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Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011 11:16 am

City plans to test gravel pits

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The city of Springfield, which spent $875,000 on this gravel pit as a backup source of water, may soon find if it was money well-spent.
PHOTO COURTESY CWLP

For years, debate has raged about whether gravel pits near Riverton contain enough water to see Springfield through a drought.

Now, hydrological testing might settle the question.

Mayor Mike Houston has asked the city council to approve $287,500 for testing to determine the potential for the city-owned gravel pit, which includes a lake of more than 140 acres, to serve as a backup water supply in the event of a drought.

“It should’ve been done a long time ago,” said Ward 1 Ald. Frank Edwards, who has long argued that gravel pits can keep the city supplied with water if Lake Springfield goes dry. “I think it’s going to show more water than we know what to do with.”

Houston, who supports the creation of a second lake to serve as a backup water supply, said the city is moving forward with testing at the behest of the Army Corps of Engineers and the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, which must issue permits for a new lake.

“They want to make a judgment as to what type of water we can get out of the pits,” Houston said.

In 2009 the city bought one of several gravel pits in the area for $875,000 but has not abandoned the idea of building a second reservoir, dubbed Hunter Lake, which has been on the drawing board for 40 years. The city has purchased more than 7,000 acres for a new reservoir. Houston has said the city has spent as much as $30 million on Hunter Lake, and the permitting process could take two years.

Edwards and other pit supporters argue that a second lake isn’t necessary and that gravel pits can serve as a cheaper emergency water supply. The city-owned pit could produce less than 2 million gallons per day, far short of needs, but the total could increase to 12 million gallons if water were drawn from five other pits in the area in conjunction with wells, according to Tom Skelly, water division manager for City Water, Light and Power. By contrast, the city says that Hunter Lake would yield 23 million gallons per day.

Projected need has fluctuated through the years. During the late 1980s, the city figured it would need 15 million gallons per day in the event of a drought, Skelly said, but the number recently dipped to nine million gallons, in part due to Chatham’s decision to develop its own water supply and stop buying from Springfield. The number now is creeping toward 12 million gallons, Skelly said, and projections show the need will surpass 12 million gallons after 2025.

“It changes every time you look at it,” Skelly said.

Besides pinning down how much water the city-owned pit could provide for Springfield residents, the proposed test is also supposed to determine what impact drawing from the gravel pit would have on the aquifer that supplies Riverton, which relies on wells near the pit. Riverton officials had expressed concerns when Springfield bought the property, saying they worried that a backup plan that involved taking water from pits and wells could deplete the aquifer.

Tony Horner, Riverton water superintendent, said that testing now is a good idea.

“That way, we’ll know,” Horner said. “Hopefully, we can work together.”

The test would be fairly straightforward, Skelly said. Layne Christensen, the contractor, would drill a well between the city’s pit and the nearby Sangamon River, measure the amount of water pumped from the ground while assessing the effect of pumping on water levels in the pit and in the river upstream from the test site, he said. Water pumped from the ground would be piped into the river downstream from the test location, he said.

A final city council vote could come on Nov. 15. Skelly says he hopes testing is complete by Christmas, with a final report delivered next spring. Drier than usual weather, he said, is working in the city’s favor – when it comes to preparing for drought, it is best to test when the aquifer is low.

“I’m not very happy with the rain right now,” Skelly said.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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