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Muddying the Waters

Garbage in, drinking water out

Illinois Times

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 lake residents to use 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 half-hearted—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 is the proliferation of 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 nor 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 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 that ruin the lake for everyone else. 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.  ●




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 

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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

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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