Muddying the Waters
Garbage in, drinking water out
August 27, 1991
Managing a water supply lake is usually the sternest test of downstate cities' ability to manage, indeed to comprehend, complex environmental issues. Successive Springfield city councils going back to the 1950s have largely failed that test when it comes to Lake Springfield. Among other shortcomings, council members have failed to appreciate allowing use of septic systems that drain into a public drinking water reservoir might not be a great idea.
Remember 1988? Drought had driven water levels in Lake Springfield so low that the city was forced to adopt radical measures, such as asking people to not waste water. It was a grim time, when even doctors drove around in dusty cars and people had to sneak out their back doors at night to water their petunias. To think that the Soviets go through that with butter and toilet paper! Not that they have to wipe on alternate days or anything but . . . well, you know what I mean.
We should consider it a luxury, therefore, to have to worry only about the quality of the water that's in Lake Springfield and not the quantity. Today there is water, water everywhere in Lake Springfield, but you wouldn't want to drink a drop of it: Four out of five lakes in Illinois have clearer water.
Nothing new in this. All man-made lakes tend to be "muddy." Having no natural outlets, they act as sinks that catch anything that washes into them from the land upstream. The principal cause of Lake Springfield's exceptional turbidity is fine soil particles and certain plant-fertilizing chemicals, natural and man-made, that feed the growth of algae and other waterborne plants. At certain times of the year you could probably grow com in Lake Springfield if it weren't for the motorboats.
Farming, of course, is a major source of both eroded soil and fertilizers. Silt washed in from the lake's 165,000-acre watershed had filled up so much of the Lake Springfield basin over the last fifty years that the city spent $8 million on a program to dredge it out. Dredging, however, cannot remove the algae that cloud the water, give it an unwelcome taste, and in extreme cases consume the oxygen dissolved in the water that fish need to breathe.
Since the 1970s there have been halfhearted—or perhaps I should say half- funded—attempts to reduce the amount of both soil and chemicals flowing downstream into the lake from farms in the watershed. Changes in tillage practices initiated by the farmers themselves (mainly for cost reasons) have helped, but soil erosion from farms could be halved yet again from today's levels and still achieve only about a third of the possible soil loss reductions in the watershed overall.
The problem is that while farm methods have changed in the Lake Springfield watershed, land use has changed even more. The construction of houses in the watershed, for example, typically results in much higher soil losses per acre than those produced by farming. Even worse over the long term are residential septic systems—often undersized and ill-maintained—from which polluting nutrients are leached into lake waters.
The technology needed to prevent, capture, or divert such runoff is neither expensive or exotic. In most cases it needs only the planting of some grass here or the digging of ditches there or the fixing of pipes everywhere. The newish Lake Springfield Watershed Planning Committee has come up with at least a dozen such ideas. All require either expanded regulatory authority, expanded regulatory budgets, or intelligent civic-mindedness from the people who own the land in the watershed.
Including the Springfield City Council. During public hearings held in March, the committee was told that dozens of septic systems empty poorly treated household sewage into lake water. The soils around the lake are known to be poor settings for septic fields, and the topography of the area makes installation of conventional sewers prohibitively expensive. In other words, the city never should have allowed five construction of year-round houses on the shores of Lake Springfield to begin with.
That lesson has yet to sink in with some council members, even after 60 years. In recent months we've seen attempts to pass ordinances increasing the number of residential properties—and thus septic systems—around the lake by allowing lake residential leaseholders to subdivide their properties. Irv Smith offered some novel arguments in favor of the measure. He reportedly stated that the lake is not a private preserve, and that it belongs to everybody in the city—by which it must be assumed he meant that everybody ought to have a chance to live beside it.
It is precisely because the lake belongs to all that no one should be allowed to live beside unless 1) lease costs approximate the market value of the lots and 2) the residents manage the property— including the treatment of sewage—in such a way that the lake suffers no polluting runoff. Better yet, city council policy ought to aim at reducing, not increasing, the number of residential and commercial leases around the lake by gradually withdrawing certain properties as current leases expire.
Instead, the council seems bent on increasing development pressure on the lake. The Knights of Columbus owns a now-defunct private club on leased land next to a wildlife preserve. The property should be added to the preserve; the financial loss to the city would be minimal, since the K of C lease brought in a paltry $500 a year for property whose lease rights fetched $175,000 from investors eager to build a marina there.
Yet on the same day in March that the city's watershed planning committee was hearing about the perils of poorly policed lake development, the council approved plans to build a commercial marina at the K of C site, plans that were opposed by City Water, Light and Power professionals in no small part because the site lacks adequate sewage treatment.
The most pressing question facing the city as it prepares to build Hunter Lake is not where to put the new boat docks. It is how to control development on its shores and in its watershed so that neither its storage capacity or water quality are compromised as Lake Springfield's have been. The city proved in the 1930s that it can build a lake. Now it has a chance to prove it can manage one too. ●