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Pumping Out Iowa

How cities flood themselves 

Illinois Times

July 21, 1993

Illinois thunderstorms tend to be brief, local, and violent. They dump a lot of water onto a smallish area faster than sewer pipes can carry it away. Thus has Springfield had a chronic flooding problem even thought it does not sit beside a river.

This version  improves slightly on the original in readability. 


It’s been wettish lately, and Springfieldians of all classes have been thinking about topics they usually leave to engineers. This of course is part of the problem—leaving things to the engineers, I mean. Modern flood con­trol systems are clever answers to the wrong question—in this case, how to get rid of storm water rather than how to use it.


Cities don’t make floods but they make them worse. The amount of rain and thus the number of what the hydrologists call flood events is dictated by nature, but the severity of floods is increasingly affected by humans having mucked up the water­shed. When it rains on the former prairies of central Illinois these days, much of the water drops upon hard surfaces—shin­gled roofs, asphalt roads and parking lots, concrete driveways, mayors’ heads. Thus diverted from the soil, this water moves instead to nearby streams via a network of pipes.


The water that used to dribble into a typical stream course slowly at a thousand points now gushes into it at only a handful. The inunda­tion is swift and violent, as torrents of water slam into streams and rivers whose water-carrying capacity has been artificially reduced, largely by the diking and draining of floodplains—and the consequent narrowing of river channels—done mainly to enable farmers to add to the world’s supplies of surplus grain. The result? Smaller and smaller rainfalls create bigger and bigger floods, as water that used to dif­fuse itself over space and time is now concentrat­ed by humans in both.


One hundred and fifty years ago the progress toward the sea of a hard summer rainfall in Springfield was much more leisurely Raindrops would have been slowed by tree leaves and tall grasses before they fell upon a leaf-littered and untrampled (and thus spongily absorbent) soil surface. Much of the rain would not enter streams directly as runoff from the surface but would seep into the soil where it fell, replenishing groundwater reservoirs. When runoff did overtax a stream’s capacity to carry it away, some of it was simply left behind, as the stream overflowed its unfettered banks onto the aptly named floodplain. From recharging groundwa­ter to nourishing floodplains, stormwa­ter was a resource, a benefit, a boon. Today it is a boon mainly to those who sell sump pumps.


By burying our urban water control systems, we have made their workings invisible and thus unknowable to any but the priests of the engineering cult. A west-sider explained to me that his basement got wet because the ground was by then soaked from repeated rains. This explanation is intuitively true but hydrologically mud­dled. The seepage of water from the soil through adjacent base­ment walls causes the chronically damp base­ment, but a flooded basement is almost always the result of storm water backing up through basement floor drains. During crashing rains like the three-inch-plus downpour that ended July 1, water pours into these pipes faster than it can flow out. For a few hours or so, the storm sewer system is storing water rather than carrying it away. Basements at such times func­tion rather like the floodplain of a natu­ral stream, as a place to dump water that the stream lacks the capacity to move for the moment.

To the extent that flooding is aggra­vated by too-rapid runoff from an overbuilt city, in short, it maybe said that basements flood because the ground does not get soaked enough. Lawns that slope only a little shed water nearly as fast as pavement, a fact that has led cer­tain ecological restorationists to argue that people ought to have to get a per­mit to landscape their lots with turf rather than tall grass or shrubs.


Old Springfield straddles the drainages of two of the Sangamon River’s tributary creeks. Rain that falls upon the east side of town gener­ally flows east, toward Sugar Creek (branches of which are still visible near Bergen and Bunn parks). The rest of the city stands on the uplands of Spring Creek. A branch of this stream decorates, indeed created Oak Ridge Cemetery; to the south, the Town Branch of Spring Creek proved so convenient a natural disposal system that the city was tempted to overdo it, polluting the stream so badly in the last century that it was declared dead and had to be buried inside a pipe.


Pioneer settlers 1ike Zimri Enos recalled that old Springfield had not a pond or a marshy place in it, thanks to this efficient natural stormwater drainage system. Unfortunately, the soils hereabouts hold water rather too well, and the blocking and clogging of these natural drainage channels turned the streets into mud so persistent and deep that Spring­field’s pretensions as a civilized outpost nearly sank beneath it without a trace.


Today Springfield’s natural drainage system hardly functions at all except at its extremities, where it merely serves as an outlet for the city’s stormwater sewer pipes. The new Springfield being built west of Chatham Road is even less favored by nature. The terrain there­abouts is quite young geologically and has only an immature natural drainage system. Its smooth blanket of glacial debris is as yet unwrinkled by the sort of erosion that cut such picturesque landforms elsewhere in the city. Most of that newer part of the city is drained by the Jacksonville branch of Spring Creek, a creek-ette that emerges on the old prairie uplands west of Wabash and Veterans Parkway, ambles east more or less parallel with Wabash to Chatham Road, then snakes north through Wash­ington Park (where it has been dammed to make a picturesque pond) before turning northwest.


The State Journal-Register reported that most of the calls to local plumbers to pump out flooded basements came from the south and west parts of town. This is to be expected; more houses in the latter district have basements, and more people have enough money to call in a plumber without cashing in the CDs bought for the kids’ college. Mainly, however, the relict natural drainage system has been ditched, straightened, piped, or simply plowed into such deformity along much of its length that it cannot divert, delay, or store enough stormwater from the human drainage system to alleviate basement flooding in heavy rains.


The classic engineering solution is to increase the size of the pipes that we use to move stormwater, or to find things other than pipes to store it in. In Chicago they are digging monstrous holes underground at a cost of billions, and the U.S. Corps of Engineers is com­plaining that the flooding along the Mississippi is the result of our not let­ting them have the money to build more water-catching reservoirs on the Mississippi’s tributaries.

If you think pumping out your base­ment is expensive, wait until you see the bill for pumping out Iowa. ●




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.

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Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

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Journal of the Illinois

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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.

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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.

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