Lake Springfield II
Public policy is hard
June 20, 1980
I was surprised, reading the old clips, by how often I made a column subject out of Lake Springfield, the capital city's water supply/playground/cooling lake. I shouldn't have been. The lake arguably is the best thing about Springfield, a monument to that moment in the 1930s when the city government (marshaled by Willis Spaulding) built for the future out of a commitment to the public good. Over the years I wrote about how it was built, about its natural history, about its preservation, and, here, about the debate about whether and how to augment it as a water supply.
This two-parter summed up the debate as of 1980. As I note in the opening paragraph, by then a new lake had already been argued about for a quarter-century. That was nearly 40 years ago, and it is still being argued about.
Lake Springfield II: Thoughts from Democracy Wall
“Prejudices” Illinois Times
June 20, 1980
Should Springfield build a new lake? The point has been argued for a quarter-century. The latest round in this perennial dispute opened in late May, when a new engineering report recommended that the city commit itself to finishing construction of Lake Springfield II—for which the city has already acquired some 5,600 acres of the'7,700 it needs—to augment the aging Lake Springfield. Estimated cost of the project, which would take until close to 1990 to complete, is $38 million. To pay for it, the bills of average Springfield residential water customers would have to go up by between $25 and $30 a year by the end of the decade.
It is generally believed that the city council supports resumption of the project, which was temporarily stalled a few years ago when the then- utilities commissioner concurred in a study that revealed that lower rates of water consumption would make a new water supply unnecessary until 2000. But times change, and so, apparently, has Springfieldians’ appetite for water. What hasn’t changed is the opposition to LSII. A loose (and loose-lipped) coalition of environmentalists, farmers and property owners—so amorphous they haven’t even a slogan yet—is insisting that a second lake is not needed.
I generally sympathize with people who are against things. Most of the people I admire most were against things. Gandhi was against things.
King was against things. Curt Flood was against things. (Jim Dunham was against things too, but that’s the exception that proves the fool.) I would like to be against LSII. But LSII’s opponents, while not quite making it impossible to be against the lake, are making it easy to be against them.
For example, one of the first rules of this “anti” business is knowing what you’re against. Donald D., a dentist who opposed LSII in the 1970s, asked in a State Journal- Register interview in May why the consultants hired by the city ruled out pumping water into the present Lake Springfield from the Sangamon River during dry periods because that river water is polluted. The city, he said, has been doing it for years. Good point—except that the city’s pumping station is on the South Fork of the Sangamon, not the Sangamon itself. The South Fork is fed by a different watershed than the river’s main branch (which is used to flush the city of Decatur upstream) and bears roughly a tenth of the load of sewage borne by the Sangamon.
Similar confusion seems to have freighted the arguments of a Carolyn R. She lives on Linden Lane on the present lake, and although one would think people who live on Linden Lane would have nothing to complain about, she did, in a letter to the J-R, which in the LSII debate has come to serve a function similar to that of Peking’s Democracy Wall. R. noted, “the loss of water capacity due to erosion is about 15 percent.” (Actually it’s 12.3 percent.) Alleging that the city “can’t take care of Lake I,” R. suggested restoring the lake’s eroding shoreline. (“With federal funds,” she added, in an inflationary afterthought.) The implication, common among the inattentive citizenry, is that the loss of shoreline that blights the lake is responsible for its loss of storage capacity. Not true. The vast bulk of the silt that is clogging the present lake is imported from upsteam. It flows into the lake’s two feeder streams off unprotected farmland and from construction sites—including, I’ll wager, some now occupied by some of the very people who are now complaining about the city’s failure to stem siltation.
R. also mentioned dredging as a way to recoup the present lake’s lost capacity. It has been mentioned often. As a solution to a complicated problem, dredging ranks with sending blacks back to Africa and shooting nuclear waste into space on rockets in both its costs and its inappropriateness. Crawford, Murphy and Tilly, the consulting engineers, have calculated that dredging would cost $48 million and provide an additional two million gallons a day of water. A new lake, however, would cost only four-fifths as much while providing 8'/2 times as much water. Beyond the question of cost is the unanswered question of what to do with millions of yards of muck which has accumulated on the lake bottom since 1935. It is by now nasty stuff, probably laced with agricultural chemicals and similar contaminants of the sort which led to a ban of the eating of fish taken from the lake a few years ago.
The sheer variety, the unfailing invention of the objections to LSII impresses. For instance, during a public hearing held last week, one Ron S., a Sangamon State University professor who lives in the proposed LSII site along the Brush and Horse creek bottom east of the present lake, complained in effect that the new lake would ruin his view. “I look outside my window and see farmland,” he is quoted by the J-R, including grazing cows and horses. S. took the city sternly to task for wanting “to destroy that nature to serve the needs of companies like Fiat-Allis.” And who would not? But SSU itself is one of the new “industries” which have put pressure on the existing water supply system. (For that matter, SSU destroyed some nature itself when it opted to build its campus in the middle of farmland.)
The business community’s support for the second lake is a point of opposition for those of us who wear suits only on the beach, but I feel obliged to point out that the Chamber of Commerce supported SSU too, and that if I were forced to choose between an outfit that produces road graders and another that produces Human Development Counselors, well . . . .
But another of S.’s points fascinates me more. The impact of LSII on wildlife, on the aesthetics of the countryside, on what S. called “nature” is argued often by project opponents. Sam B., a farmer living in the LSII area, noted recently that there are some 200 acres of timber in the site, and “there aren’t all that many places for wildlife, and it seems a shame to take that away.” Indeed it is—which is why ecologists rank farmers with subdividers and highway engineers among the scourges of the earth. A modern farm may be scenic, but it is not natural; in its way it’s as synthetic a creation as a shopping mall. It is common for urbanites who eat natural cereal out of plastic bags to mistake the merely pastoral for the natural. (As Rene Dubos notes in his new book, The Wooing of Earth, “Some of the landscape we most admire are the products of environmental degradation.”) The land now so picturesquely arrayed as field and pasture was woodland and flood plain when the whites brought the first plows and axes into Sangamon County. Farmers scalped it, pesticided it, herbicided it and drained it, reducing the variety of animals able to take refuge in it.
Ironically, if that land were flooded for a lake and the new shore land allowed to revert to parks and preserves, the creek bottoms would be brought closer to their pristine “wild” state than they have been for generations. That has happened too along parts of the present Lake Springfield, although more of it is likely to happen at LSII; while the ratio of water to marginal land is about 1:1 at both sites, all of LSII’s marginal land will be open to the public use, compared to only 70 percent at the present lake. □
Lake Springfield II: 600,000 Tons and What Do You Get?
“Prejudices” Illinois Times
June 27, 1980
The Lake Springfield II question, like the Equal Rights Amendment, threatens never to be resolved, but rather to drag on to no public purpose except to provide a perpetual referendum on an issue which most people have long since quit caring about. Springfield has been arguing for some twenty-five years about whether to build a second lake to supply it with water intb the 21st century. The objections are varied: the city has failed to maintain the present Lake Springfield; there are cheaper alternatives to a new lake; the water use and population projections used to justify a lake are untrustworthy; the destruction of 7,700 acres of field, pasture and timber would be an unconscionable diminution of the planet’s dwindling ability to feed itself.
According to published reports, for example, some 2000 people living on and near the present Lake Springfield signed a petition urging the city to do more to preserve the lake through such steps as dredging, restoring and eroded shoreline and “improving recreation in and around Springfield.” The manager of a private lake club has been quoted as being worried that the city “will never do anything with this lake” if a new one is built.
Those parts of this bill of particulars which are not irrelevant to the LSII debate, however, are self- contradictory. It’s hard to reconcile the unqualified desire to improve recreation with opposition to construction of 7,700 acres of fishing, boating and picnicking facilities. The charge that the present lake has been mismanaged—a charge based mainly on its loss of more than 12 percent of its storage capacity through siltation—seems more plausible. But manmade lakes are by their nature brief visitors. The forty-five-year-old Lake Springfield was never expected to last longer than 2075; because manmade reservoirs lack natural outlets, they invariably clog with silt carried into them from feeder streams. In fact, Lake Springfield is filling less fast than most such lakes. Private shoreline is maintained much better than its public counterpart, due in part to lake lesees’ devotion to the task, in part to planners’ considerate location of house lots on the leeward shores of the lake away from the pummeling of wind-driven waves, and in part to the city’s chronic poverty. That the city has always had less money than it needs for lake maintenance may be traced to the fact that it relies on utility ratepayers, who expect members of the city council to be more generous with their political futures than the ratepayers are with their money.
Something of this sort, I believe, bedevils the mayor of Pawnee, a bedroom satellite town south of Springfield. At a recent public hearing, Pawnee’s mayor complained about the loss to his town of tax dollars that will follow appropriation of nearby land for LSII. This is perhaps the strongest argument I’ve heard in favor of LSII. Suburban blots like Pawnee and Chatham have been poaching on Springfield’s territory for years, stealing a subdivision and a business here, a schoolchild and a road grant there. For Pawnee to begrudge its parent a much-needed public improvement after having fed off Springfield’s table is ungracious at the very least. In an earlier, simpler age the problem of how to put down upstart duchies on its frontier would have troubled Springfield’s city council very little; it merely had to invite the mayors of Pawnee and Chatham to city hall where they would contrive to poison them. The next best thing, however, would be to confiscate their lands.
The only serious objection to LSII voiced to date is the debit it would leave to the world’s hungry people as a result of the flooding of farmland. But before we lynch the city council in the name of starving Kampucheans, a few words about the nature of farming and of hunger are in order. Food of the sort grown in central Illinois typically does not feed people but animals which are fed to people—a system which has larded America’s arteries at a huge cost in calories used to keep these eggs and pork chops alive until they reach table.
Even used with such consummated inefficiency, American farms produce vastly more food than Americans can consume, with the result that much of each year’s crops must be sold abroad. It’s not sold to poor countries but to western Europe and Japan. Even the recent purchases by the Soviet Union were made not to keep hungry people fed but to indulge the Soviets’ taste for meat and white bread.
In the 1960s the U.S. subsidized the world’s poor—or that portion of them who suffered a democratic kind of hunger rather than socialist one—by shipping them food bought from farmers through price support programs. Like the kid who takes home a souvenir baseball, the hungry were the incidental beneficiaries of a game played for other people’s benefit. It is doubtful whether the taxpayers would underwrite such a lavish giveaway today. More important, there is a profound question whether they should. Making cheap food available to undeveloped nations has made it possible for native elites to disregard indigenous agriculture in favor of Western-style industrialization. Iran is a perfect example of a nation in which there are more hungry people because of our ability to feed the world than there probably would have been otherwise. Even among our wealthier customers—many of them buying grain with oil money—the record is not good. As Dan Morgan notes in this month’s Atlantic, such countries “have a miserable record of dealing with malnutrition amongst their own people . . . Imports of U.S. food enable the governments of these countries to carry out other priorities. The food does not reach many of the neediest and most disadvantaged people.”
The U.S. has a responsibility to feed the world, I suppose. But growing the world’s food for it is not the way to do it. Encouraging land reform, spreading appropriate farm technologies, above all curbing population growth is. The answer to world starvation is fewer people, not fewer lakes.
It’s a long way between the Sahel and the Horse Creek bottoms, longer than many farmland preservationists realize. We can find reasons closer to home to not build LSII. I agree, for instance, that the city has failed in some ways to stem siltation of the present lake, which is filling at a rate of 600,000 tons a year. But shoreline reconstruction is not among them.
We need a program of the sort recommended last November by the Springfield-Sangamon County Planning Commission which called for three things: a new staffer to work with the Soil Conservation Service, application for special project grants from the state Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service and a boost in cost-share contribution to ASCS programs. These would be steps designed to control erosion from farmland in Lake Springfield’s 256-square mile watershed. Such steps must be coupled with stringent controls on residential and commercial development in the watershed.
But that will not eliminate the need to augment the city’s water supply, only delay it a little. I am not yet convinced a new lake is needed, but at the same time I don’t think the best alternative has been discussed yet. It is not the Havana lowlands or the Sangamon River, not a nuclear-powered desalinization plant to purify joggers’ sweat at the Y, not even a water conservation plan to be invoked in times of drought. The answer is to begin thinking about water the way we are coming to think about energy, as a nonrenewable resource. Water pricing policy should reflect not the actual costs of “producing” water but the costs of replacing it. Spring- field has been livine for forty-five years off the interest in the investment it made in Lake Springfield in the 1930s. Water has been cheap, too cheap. If the city started charging for water what it costs to produce today, the economics of water supply would be revolutionized. Impossible things would become possible: waste water recycling systems, dredging (where it made sense), erosion control projects in the watershed. Beyond that, the city should imitate Portland and require that no house be sold unless it has been certified by the city as being equipped with water-efficient shower heads and toilets. It should revise local tax policies to penalize such extravagances as home swimming pools, extra bathrooms and automatic dishwashers.
It can be done; the desert city of Tucson, Arizona, has cut average daily water consumption per household by 30 percent in four years, (with the result that Tucsonians use roughly 20 percent less water than Springfieldians) as part of a “Beat the Peak” project that reduced peak demand, obviated the need for water system expansion and slowed the pace of water rate increases. Similar economies are the only way Spring field will be able to have its lake and drink it too. □