Is It Time to Build Lake II?
After 30 years, Springfield still doesn’t know
August 18, 1988
Even central Illinois’s verdant landscape is prone to occasional droughts. They hit in the 1930s, in the 1950s, and again in the 1980s. the City of Springfield solved its public water supply problem by building a new lake to store water in wet years for use in dry years. Local engineers warned that the old lake was no longer sufficient. But their calculations were based on old assumptions that, in retrospect, look extravagant. But the city invested heavily in land for a Lake II, and local interests wanted it used.
This piece summarizes the debate as of the latter 1980s. Nothing new has changed the calculations since—politicians still have to take a chance and make a bet on the future—so nothing has been done.
In the middle of the "Dustbowl" drought in the 1930s, they put a dam across the Sugar Creek valley southeast of Springfield. Creek water was going to back up behind that dam and create a 21 billion-gallon reservoir—then the biggest artificial lake in Illinois. It was not Willis Spaulding's idea exactly but the new lake had had no more persuasive a champion. The drought of 1933–34, however, slowed Sugar Creek to a trickle. The new lake took twice as long to fill up as Spaulding's engineers had promised. Some people in Springfield began referring to the project as Spaulding's folly, but for most people the delay in filling the lake only confirmed how badly the city needed it. It was one of those rare occasions when a drought made a public water official look good.
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In 1988 Springfield is coping again with drought. The new lake—now the old Lake Springfield—is not dry, but at a rate of fall of a foot every twenty days it could be in a matter of months. In the 1970s, the city halfheartedly endorsed plans to build a second lake. That second lake is still as many as nine years from completion, however, maybe longer, given the reluctance of successive city councils to commit the city (and their own political fortunes) to the expensive and controversial project.
In the meantime, the need for some temporary source of extra water to provide at least minimum service in case of drought has been impressed upon the present council, if not yet on the rest of Springfield's citizens. A "bridge" between an overtaxed present supply and a new permanent auxiliary supply is needed, a canteen of sorts which might last until the city reaches the next gas station. So far the debate has been mostly in terms of "how much" and "if." People who know about droughts know the only real question is "when."
It is easy to forget how slim the difference between "dry" and "disastrous" is. It takes only two years of below-normal rainfall (assuming no reduction in withdrawals) for Lake Springfield to become worrisomely low. Nor do those precipitation shortfalls have to be very large. In 1953–54 the lake literally disappeared along much of its length, shrinking back to the banks of the streams which feed its basin. The lake level plummeted to 12.6 feet below its 560-feet-above-sea-level "full" stage, just about ten feet lower than the lake stood in mid-August of this year. The two-year precipitation shortfall which caused that drastic shrinkage was only about 25 percent below normal.
Since 1955 the city has taken several steps to augment the natural flow of water into the lake during drought. Backwater arms of the basin are being dredged, increasing its storage capacity. A pumping station installed in 1955 draws water from the nearby South Fork of the Sangamon River into the lake at rates of several million gallons a day. Water which carries fly ash from the city power plants to nearby disposal ponds is recaptured and pumped back into the lake. City utilities director Frank Madonia reminded the council committee on August 10 that because of such expedients there was fully a foot of water in the lake that wouldn't be there otherwise.
However, the prospect of the lake disappearing again is by no means forestalled. For one thing, the lake has lost 12 percent of its original storage capacity permanently to siltation, so there is less water in the lake even when it is full. More of that water is being withdrawn every day; pumpage has increased in volume some two and a half times since 1954.
Crawford, Murphy & Tilly, the Springfield firm which has served as City Water, Light and Power's unofficial house engineering staff for the last thirty years, has estimated that had the 1952–55 drought occurred in 1985, the lake would have shriveled like a puddle on a hot sidewalk. Water levels would have fallen to something like 541 feet above sea level barring extraordinary conservation measures. That's sixteen feet below the current lake level and two feet below the point at which the city's water supply pumps begin sucking dry air.
The apparently increased vulnerability of Lake Springfield to dry weather is due in part to changes in storage capacity and withdrawal rates. But there is evidence as well that droughts are more frequent occurrences than was believed even recently. CM&T noted in 1983 that the lake fell enough to justify auxiliary pumping from the South Fork one year out of every three, on average, since 1952. Experts at the time described the 1952–55 drought as a so-called "seventy-five-year event," which means a drought of an intensity and duration which was likely to recur on average no more often than once every seventy-five years. CM&T in 1980 reported that new understanding of drought cycles suggested that the 1952-55 drought was in fact merely a forty-year drought. If true, that meant that a lake-emptying drought could reasonably be expected to recur twice as often as had been thought.
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It may be argued that Springfield does not suffer from a shortage of water but from a shortage of very cheap water. There is plenty of water around; what keeps it out of Springfield's pipes is the need to build expensive storage and delivery systems to get it.
The problem, in other words, is not hydrological but political. "Our goal," explains Lynn Frasco, the chief engineer for City Water, Light and Power, "is to keep prices as low as possible." Springfield's system does that, in large part thanks to the foresight of its early administrators such as Spaulding. By any sane standard, Springfield water is ludicrously cheap. The city bills water customers in terms of units of one hundred cubic feet, or 748 gallons of water. Users of up to 1,000 units per month—748,000 gallons—pay 77 cents per unit for it, or a tad more than a penny a gallon for potable water delivered to the home. Bottled water delivered to the home by local commercial firms costs as much as $1.00 per gallon by comparison.
Springfield uses a "declining block" water rate structure. Except for a "lifeline" rate for those using no more than 5 units per month, the cost per unit of water declines as consumption increases. The rate per unit for customers in the next block (up to twenty-five units consumed) is eighty-nine cents. The bulk of the system's residential customers (some 18,000) fall within this second block. Costs per unit decline in the next two blocks, first to seventy-seven cents (for up to 1,000 units) and then to sixty cents (more than 1,000 units). These rates are paid by large-volume users of water such as car washes, state agencies, and hospitals.
"That rate structure promotes economic development," explains Richard Burd of the Illinois Department of Commerce and Community Affairs, because it lowers operating costs to large-volume industrial and commercial customers.
Residential demand rises especially fast during a drought, as homeowners try to keep their plants and swimming pools watered as well as themselves. As a result, not a few Springfieldians have been using as much water at their homes lately as many a small business. Craig Burns of CWLP reports that the increase over normal levels in the number of customers being billed at the lower third-block (26 cents per 1,000 units) rates in July was "pretty impressive." Bums attributes the jump in demand to outside watering.
Thus the situation described in a 1981 rate analysis done for Lake County in suburban Chicago has become common in Springfield. "Residential customers are permitted to pay less per unit of water for lawn sprinkling," the Lake County study said, "while at the same time burdening the waterworks system at critical times with high peak demands. In such a situation, water prices are lowest when incremental costs [to the system] are highest." By pricing water at less than it costs to provide it, demand is artificially stimulated. This is wasteful when water is available; in a developing drought it can be foolhardy. As Burd puts it, "Declining block rates are not conservation-minded."
Making water cost more is assumed to prod people to be less wasteful. The emergency water plan drafted by Crawford, Murphy & Tilly in 1983 called for surcharges of up to 50 percent to discourage consumption. A fairly typical Springfield household will pay $10–15 per month for water, barring extensive outside watering; a 50 percent surcharge would make the monthly cost of water still no more than that of cable TV.
The potential for saving water is proven and substantial. For example, water supply studies done in 1965 and in 1972 projected total daily pumpage from Lake Springfield in 1977 at between 24.6 and 24.8 million gallons. Actual pump-age that year was only 19.77 million gallons per day—20 percent below projections and about the same as had been withdrawn per day back in 1969. Some of that reduction resulted from slower-than-expected population growth and the loss through closing of two major industrial customers. But much of it is assumed to be traceable to conservation, driven mainly by the desire to save money on suddenly-expensive energy used to heat water for showers, laundry, and dish washing. Even if you assume that only half the shortfall in demand in 1977 was traceable to more efficient water use, conservation "produced" 4.9 million gallons per day. The water that was thus not drawn from Lake,, Springfield nearly matched the amounts which can be pumped in via the South Fork, or that which would be won if every bushel of soil which had been washed into the lake bottom since 1935 had been dredged up and removed.
So substantial were the savings that the city council in 1978 voted to defer completion of Lake Springfield II until 2000. There was no expensive and intrusive conservation program which won that delay. It just sort of happened. The federal government endorsed water conservation as a concept in the 1970s, under Carter; among other reasons, the less water that was flushed down toilets and drains, the less large federally-subsidized sewage treatment plants needed to be. The state too adopted conservation as an element of its official water policy, and for awhile even paid someone to tour the state with a see-through toilet urging audiences, "Do with 100 gallons what any fool can do with 1,000 gallons." But mainly the state has passed out brochures—tellingly, containing conservation tips copped from California.
Illinois did not, for example, adopt a state building code which sets water-efficiency standards for common home appliances the way California did. In a way, it didn't need to. Manufacturers of home toilets and other plumbing fixtures (there are only four major ones) typically design equipment so it will pass muster in the nation's most stringent market rather than design different lines for different parts of the country.
Including central Illinois. Don Rodden of Capitol Plumbing, a major area wholesaler, explains. "The Los Angeles code dictated a lot of things. Practically every type of shower head you can buy is a water-saving model that uses 2.7 gallons a minute or less." Previously the industry standard was 4 gallons. "In the old days the only way to get flow that low was to orifice it down a bit."
Toilets are the biggest indoor water users in the house, and they have changed too. "Toilet tanks are smaller," Rodden says. "A couple of manufacturers have also changed the design of the bowl so the flush water creates a vortex so the bowl will flush with less water." School kids and presidents may be dumber than they were ten years ago, but our toilets are smarter. "Generally speaking," Rodden concludes, "appliances use 40 to 60 percent less water than they used to. For better or worse, the manufacturers decided for the public, 'This is what you're going to use.'"
Springfield's own local building code does not mandate specific water-efficient standards for plumbing fixtures, but the city's building stock is becoming more water-efficient anyway because of pressures exerted on the market from more resource-conscious states. As CWLP's Frasco puts it, "It's happening whether anybody wants it to or not."
Mandated or inadvertent, conservation savings can be considerable. Western cities saw consumption sliced by 25 percent after adoption of measures not dissimilar to those proposed to the Springfield city council last week. Bloomington, acting in response to a more acute supply shortage than Springfield's, saw total consumption fall by a third in one week after mandatory water-saving measures were imposed. Jim Butler, assistant manager of CWLP's water division, forecasts more modest economies for Springfield of 10 to 20 percent.
Consumption per capita is rising again in Springfield, however, partly because people are slowly reverting to careless water-wasting habits, partly because so many new houses are equipped with a new generation of water-using appliances such as whirlpool baths. ("It's very, very rare that you find a new house being built in Springfield with fewer than two full baths," Rodden reports.) Affluence means bigger yards that need watering, more cars that need washing, more jacuzzis that need filling. Even so, in a 1980 study CM&T concluded that the rate of increase in per capita use will probably be slower than in the past.
Conservation remains an option advised only during emergencies, however. CM&T, in its 1983 emergency water plan, warned that normal water use would have to be cut by 60 percent during the worst foreseeable drought to avoid running out of water, reductions which the firm correctly described as "very disruptive." "Water conservation, by itself," concluded CM&T, "is not a viable answer to severe drought." Indeed not. But conservation can make every other answer to the water supply question cheaper rather than costlier, smaller rather than larger, later rather than sooner.
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City hall joke: when is an emergency not an emergency? When Frank Madonia says it is.
Springfield has a drought emergency plan in its files, prepared for the city in 1983 by Crawford, Murphy & Tilly. In it, the firm addressed both sides of the public water equation. To increase supply, it recommended construction of a small dam on the Sangamon River to back up water which could then be pumped into Lake Springfield whenever the lake falls five feet below its normal full depth. To reduce demand, the plan calls for a series of progressively more stringent conservation measures whose implementation would be automatically triggered as the lake sank to predetermined levels. These conservation steps were not detailed by CM&T; CWLP's own staff has since drawn up specific plans based on the experience of cities in California, Texas, and other states which have coped successfully with droughts.
Of the various proposals contained in the emergency plan, the proposed dam on the Sangamon has proved the most controversial. A new dam would cost $1 million or thereabouts (to be paid for by a surcharge on water bills) and has been decried as too expensive. Cheaper alternatives have been proposed, from rebuilding an old waterworks dam on the Sangamon north of the city, to sucking water from gravel pits east of town. (No one has yet proposed sending Jack and Jill up the hill.) Each poses economic or environmental problems, and the city council seems likely to honor the utilities committee's request for $115,000 to pay for final design work on the dam.
The dispute over the dam is less about "which" than "when." Ward 1 alderman Bill Clutter is one who believes such a project to be premature. If the situation is serious enough to justify a million-dollar dam, he argues, it is serious enough to justify dirty cars. Clutter urges more stringent management of demand before the city resorts to expensive structural expedients to boost supply.
Emergency pumping from a dammed-up Sangamon is indeed unjustified at the moment, according to the CM&T plan. But it may not be come autumn when (if weather and withdrawal rates don't change) the lake will have fallen a further two feet or more into the below-555 feet danger zone. And work on the dam must begin soon if it is to be ready by then.
Managing demand has its own complications. The utilities committee of the city council recommended adoption of a package of mandatory conservation steps to be imposed if the lake sinks much further. The recommended measures were the least stringent among those suggested by CWLP—time-of-day restrictions on outdoor watering mainly. No punitive water rate surcharges were recommended, although fines were proposed for violators, the amounts to be worked out by the full council.
In short, there is not much urgency about Springfield's water emergency so far. Clutter's proposal to distribute "free" water-saving kits to residential customers (the kits would be paid for by a one-year 50 cents per month surcharge on water bills) was opposed by Madonia. The kits included such install-it-yourself devices as toilet tank "dams" and faucet aerators. Such retrofits can achieve reductions in home water use as high as 15 percent; such savings would outlast any drought, furthermore, saving the city water and the customers money for years. They have been proven cost-effective in dozens of cities, yet Madonia supports only a 500-customer pilot test in Springfield.
Madonia has been of two minds, or at least two voices, about the water supply problem all summer. By CM&Ts standard he has acted rather precipitously. According to that plan, the first-phase "early alert" would not be needed until the lake dropped to 557 feet, when the that lake levels were low. As of August 16, the lake had not sunk to that level. But as early as July Madonia issued a call for voluntary conservation (a step CM&T does not advise until the 555-foot level) and called for the allocation of design funds for the Sangamon River dam.
At the same time, however, Madonia has steadfastly refused to characterize the situation as an emergency, citing the desire to not unduly alarm the public. The public, it proves, might have benefited from some alarming. The voluntary conservation program announced for July had only minimal effects on demand (pumpage declined less than 4 percent over the previous month, or about a one-day supply at normal pumpage rates) in part because it was never made precisely clear that such steps were needed. As local hotel operator Gene Rupnik explained to a recent meeting of the utilities committee, "We haven't felt there was an emergency because Frank Madonia has not said there was an emergency."
Of course, managing a water system during a drought is a tricky business. There is scant local precedent; remarkably, the city endured that 1952–55 drought without ever imposing mandatory water use restrictions on its customers. Then as now, the urge not to irritate their constituents is as strong among elected officials as the urge to not alarm them.
Only a few dry spells become droughts, and only a few droughts last long enough to pose real perils, yet a water system manager must to some extent treat each dry spell as if it might. Prescience being impossible, prudence is the next best step. But reacting to every dry spell with alerts and warnings would leave officials crying wolf.
In the winter of 1976, for example, Lake Springfield was unusually low—low enough in fact that, had CM&T's drought program been in place, emergency pumping from the Sangamon would have begun and punitive water rate surcharges would have been imposed. But heavy rains restored the lake by mid-1977, rendering any emergency measures which might have been imposed a "false start," in CM&Ts phrase. Interestingly, Madonia on August 10 specifically recommended against using lake levels as automatic triggers for conservation steps, leaving the timing of regulations up to CWLP and the city council. This gives drought managers flexibility in the face of uncertain weather conditions. It also enables them to postpone politically unpopular actions while they pray furiously for rain.
It is in the nature of lakes, drought, and local politics that what is prudent is seldom popular. Jim Henneberry, who like all of Madonia's recent predecessors struggled with these problems, said in 1977 that the best time to think about water was when the lake was full. Nobody listened. Eleven years later, the city still has taken only tardy steps toward a temporary emergency supply to cope with shortages which may occur until that supply is built. As always when it comes to dealing with droughts, the best time to act was yesterday. ●
Sidebar: Forecasting drought
Coping with a drought means making guesses about the future—and being embarrassed when those guesses prove wrong. Springfield's long-term water supply needs have been studied extensively since 1957. In those thirty years virtually every assumption used by engineers in their forecasts—about customer demand, economic growth, interest rates and inflation, the weather—has been confounded by subsequent events.
No factor in such forecasts is more perversely unpredictable than the weather, of course. When the drought of 1952–55 turned Lake Springfield into a sprawling mud flat (and introduced the first note of skepticism into local discussions of the lake's future usefulness) city officials scurried to build a dam on the South Fork to back up water during low flows so it could be pumped into the lake basin during dry spells. That pump is being used today; it was not turned on back then, however, because the spring of 1955 brought heavy rains.
Late in 1977, staff at City Water, Light and Power (under then-commissioner Jim Henneberry) analyzed the projections made in two major lake studies—the 1965 study by Crawford, Murphy & Tilly and a 1972 study done by Burns & McDonnell, the respected St. Louis firm which designed Lake Springfield. Population growth and per capita demand had been over-estimated by both firms, the CWLP analysis found. Such overestimates are common. Engineers are conservative by nature and would always rather be extravagant than wrong. (In 1980, then-utilities commissioner Paul Bonansinga, himself an engineer, explained, "Insofar as reasonable, good planning anticipates demand." At times it seems to invent it.) In fact, Springfield's growth had not lived up to expectations. People had became more conservation-minded—who could have predicted OPEC in 1965?—and plumbing technology was more efficient.
The result was that actual pumpage from the lake in 1977 was fully 20 percent below what the engineers had predicted. CM&T had warned in 1965 that a second lake would be needed by 1985; Burns & McDonnell in 1972 said that a drought might make one needed as soon as 1980. The city council accepted Henneberry's analysis and decided that 2000 was soon enough. The second lake was put on the shelf.
The CWLP analysis of 1977 concluded, "The empirical data necessary to determine in more precise cost-effective terms when possible long-range need might actually occur, if ever, simply is not available now." The department recommended that crucial data regarding water supply trends be re-evaluated every five years.
The problem, of course, is that empirical data about the future can never be available. Just because engineers have often been wrong is no protection against their being right next time. Since that statement was issued, local per capita consumption has resumed its upward trend (in part because the "saturation" of the local economy by water-using appliances postulated by CWLP proved premature). Daily average pumpage is still shy of the levels predicted by Burns & McDonnell in 1972, but higher than projected by CWLP in 1977. On the other hand, some "new water" has been found too; CM&T made its most recent estimates of water needs assuming that 14 percent of pumpage would be lost to leaks and faulty meters, but CWLP has since reduced such losses to only 12 percent of pumpage.
It is perhaps the ultimate perversity of lake forecasting that two wrongs can make a right. Planners of Lake Springfield grossly overestimated what the population of the city would be in 1980. (They guessed 300,000.) However, planners just as grossly underestimated how much water each of those customers might use fifty years thence; the net result of those miscalculations was an estimate of total pumpage which is respectably close to the actual average daily rate that year of 26 million gallons. ●