top of page

Pointing the Way

Supply and demand and municipal water

Illinois Times

November 10, 1988

The City of Springfield built a drinking water reservoir in the 1930s and has been arguing ever since about whether it needs to be augmented. It is a problem common across Illinois. The discussions always focus on increasing supply rather than reducing demand, as this piece showed.


Three items from the local news: A preliminary plan is approved to extend a trunk sewer three miles to a proposed development on Springfield's southwest side. The local sewer district agrees to recycle wastewater from the city's power plant scrubber and return it to a drought-reduced Lake Springfield. And local environmentalists ask the city council to form a conservation committee to assist in its long-range water supply planning in anticipation of droughts triggered by global warming in the next century.


Three items, but only one story: water. The environmentalists (led by Linda Knibbs and Don Davis) argued in effect that it hardly makes sense to spend millions on a new lake to trap more water if people are only going to waste it. Exhortation and use restrictions such as those now in place are enforceable only during emergencies, and in any event do not fundamentally alter patterns of water use.


A surer incentive to more efficient water use is a rise in the real price of water. Substantially higher water rates would expand the local market for water-efficient appliances, stir large users to new economies, even impel more sensible landscaping. Unlike mandatory water use restrictions, higher rates build efficiency into the system. Water demand in California stayed low for years after that state's drought emergency in the 1970s because factories equipped themselves to recycle their process water, for instance, and because homeowners decorated their lots with drought-resistant plants.

Such a "conservation rate" would earn more money than needed for the day-to-day operation of the water department, at least at first; surplus funds might be used to pay rebates for homeowners who retrofit their bathrooms with water-efficient toilets, similar to the rebates already being offered by the electric department to purchasers of energy-efficient heat pumps. Not only would the city be better prepared to cope with the next drought, but it could defer the day when it has to build expensive new water storage capacity, and do both without sacrifice of population growth or economic expansion. New capacity could also be deferred by the Springfield Sanitary District—a special boon now that federal grants for new treatment plants have all but dried up.


Alas, there is a price for pay for efficiency in systems not designed for it. The local sewer system has already been overbuilt, in exaggerated anticipation of future business. (The crap does indeed flow in Springfield, but only a little of it goes through the SSD's pipes.) Reduced water use means lower sewer charges, and thus less cash to pay off debt and keep up maintenance. Doing the same jobs with less water also cuts into the sales of the water department, as city budget director Carl Foran has warned. It is conceivable that the system might find itself on the same-treadmill being walked by big-city mass transit systems: raise fares and you lose riders; revenue drops, so you raise fares again to make up the losses, which costs you more riders, etc.


The city as a whole gains of course, but it is one of the vagaries of government that actions which are manifestly in the public interest often—indeed usually—are deleterious to public agencies, and vice versa. How to price a commodity such as water vexes even economists capable of making two plus two equal five. This is because fairness (colloquially understood), and economic efficiency are so often at odds, and both are usually at odds with political realities. "If you want to take a marginal costs approach," says Craig Burns of the city's public utilities office, "water is probably underpriced." But low prices, however politically justified, encourage consumption which speeds the day (perhaps already here) when Lake Springfield will no longer be a dependable water supply and must be augmented. Every gallon used today, in short, makes it more expensive to supply a gallon tomorrow.


The city, like the sewer district, assesses developers for the costs of expanding its water supply system to new developments such as Parkway Pointe on the southwest side. But it is water customers who must pay for the storage and treatment facilities needed to keep those new pipes filled. Convention demands that a new lake which benefits water customers in the future be paid for in the future, via water rate increases sufficient to retire the bonds needed for its construction. Equity is thus roughly served. But shouldn't new customers, drinking as they do from the thinning reserves of an aging lake, be charged more?


The equation is tricky. "We could set rates based on the marginal costs," explains Burns. 'You end up collecting more than you need to cover present costs of operation and maintenance. That creates what looks like a surplus, and any time you got surplus money on the books it gets crosshairs drawn on it." The water department practically collapsed at the turn of the twentieth century because the city council skimmed the "profits" from the department to fund other city operations rather than investing them in water system improvements. In other places (France among them) water is supplied by privately held, regulated utilities performing under contract, companies which are free (within negotiated limits) to set rates high enough to provide for the long-term financing of expansion. Unfortunately, providing for the past, not the future, is what U.S. politics is about.


We don't consume water in the same way we consume gasoline, of course. It's still water when we're done with it, even if it's filthy. It might as well be consumed, however, since virtually all of it, once used, is lost to the Lake Springfield water supply system. We spend millions to catch rain in a big basin, clean it up, and pump it through pipes to our showers and toilets, only to use it once and throw it away through a second set of pipes to the treatment plants of the SSD where it is partially cleaned and dumped into Sugar or Spring Creek from where it flows away to the Sangamon and thence to the Illinois. It is a system of remarkable, even majestic profligacy.


Could this cycle be connected to itself somehow, so the water we use once can be captured and cleaned to be used again? Recycling waste water is old hat; as the recent agreement between the SSD and the city proves, it's even being done in Springfield. Recycling scrubber rinse water is one thing, however, and recycling sewage quite another. The objection to tapping the main channel of the Sangamon during droughts is that what water there is in it is mostly effluent from Decatur's none-too-dependable municipal treatment plant. The engineers at Crawford, Murphy & Tilly considered the use of sewage as an emergency public water supply in the firm's drought contingency plans but concluded that treating it to drinking water standards would be prohibitively expensive.


And so it would be, using clumsy conventional treatment systems. Engineers elsewhere however are perfecting centuries-old methods of land-treating sewage which clean and recycle water back to its local source. Partly treated effluent is applied to farm fields, golf courses, or landscaped grounds as irrigation water (or stored for such use in lagoons during cold weather). Problematic contaminants like nitrates are consumed by growing plants as fertilizer, along with trace minerals; viruses and heavy metals are either filtered by fine soil particles or neutered by soil microorganisms. The water—by now cleaner than is economically possible by conventional methods—percolates back to groundwater or is collected for discharge into nearby surface waters.


Such a system has worked well in suburban Chicago for years. The mixed-use development known as Hamilton Lakes in Itasca has a density equal to that of downtown Springfield. The thirty-three-acre complex makes no discharges of dirty water into streams (even runoff from parking lots is treated) and the aquifer from which it draws its drinking water is recharged by its own "wastewater."


Such recycling water systems can be scaled up to metropolitan size. (The Army Corps of Engineers, in a playful mood, once designed one for the whole city of Chicago). Think what such a system could do were Springfield to treat its sewage on farm fields in its own lake watershed the way, oh, Muskegon, Michigan, does; not only would water be returned to the lake to be used again but the city could also help control the erosion which is robbing the lake of storage capacity.


Alas, such a vision must await the next century at least, when the SSD builds again. But it is achievable at smaller scales, and sooner. Sangamon State and Roosevelt National-Humana are two complexes which would make perfect mini-Hamilton Lakes. So, possibly, might be Parkway Pointe. That new sewer could be used to carry clean water to Lake Springfield, instead of hauling dirty water away from it. That would really be a development. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

bottom of page