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Reclamation's Hidden Underwater Treasure - Phantom Springs Cave

photo: Divers exploring underwater Phantom Springs Cave - photo courtesy of Curt Bowen
Divers exploring underwater Phantom Springs
Cave - photo courtesy of Curt Bowen

West Texas is known for its big sky, open land and desert landscapes. But hidden deep within these arid lands, the Bureau of Reclamation is preserving an ecological treasure.

A recent expedition into Reclamation’s Phantom Springs Cave has revealed the cave is one of the longest in the United States.

“Divers have been exploring this cave for more than 30 years, but there are still parts of it that no one has entered,” said Tom Iliffe, professor of marine biology at Texas A&M-Galveston. “It just goes on and on. It is now classified as the longest underwater cave in the U.S. outside the state of Florida. ”

Phantom Lake Spring and the surrounding spring-fed wetland system, located near Toyavale, Texas, were purchased by the Bureau of Reclamation in 1945.  There are various stories on how or why the spring got its Phantom Name. One story says an Army troop from Fort Davis was exploring the area and came upon the spring. When they returned to the area some time later to enjoy the water, it was gone. Another story says it was named Phantom Lake Springs because an adjacent sink that used to contain a lake is now empty.

Reclamation initially purchased Phantom Lake Spring and used it to supplement the Reeves County Water Improvement District’s irrigation system. However, the lake and cave water levels continually declined since measurements began. Reclamation now works to ensure that the water level is maintained in the cave because it is home to two endangered fish that are genetically unique to the spring.

Iliffe headed the team that conducted the most recent investigations at Phantom Springs Cave. He was joined by expert divers from two Florida groups, the ADM Exploration eam and Karst Underwater Research, and two Texas A&M-Galveston graduate students. They spent a week mapping the extensive cave to characterize habitat, conduct comprehensive photo and video documentation, pinpoint significant biological features and record the distribution of species.

photo: Divers exploring underwater Phantom Springs Cave - photo courtesy of Curt Bowen
Divers exploring underwater Phantom Springs Cave
- photo courtesy of Curt Bowen

Access to the cave is strictly limited by Reclamation due to safety concerns and in order to protect and maintain the cave’s unique ecosystem. Divers must have a Reclamation permit to enter the cave. The cave’s mouth is covered by a locked gate.

Iliffe says the cave is an underwater world that is certainly nothing like the terrain above it. “The cave is very long and deep,” Iliffe explains. “One of our goals was to map it and see how far it extended. We went about 8,000 feet along the guideline laid out through the cave, about 1,500 feet farther than anyone had ever gone before. And it was believed the cave was only about 60 to 70 feet deep at most, but we went down to 240 feet with the cave passage still trending ever deeper and larger.”

Several species of fish exist in a small pool at the cave entrance, including the Comanche Springs pupfish and the Pecos gambusia, two types of tiny fish that are both on the endangered species list. The two springs for which these fish were originally named have since dried up so that they now occur only in a few isolated locations.

“These species and this fragile ecosystem are why we guard access to this cave so carefully,” said Reclamation Albuquerque Area Manager Mike Hamman. “We are very aware of the valuable scientific information contained in this isolated genetic pool. We only allow two permits to enter the cave per year. And these permits are only granted to divers or researchers who are aware and concerned with preserving the cave’s scientific integrity.”

Iliffe says the cave is especially interesting because of its geology.  Phantom Springs Cave has pure white limestone walls with black chert (a silica based mineral) which occurs as irregular nodules protruding out of the cave wall and resembling elk horns.

photo: Divers exploring underwater Phantom Springs Cave - photo courtesy of Curt Bowen
Divers exploring underwater Phantom Springs
Cave - photo courtesy of Curt Bowen

“One troubling aspect of the cave is that the water level in it has gone down because of the drought and also because of irrigation in the area,” Iliffe notes, adding that the current drought is one of the worst ever recorded in the state.

The natural spring water ceased consistent flow in 1999, prompting the creation of a pumping system to maintain the aquatic habitat for species of concern. The current pump system circulates water to the spring area from about 75 feet back in Phantom Cave.

Within the last year, Reclamation has worked with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to secure the current pool, and rebuild a larger, more natural spring. This project is partially supported by a grant from the Desert Fish Habitat Partnership, as well as funding from Reclamation, and the Service.

Iliffe and the team hope to return to Phantom Springs later this year to continue mapping and to identify more types of cave adapted organisms.  Their investigations are funded by a cooperative research grant between Texas A&M and CONACyT, Mexico’s national science foundation.

photo: Tom Iliffe -  marine biology professor at Texas A&M - Galveston - photo courtesy of Curt Bowen
Tom Iliffe - marine biology professor at
Texas A&M - Galveston. photo courtesy of
Curt Bowen

For more information about Phantom Springs, go to http://www.admfoundation.org/projects/phantom/phantomcave.html

Video of the Dive is Courtesy Curt Bowen and Andrew Pitkin and can be viewed at http://vimeo.com/35178171.

Photos of the Dive are Courtesy Curt Bowen and can be viewed at

For more about Iliffe’s work, go to http://www.tamug.edu/cavebiology/


Last updated: March 13, 2012