Mapping Underground Connections with a Cave Explorer

A geologist and cave explorer, Dr. Richard Finch knows his local waters connect underground in surprising ways.

Photo courtesy of Richard Finch
A geologist and cave explorer, Dr. Richard Finch knows his local waters connect underground in surprising ways. (Photo courtesy of Richard Finch)

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A geologist and cave explorer, Dr. Richard Finch has always been “oriented towards the earth.”

“When we hike, my wife sees blossoms in trees, birds’ nests, squirrels and clouds,” he says. “Meanwhile, I’m busy finding the arrowheads, fossils and coins!”

Finch lives in Cookeville, Tennessee, about 80 miles east of Nashville. In four decades of exploring local caves, springs and sinkholes, he’s seen some worrisome things—a leaky sewage pipe fouling an underground stream, a cave filled with discarded tires and all kinds of garbage churning underground during heavy rains.

As part of his fieldwork, Finch has released biodegradable dye into streambeds to determine their underground connections, so he knows his local waters connect in surprising ways. For example, he’s found that oils, grease, bacteria and nutrients in stormwater runoff can travel for miles through conduits worn through ancient rock.

When Finch heard about a developer’s plans to destroy a wetland and dispose of treated stormwater runoff by injecting it into a subterranean aquifer, he resolved to oppose the development. Hydrogeological connections, he argued, could very well carry the polluted stormwater to two neighboring creeks, eventually drifting into Center Hill Lake, the source of Cookeville’s drinking water.

While challenging the development, Finch was disillusioned to learn about the limits of clean water regulation. For one, the Clean Water Rule uses arbitrary distance-based cutoffs to determine whether there’s a significant hydrological connection between groundwater and surface waters. Finch joined Earthjustice’s legal action to stop industry attempts to further dilute some of the already tepid protections in the rule. 

“We are in the U.S., and these are our waters. I don’t see how you can exclude any of it,” Finch says. “Whether waters flow on the surface or underground, they are all waters of the U.S.”

The Waters of the U.S. blog series tells the stories of five courageous folks working to protect their beloved local waterways and to push the federal government to strengthen the EPA’s Clean Water Rule. Released in spring 2014, the rule is meant to bolster the 1972 Clean Water Act, which has been watered down over the years by concerted attacks from special interest groups. However, the Clean Water Rule exempts vital waterways, including some springs and desert washes, and Earthjustice—with help from grassroots water warriors—is fighting in courtrooms across the country to ensure that the rule is as protective as possible.