewards of the land. Any information that can help us towards that goal is very welcome.”

The end goal of Branam’s research project is for the collected spring data to be made available to the public through an interactive map available on the IGWS website. Additionally, the public will be able to upload their own information about springs to the map. “We have to get all of the analyses back from outside labs and enter the new data along with historic data and site descriptions,” says Branam, but it will be available near the end of the spring semester.

While the springs hold a trove of information, they are also a part of Indiana’s natural beauty. “There is so much beauty in this area of Indiana,” says Steph LeGare, also a master’s candidate at O’Neill and a research assistant on the project. “On fieldwork days, I often find myself thinking how lucky I was that I got to work in such awesome areas.”

The IU Center for Rural Engagement improves the lives of Hoosiers through collaborative initiatives that discover and deploy scalable and flexible solutions to common challenges facing rural communities. Working in full-spectrum community innovation through research, community-engaged teaching and student service, the center builds vision, harnesses assets and cultivates sustainable leadership structures within the communities with which it engages to ensure long-term success.