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Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2008 06:56 pm

Say no to Hunter Lake

There are less expensive and less damaging alternatives. Building a dam is overkill.

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The 1830s Pensacola Tavern, still standing in the area that would become Hunter Lake.
PHOTO BY Bruce Semans

Hunter Lake is a 40-year-old idea whose time, if there ever was one, has passed.

The 3,010-acre lake would hold far more water than Springfield needs. There are less expensive alternatives, water conservation measures haven’t been figured into the city’s need calculation, and the proposed reservoir would destroy the trees, wildlife and cultural resources of the two valleys it floods between Springfield and Pawnee. Environmental awareness has moved most of America away from the violent overkill of dam-building. Conservation — of both land and water — is a wiser course.

Earlier this year when the City Council finally began taking a serious look at alternatives to Hunter Lake — gravel pits and aquifers — we thought the discussion of the proposed new reservoir was about to take a realistic and more enlightened turn. But rather than making a decision on its own to kill the lake, the council decided to go through the process of applying to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency for a permit to build the lake. If the EPA were to turn it down, aldermen reasoned, they could escape the political heat.

Yet from all indications at Wednesday night’s hearing, EPA isn’t about to kill the lake, and may well breathe new life into the project by approving the city’s application to build it. Without questioning City Water, Light and Power’s assumptions, the EPA panel said it agrees with the city’s flawed calculation of how much more water is needed. And though the panel admitted that the new lake wouldn’t meet state water quality standards for phosphorus pollution, it said that’s not a problem because the state will probably lower its standards. The panel agreed with opponents that the city hasn’t done all it needs to do about replacing wetlands and rerouting sewage, but said the permit could be issued anyway, conditioned on taking care of these problems later. This EPA is treating Hunter Lake like the campaign press treated Barack Obama.

Approval by the EPA, likely to be followed by U. S. Army Corps of Engineers approval, won’t get the lake built. There would most likely be years of lawsuits over environmental issues that haven’t been addressed, and further delays as the city comes to a realization of just how much more than its projected $80 million the project will really cost. If Springfield continues its pursuit of this expensive, destructive course, it is likely to continue to ignore the better alternatives close at hand: water conservation and gravel pits.

Several lake opponents advocated conservation pricing of water as the easiest way to promote conservation. In its simplest form, water rates would be higher during the summer lawn-watering season than in the winter, thus promoting more efficient lawn watering or none at all. Another form, graduated block pricing, charges the highest rates to those who use the most water, while those who use low amounts can be charged little or nothing. Such devices have allowed Seattle to decrease its water use while its population has grown, according to one witness.

Gravel pits should be the new Lake II. Even CWLP has said that area gravel pits, in combination with 14 wells, could provide the 12 million gallons a day Springfield may need to withstand a 100-year drought. There seems to be little standing in the way of this alternative except a lingering yearning for the old idea called Hunter Lake.

It may take a long time now for the City Council to get back to the place it almost was earlier this fall – looking for smarter, sounder ideas for Springfield’s future. But when that day comes, the council should not only vote to conserve water and to secure the water resources already at hand. It should also preserve the 8,000 acres that have been acquired for the unneeded reservoir and make it into a park. Bruce Semans of Rochester has thoroughly explored the land and found there a treasure of natural and historic assets. The 1830s Pensacola Tavern, still standing where the waters would rise, served as a stagecoach stop, perhaps welcoming Abraham Lincoln. The area is home to central Illinois’ largest concentration of ancient trees, presiding over a beautiful and rich wildlife habitat.

As soon as Springfield finally says no to Hunter Lake, it can say yes to conservation of water and land, and wise use of available resources.

Fletcher Farrar is editor of Illinois Times.
Contact him at ffarrar@illinoistimes.com.

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