Leah Gernetzke
Cave restoration efforts at James Bowie High School back underway this summer

Published in The Oak Hill Gazette

Austin might be known more for star-bound musicians and startups than caves, but unbeknownst to many, the latter is just as common – and important.

In fact, the hundreds of unseen caves in Austin form a crucial part of the city’s ecological heritage. Not only do they house a variety of minerals, but they also help regulate the way groundwater is stored through aquifers, control flooding, and provide a natural habitat to rare species, including the city’s famous bat population.

One of these ecological powerhouses rests beneath the floorboards of James Bowie High School. Since the 1990’s, local scientists, cave specialists, and educators have been working together to excavate it so students can learn about the role caves play in the local eco-system in a hands-on way.

“It is hard visualize the eco-system that lies beneath us and how what we do above ground impacts the quality and quantity of our groundwater supplies,” said Jill Harding, a science teacher at James Bowie High School who spearheaded the cave restoration effort. “We are hoping the cave provides an up-close window for students to view and learn about aquifer recharge and cave ecology, as well as the making of cave formations. We are so fortunate to have this natural laboratory on our campus.”

Although the excavation project began approximately two decades ago, progress has been intermittently stalled due to lack of funding and legal agreements. The city has just renewed a one year agreement with the Austin Independent School District and has allocated $15,000 in funds for the project. These funds will also cover excavation at additional caves located in the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center behind the school.

Harding said the school plans to wait until the summer to start the excavation. Though there is no guarantee that this will be the last round of digging needed, she said hopefully the cave will be ready for educational purposes next fall.

“It may mean a little more digging, but we’re hoping that this summer we can get in there and make it safe for kids,” Harding said. “We’re hoping to get this done.”

According to Nico Hauwert, a hydrogeologist at the City of Austin, the restoration and conservation of area caves is a crucial issue for the community at large as well.

“With global warming, there are issues that we very much need to look at, such as where are we going to get our water from,” Hauwert said. “The area from Oak Hill to Manchaca has a lot of caves that are designed to take in waterfall … A lot of that is used for drinking water.”

These conservation issues are undeniably rooted in education, said Harding.

“It is hard to care about things that you don’t know much about. If we want students to become good stewards of our natural resources, we have to help them understand how and why they are important,” she said. “The cave offers an opportunity for students to see and experience nature at work and we hope the experience leaves a lasting impression.”