Down to Business
Springfield builds a lake with no water in it
June 3, 1977
A second lake to provide drinking water to the state capital might or might not ever be needed, and city officials are acutely aware that they will be blamed if a lake that isn’t needed is built or a lake that is needed isn’t built. Dammed if they do and dammed if they don’t, you could say.
Some weeks ago, the editorialist of The Spectator, a leading British journal of conservative opinion, commented on the latest in a long string of wildcat strikes that have hobbled that country’s car-making giant, the British-Leyland Co. Exactly what, he wondered, in a mixture of exasperation and outrage, do the auto workers at Leyland have against building automobiles?
1 thought again of that remark last Thursday. It was then that I, halfway into my daily ration of scrambled eggs and coffee, read in the State Journal-Register that Springfield utilities commissioner Jim Henneberry had decided that completing a preliminary study on the question of whether or not to build Lake Springfield II was “not a top priority item of this department.” Exactly what, I wondered between bites, does Mr. Henneberry have against building lakes?
Back on April 7, the commissioner summoned reporters to Room 203 of the Municipal Building for a press conference. He surprised the press (and, it turned out, the rest of the city council) by announcing that he planned to introduce an ordinance calling for a referendum to decide the future of the second lake. He noted that heavier-than-normal spring rains had eased the threats of immediate water shortages in Springfield. It was possible, he said, to “look into the question of a new water supply hopefully without panic, without passion, without demagoguery, without political rhetoric and without emotion or sensationalism.”
(A tall order, especially that part about political rhetoric; in Springfield, that’s like having a Memorial Day without speeches. But I stray from my point.)
Mr. Henneberry went on to say that it was essential that the lake issue be settled after “examining all the facts and all of the possibilities.” The commissioner concluded (in prose as murky as lake water) by promising that his engineers would “present all the facts as they are capable of developing such data known to them.”
Prudent advice, every word. Just after he took office in the spring of 1975, Mr. Henneberry had asked his people to take another look at the facts regarding the lake project. The study—actually a review by in-house staff—was essentially an update of full-scale studies done in 1965 and 1972 and which had recommended the construction of a second municipal reservoir as the best way to provide Springfield's future water needs. The study was never officially released—indeed, was almost forgotten.
Until last week. Last January circuit court judge George Coutrakon ruled that the city could not condemn any more land for the second lake—it had by then acquired some 5,500 acres—because the city had failed to demonstrate that it intended actually to build the lake. The city appealed the ruling, and in support of that appeal City Water, Light & Power submitted to the court parts of the study Mr. Henneberry had initiated more than a year and a half previously.
The report as a whole (which incidentally favors construction of the lake) remains confidential, however. Mr. Henneberry argues that it is only a preliminary draft, that it contains unverified data, that the information it contains, because it is incomplete, might be misleading. That is fair enough; if the report isn’t ready to be published, it should not be. But when asked last Wednesday when the report would be ready, the commissioner said he didn’t know. It was not “a top priority item.”
The Lake Springfield II project has been badly handled in the past, as Mr. Henneberry himself has often pointed out. So far, however, the commissioner has not improved on the record of his predecessors. The referendum proposed to decide the project's fate may not be binding, especially on future councils, and if it fails would leave the city holding 5,500 acres of land for which it had no use and to which it had little right. The commissioner, in calling for such a vote, took the curious position that he, as head of the department responsible for the construction and operation of a second lake, would take no public stand either for or against it. Now after promising to arm the voters with the facts they need to make an informed choice, he says that completion of the study that might provide those facts is not a top priority item.
In his statement of April 7, the commissioner stated, “We have to get down to the business of making a . . . decision about a future water supply.” That’s good advice. The commissioner ought to take it. □