Green Engineering

Soft alternatives to soft-headed flood control

Illinois Times

July 29, 1993

As a boy I was fascinated by moving water. A beneficent Providence would have seen me grow up to be a hydrologist or civic engineer; instead I just wrote strangely many columns about stormwater management. This one, I believe, was inspired by research I’d done on the topic for the American Planning Association’s magazine, Planning.

 

Everybody talks about floods, but nobody does anything about them. Well, not quite. The Army Corps of Engineers uses its considerable expertise to make them worse, and local governments work even harder to make them expensive by allowing people to build houses, businesses, and farms on flood-prone land.

 

All together now: Isn’t there a better way?

 

Yes. “Soft” engineering approaches to urban flood control have been success­fully tried in Tulsa, Denver, Boston, and Denver. California’s Urban Creeks Council has been especially busy taking creeks out of culverts, revegetating erod­ed stream banks, redirecting flood flows to storage and groundwater recharge areas, and creating wetlands. The work is paid for by local contributions and volunteer help, plus money from a state bond issue that in 1992-93 supplied $1.3 million for twenty projects.

 

Restoring wetlands is tricky—they are as fickle as an alderman, and more complex—but most other stream func­tions are amenable to human repair. An eroding, denuded stream bank can be restored by wattles or fiscines or reed mats or root wads (upturned tree stumps), even concrete rubble interlard­ed with soil. Anything but high-tech, these techniques have proven durable and cheap.

 

Not that slickly engineered solutions are the sole province of the slide-rule types. Leslie Sauer, a principal of Philadelphia’s Andropogon Associates, is one of the new restorationists whose admiration for nature is practical rather than merely mystical. They realize that the meanders, grassy banks, and wil­lows are not only ecologically correct but comprise a subtle and cost-efficient form of stream engineering.

 

New technologies are giving ecologi­cally-minded restorationists tools that can begin to cope with nature’s com­plexity. Sauer has noted that computer modeling now makes it possible to engi­neer particular solutions for particular streambeds. New materials mean new possibilities; Andropogon has used a special porous asphalt to pave parking lots, turning them into groundwater recharge areas while reducing runoff to overburdened storm sewers.

 

Springfield’s most scenic spots—Lincoln, Washington, Bunn, and Bergen parks, Oak Ridge Cemetery—are stream courses that were protected by the city from devel­opment. Today’s generation of city officeholders—they do not deserve the term ‘leaders”—cut very poor figures next to their foresightful predecessors. However it is not too late to recoup some of the landscape values that recently have been thrown away as a result of such narrowly conceived “improvements” as Veterans Parkway.

 

As part of my daydream program to restore as many segments as still exist of the metropolitan area’s natural stream system, the city would not only ban building in floodplains but buy out existing properties and clear them. (Corps of Engineers money would be well spent here, since every gallon stored upstream is a gallon the Corps won’t have to control downstream.) Developers would be obliged to either build on-site retention systems propor­tional in size to the amount of land paved by a project, or contribute to a fund for public flood control projects. The individual homeowner can do her small part by installing rain barrels on downspouts to catch water for garden­ing and other yard use.

 

It isn’t hard to envision what such a program might lead to in Springfield—

willows along Wabash west of Chatham Road, for example, or a marsh where the egregious Montvale development was proposed. Alas, as the teeth-gnashing over grass clippings proved, green is not the typical Springfieldian’s favorite color. Floodplains are dry most of the time, very wet sometimes, and tend to smell in between. They collect silt—that is part of their function—which is incon­venient in places like Washington Park, whose lower lagoon had to be dredged a few years ago at some considerable cost. Reforested creek branches will attract wild animals, and wild animals attract trouble when they show up in people’s backyards.

 

Worst of all from a political point of view, natural floodplains take up real estate. Pipes and levees are the methods of choice for controlling floodwater not because they work better but because they take up little land, and less land for nature means more for developers. The land developer’s thirst for profits is matched by that of city officials every­where, who are more than happy to impoverish the local ecology to enrich the local property tax coffers. Redwing blackbirds don’t vote.

 

The net cost of restoring a natural. stream system would be reduced by the value of the other benefits it would pro­duce. Build a conventional flood control system and all you get for your money is a flood control system; restore even bits and pieces of a stream system and you get green space and wildlife habitat and fishing spots and trails.

 

Hey Associates, the Chicago-based water resources consultant, is working with the City of Chicago to restore its vanishing historic wetlands. Hey also manages the Des Plaines River Wetlands Demonstration Project in suburban Chicago at which State of Illinois agen­cies as well as the U.S. EPA, US. Army Corps of Engineers, and researchers from fifteen universities are trying to restore a natural flood control system in that highly unnatural area. These test wetlands function as habitat as well as research plots and have attracted birds such as the least bittern and yellow headed blackbird, species endangered in Illinois. In Colorado, recreational green-ways have been reconfigured to recharge local groundwater or to treat stormwater and secondary sewage plant effluent.

 

A sensible approach would seek to squeeze extra value from each public investment by combining habitat, scenery, and recreation with flood con­trol where appropriate. A golf course or soccer complex is the perfect thing for a floodplain. (Case in point: the Illini Country Club course, which periodical­ly relieves the Jacksonville Branch of its burden of stormwater.) Similarly, wood­ed stream corridors make perfect sites for bike trails.

 

Alas, while Nature has been into regional government for a long time, humans still haven’t caught on. The power to plan, purchase, and develop land for public use is invested in a half-dozen local agencies. The agency that deals with flood control is not the same agency that deals with recreation, and neither deals with zoning.

 

The Springfield Park District, for example, bought forty acres of a former upland farm for a new park for the city’s metastisizing west side. Near this flat, barren plot, houses are being built on picturesque lots in stream valleys. As long as we persist in building parks where houses should go and houses where parks should go, we ought to expect Nature to scold us once in a while for our stupidity. □

SITES

OF INTEREST

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.

Chicagology

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." 

[STILL A-BUILDING]

BOOKS

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Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of

solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

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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

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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.

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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.

University of

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