On a mission
City pushes for Hunter Lake. Again.
Not long after an epic drought, good news arrived.
“After what Springfield went through in 1954, it is heartening to know that the city’s water supply will be wholly adequate for the next 20 years,” the Illinois State Journal proclaimed in a 1958 editorial that trumpeted the results of a just-published water study.
The forecast by the engineering firm of Crawford, Murphy and Tilly was based on worst-case scenarios, and with good reason. The city had just gone through a two-year dry spell that caused Lake Springfield to fall by a dozen feet. Per capita water consumption had increased by 8 percent between 1937 and 1956 and would continue to rise at that same rate, the engineers figured, but to be on the safe side, the study’s authors doubled the projected per-capita increase to 16 percent over the next two decades. Population in 20 years would increase by 47 percent, they allowed, with the city supplying 155,000 people with water by 1977.
Still no worries.
Even with a skyrocketing population and an unprecedented per-capita thirst, Springfield would have plenty of water for the foreseeable future and beyond, the experts concluded. And the recent drought was worse than it needed to be, the engineers said: If a pump on the South Fork of the Sangamon River installed in 1955 had been in operation when the dry spell began, Lake Springfield would have dropped eight feet instead of 12.
Although the city passed the drought postmortem with flying colors, the consultants in their 1958 report recommended that Springfield assess its water supply every five years, and there has been no shortage of studies over the ensuing five decades. But the initial forecast, now nearly 60 years old, has proven among the most accurate ever commissioned by the city.
By 1977, the Eisenhower-era experts had predicted, Springfield would consume 26 million gallons of water each day and still not need a new water source. After a steady increase that began in the 1950s and lasted more than a decade, average daily consumption hit 22 million gallons in 1977 and has leveled off, with daily consumption averaging less than 23 million gallons from 2004 through 2013.
With predictions running north of 40 million gallons per day to supply an expected population of nearly 200,000, a series of studies that began in 1965 have proven spectacularly wrong as the city has pushed to build Hunter Lake, an endeavor that would be one of the most expensive public works projects in Springfield history. The first rate hike to pay for it came in 1968, when water rates were increased by 50 percent to buy property.
The city has already spent more than $20 million buying land. Property purchases were suspended in the 1990s as the project languished, but, after slowing to a trickle, the money spigot for Hunter Lake is again open under Mayor Jim Langfelder, who has made building the lake a top priority.
With the support of aldermen who voted 9-1 in favor of the project three months after the mayor took office last year, Langfelder has resumed land purchases for Hunter Lake that had been suspended under previous administrations. In addition to spending at least $160,000 for land since Langfelder took office last year, the city is paying consultants more than $1 million to address environmental concerns. No one knows what the lake would ultimately cost to complete, but the best estimate now sits at $108 million.
So far as the mayor is concerned, the lake would already be here if his father, Ossie, who was mayor when the city applied for a critical federal permit in the 1980s, had stayed in office longer. The mayor recalls riding in a car with his father, who died last year, and a campaign aide during a failed campaign for a third term in 1995.
“‘If we aren’t reelected, Hunter Lake will never get built’ – that’s what he (my father) said,” Langfelder remembers.
And so the current mayor intends to finish what his father started. But with sustained political support uncertain and environmental questions unanswered, it appears far from a done deal. A rare bat species, 77 acres of forested wetlands, a few cemeteries and sewage treatment plants for Virden, Divernon and Pawnee are in the way, not to mention an abandoned 19th century tavern where lake opponents say Stephen Douglas once campaigned. Both the Army Corps of Engineers and the state Environmental Protection Agency must issue permits.
Asked if the Corps will be a tough sell, Ward Lenz, regulatory branch chief at the Army Corps of Engineers Rockford office, says, “I hope, to some extent, we are. We’re supposed to protect the physical, chemical and biological integrity of the waters of the United States, and we take that seriously.”
Even after all these years, the central question remains as the city seeks permits: How much water does a city that has never run out of water need?
“We have to have a target,” Lenz says.
Although engineers in 1958 determined that the city wouldn’t need a new water source at a consumption rate of 26 million gallons per day – the same figure predicted for 2065 in the city’s most recent water study published last year – the opinions of experts have changed over the years. Seven years after saying the city had nothing to worry about, Crawford, Murphy and Tilly in 1965 concluded that Springfield needed a new reservoir due to escalating water use.
The Illinois State Water Survey in 2011 repeated a finding from 1998, warning that there is a 50-percent chance that Lake Springfield won’t be an adequate source of water in the event of a drought as severe as the dry spell of the 1950s, which could be expected to occur once every century.
Hunter Lake, which would flood 3,000 acres, could supply more than 20 million gallons of water a day, about three million gallons less than what the city now takes from Lake Springfield and, coupled with the current supply, far more than the city would need even in a severe drought. During a meeting with officials from the state Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers, Langfelder nearly a year ago said that the city could become a regional water supply during severe drought and as water systems for other communities age and fail.
Historically and now, supporters of Hunter Lake have appealed to fear: What if we run out of water?
“I happened to be in Springfield in 1953 and 1954,” says former Mayor Mike Houston, who supported Hunter Lake even though the project languished while he was in office. “I remember playing in Lake Springfield. I wasn’t swimming. I was in shoes, with no mud. Unless you can see it and remember it, you have no idea how bad it was. We would never be able to survive that (again).”
Langfelder says he believes that Hunter Lake’s chances have improved in the eyes of regulators thanks to problems with water in Chatham, the Colorado River and Flint, Michigan. While none of those areas have the same concerns – water has grown scarce on the Colorado River, Flint’s water has been tainted with lead and Chatham residents have complained about foul-tasting water with high levels of manganese – the mayor says that troubles with water in those areas have heightened awareness that communities need reliable water supplies.
Alternatives and lawsuits
Officially, at least, the revived push for Hunter Lake is supposed to be about a supplemental water supply for the city, not just a proposed reservoir. The Army Corps of Engineers is supposed to assess all viable alternatives. The best solution, Lenz said, could be a combination of alternatives that range from drilling wells to building pipelines to the Illinois or Sangamon rivers.
But the city has signaled strongly that it wants a lake, not pipelines or wells. Amec Foster Wheeler, the engineering firm retained to prepare an environmental impact statement that is supposed to assess all alternatives, is being paid by the city but working under the direction of the Army Corps, which insisted that the consultant hired not have past ties to the project. Still, some lake opponents question whether a firm that the city found can be objective. After all, when interviewing prospective consultants, the city was concerned about PR skills.
This project has very strong feelings both for and against, please describe what experience your firm has and methods you propose to sway public opinion,” was among the questions on the city’s list, according to documents released under the state Freedom of Information Act.
Lake opponents also point out that Amec Foster Wheeler told City Water, Power and Light that it would help get a permit for Hunter Lake.
“Amec Foster Wheeler is committed to helping CWLP make the Hunter Lake project a reality,” the firm wrote in a proposal submitted to the city last spring.
Langfelder and Houston agree: Springfield needs more water, regardless of whether Hunter Lake is the source. That a need might exist doesn’t necessarily matter. In Virginia, a federal court in 2009 threw out a permit granted by the Corps for a proposed reservoir that would have been half the size of Hunter Lake, ruling that the Corps didn’t adequately consider alternatives and that the U.S Environmental Protection Agency should have stopped the project. The EPA justified its decision in part by citing a water shortfall, but the judge said that the agency should have vetoed the permit regardless of whether water was needed.
In Marion, nearly 200 miles south of Springfield, opponents of a proposed 1,200-acre reservoir less than half the size of Hunter Lake have twice blocked the project in court. The first time around, the Army Corps decided that an environmental impact statement, which must include a thorough look at alternatives and what damage a project might cause, wasn’t required. A judge ordered that such a study be done. The Corps, the judge ruled, must consider alternatives, specifically finding that the Corps had not considered whether Rend Lake, an existing water source, could meet Marion’s future water needs.
After an environmental impact statement was prepared, the Corps gave Marion a permit that was overturned by a federal court in 1997. Mark Brittingham, the attorney who won both court decisions killing the project, sounds amazed as he recalls why he won the second case: The environmental impact statement prepared after the first court decision didn’t assess Rend Lake as an alternative, even though the first judge had specifically said that Rend Lake should be studied.
“It’s like shooting fish in a barrel,” recalls Brittingham, who says that he wasn’t an expert in environmental law. “You just don’t win these cases, and the first time I get involved in one of them, I win twice.” The Corps in 2007 rejected Marion’s permit application, and the reservoir remains unbuilt.
His own experience notwithstanding, Brittingham, who is now a law professor at Southern Illinois University, says it’s tough to overturn an Army Corps permit in court. Successful plaintiffs, he says, must show that the Corps didn’t follow proper procedures, as opposed to arguing that the Corps didn’t make the right judgment call.
“It’s not up to the court to second-guess the Army Corps of Engineers’ substantive decisions,” Brittingham says. “You can only challenge procedures.”
Houston doesn’t like the city’s chances with either state or federal regulators.
“It’s going to be very difficult to get those permits,” the former mayor predicts. “Part of the problem that you have with getting permits from the EPA is, they know they will be sued immediately to stop it.”
Still, Houston says that Langfelder is right to push for permits, given how much money has already been spent on land and studies.
“It’s well over $30 million,” Houston says. “That’s why you can’t just turn around and walk away from this thing. … We need an answer.”
An on-again-off-again plan
Like so much water, political support for Hunter Lake has ebbed and flowed through the years.
After a public hearing that lasted seven hours, the city council in 1973 approved the project as well as a water-rate hike to pay for it amid talk of a public referendum. In 1978, the project was shelved when City Water, Light and Power deemed the city’s water supply sufficient for the foreseeable future. The city resurrected it one year later following municipal elections. The city formally applied for a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers in 1989, two years after Langfelder’s father was elected mayor.
Completed in 2000, the environmental impact statement required as part of the 1989 permit application remains unapproved by the Army Corps of Engineers, which is now requiring additional study. Langfelder hopes to have a permit in hand next year so the city can proceed with construction.
According to the environmental impact statement released 16 years ago, Springfield and customers outside city limits would need more than 40 million gallons of water per day by the year 2025 in the event of an extreme drought, nearly 14 million gallons less than Lake Springfield can provide. The authors of the impact statement concluded that the city needed slightly more than 15 million gallons a day from a source other than Lake Springfield.
Alternatives considered in the 2000 study are much the same as alternatives to Hunter Lake now under consideration: The city could drill wells, dredge Lake Springfield to increase capacity or tap into existing sources, perhaps as far away as Clinton Lake or the Havana area, with a pipeline system.
Options rejected in the 2000 study included conservation. The study’s authors concluded that rate hikes aimed at cutting water use wouldn’t be popular and programs to encourage drought-resistant landscaping and craft water-reduction strategies with high-use customers wouldn’t be socially acceptable. Conservation, the city’s experts figured, would save less than 1 million gallons per day, a fraction of what the city needed, and the city still says that conservation alone can’t save enough water to meet municipal needs.
The authors also rejected the idea of raising the existing level of Lake Springfield by two feet, which was possible, albeit expensive, from an engineering standpoint. While raising the lake would provide more than five million gallons per day, a third of what the city figured it needed, the city would need to buy 30 homes, raise or replace boathouses, modify private sewage systems, and raise or realign bridges and roadways as well as modify the existing dam and water-treatment facility at a total cost of nearly $70 million, according to the 2000 study, which pegged the cost of Hunter Lake at $74 million, including $24.4 million that had already been spent.
Langfelder blames a lack of sustained political support from past mayors and aldermen for Hunter Lake’s failure to reach fruition.
Former mayor Tim Davlin was skeptical about the project’s prospects. Even if regulators granted permits, the Davlin administration said that it would not lobby the city council to approve construction.
“I don’t think that Hunter Lake is going to happen,” Davlin told the State Journal-Register in 2003, less than a year after taking office. “I think that’s one of the things we’re investigating. Do we really need Hunter Lake?”
In 2009, the city under Davlin purchased gravel pits near Riverton on the premise that water from the pits could supplant Hunter Lake as a backup water supply. The city now says that the pits could not provide sufficient water. Nonetheless, the gravel pits remain on the list of alternatives that the Army Corps will evaluate as part of its environmental review.
Langfelder and other Hunter Lake supporters say that buying the pits was a mistake that prompted the Army Corps to suspend active consideration of the city’s Hunter Lake application in 2010. The pits were included in the list of viable options in the 2000 environmental impact statement that was never approved, with the authors saying further study was needed to determine how much water the pits could provide. Based on hydrology tests conducted in 2012, the city says the pits aren’t a solution.
With the city council support and his eye on the 2019 municipal elections, Langfelder says that the city needs to move fast on Hunter Lake.
“You don’t want this to drag into the next term,” Langfelder says. “You want to take care of it in this term. Next year at this time, hopefully, we’ll have an answer (from the Army Corps). The beauty of that is, you’re two years before the election.”
Ward 7 Ald. Joe McMenamin, the only alderman who voted against the 2015 measure that revived the Hunter Lake project, says that the city has more important things that need money, including a shaky pension system, a crumbling sewer system and an unfunded plan to move railroad tracks from the heart of downtown onto 10th Street. He notes that water consumption has been flat for almost 40 years.
“We have to find ways to get along without it,” McMenamin said. “The need is not sufficiently demonstrated.”
If Hunter Lake were put on the ballot as a referendum, voters would reject the plan, McMenamin says. Ward 8 Ald. Kris Theilen says the opposite.
“If worded properly, I think a referendum would pass overwhelmingly,” Theilen says.
Theilen says he was against Hunter Lake when was first elected to the council in 2007.
“I campaigned saying I didn’t understand why we needed to spend millions of dollars to create a mosquito pit,” Theilen recalls. After studying the issue as an alderman, Theilen now says that the city needs Hunter Lake to help attract industries that need water and will create jobs. But he has little faith that the Army Corps will make a decision.
“I don’t understand why it’s taking so long for this decision to be made,” Theilen says. “I want the Army Corps to make an up-or-down, yes-or-no decision and stand by it. If we go to court, we go to court. … I think until the city of Springfield finally decides to sue the Army Corps of Engineers to make a decision, I think they’re going to just keep stringing us along.”
Ward 9 Ald. Jim Donelan, who was a top aide to Davlin while the project languished, said that his vote last year to move ahead with a permit application doesn’t necessarily mean that he’d vote to build Hunter Lake if a permit is granted. The council needs to consider costs and the demand for water, he said.
“If we get to the point where we’re able to move forward, I want to consider all the facts at that time and leave my options open,” Donelan said.
Outside Springfield, Pawnee Mayor Jeff Clarke doesn’t like the idea of a lake lapping up against his town, as maps show Hunter Lake would, but he says he’s not worried.
“It’s never going to happen,” Clarke predicts. “They have too many issues they have to deal with.”
Hunter Lake would exacerbate flooding of the local school’s football field, Clarke says, plus become a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Clarke also isn’t keen on shutting down the town sewage system and piping waste elsewhere, which would have to be done so that effluent wouldn’t flow into the creek that would feed Hunter Lake. Neighboring towns, he says, have similar sewage concerns.
“If you guys bring your lake, bring your checkbook – it’s not going to be cheap,” Clarke says. “It’s not just us. They’ve also got to satisfy Divernon and Virden.”
No matter what, Langfelder says, the city and regulators need to decide whether the lake will be built. And soon.
“For God’s sake, make a decision one way or another – I think that’s been the across-the-board cry from the public,” Langfelder said.
Contact Bruce Rushton at email@example.com.