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History of the Office of Water Resources

By Gary R. Clark, C.E., Office of Water Resources

The history of the Office of Water Resources can be traced back to 1823 when the Illinois Legislature formed the Illinois Michigan Canal Commission. The Office as it is known today was organized in 1917 when the Civil Administrative Code combined the authorities Canal Commissioners, the Rivers and Lakes Commission and the Illinois Waterway Commission. The foundational powers of the Office are covered by the Rivers, Lakes and Streams Act which was passed in 1911.

The earliest activities of the Office concentrated on the Illinois River and other large river basin issues including flood control, public waters protection and navigation. The design of the navigation system that we have today on the Illinois River as well as the construction of the locks and dams at Marseilles and Starved Rock was accomplished by Water Resources before the State ran out of money for the system and turned it over to the Corps of Engineers. The Office of Water Resources currently operates under the authorities covered by more than 50 State statutes.

Under the authority of these statutes the Office of Water Resources regulates construction the floodways of rivers and streams; regulates construction of appropriate uses in designated floodways in northeastern Illinois; allocates diversion of water from Lake Michigan; regulates construction in the shorewaters of Lake Michigan; protects public bodies of water from private encroachment; regulates dam safety; operates state locks, and waterways; administers lands and waters of the Illinois Waterway and Kaskaskia River navigation project; coordinates National Flood Insurance Program; plans the conservation of water resources; administers state water supply storage at Carlyle, Shelbyville, Rend and Kinkaid reservoirs; plans, and constructs projects to assist units of local government urban flood damage reduction including acquisition of flood properties; represents Illinois in three river basin commissions and national organizations of water resources, floodplain management, urban flood control and dam safety officials; as lead state agency for federal urban flood control and navigation projects, state water planning, and state water laws and policies.

Water resource data collection and mapping has always been a priority program of the Office of Water Resources. The first annual report of the agency which was published in 1918 had a section entitled "Importance of Stream Gaging Records." This report stated that "during the fiscal year ending June 30, 1918, the Division of Waterways in cooperation with the U. S. Geological Survey maintained 25 gaging stations on the principal rivers in the State."

Today the Office of Water Resources is staffed by personnel located in offices in Springfield, Chicago and Bartlett. With this staff the Office of Water Resources will continue to maintain its core regulatory and construction programs. In the future the Office of Water Resources recognizes needs to address issues, laws and programs to manage resource problems such as instream flow protection, drought management, groundwater development, expanding public water supplies, innovative dredging and dam removals.

Water Management in the 19th Century

Early in the 19th century, Illinois was composed of millions of acres of relatively flat swampland due to poor or nonexistent drainage, and lack of protection from flooding. Much of that century was spent in attempts to drain the water off, without much success. The 1850 Swamplands Act gave still unsold lands to the State, nearly 1,500,000 acres worth, and the State passed the lands to the counties expecting drainage benefits, that generally, were not forthcoming.

A clause to the Constitution in 1870 allowed the State to pass laws regarding drainage and the rights of landholders to build drainage features across their neighbors land, which next year became law. The Act was shortly found to be unconstitutional and rewritten stronger than before in 1879. The Farm Drainage Act of 1885 along with the Levee Act of 1879 form a firm basis for the organization, financing, and operation of drainage districts which quickly came into existence.

By 1920 the number of drainage districts levelled off, the last forming in 1937.

Six and a half million acres were found in 1928 to still require drainage, and that 5,310,000 of these were in the process of being organized.

Chicago Water Management in the 19th Century

In 1822 Canal legislation was passed and the Illinois and Michigan Canal was opened for river traffic in 1848. Up to the 1860's the city of Chicago had dumped its waste into the Chicago River and ultimately into Lake Michigan, but in 1865 obtained permission to pump sewage from the Chicago River into the Illinois & Michigan Canal. By 1881 the canal had become a health hazard and was not working out as a transportation conduit either. In 1889 the Chicago Sanitary District was formed to build the Chicago Sanitary and Ship canal, the main channel of which was completed in 1900. The Sanitary and Ship Canal extended from the Des Plaines River to the Chicago River's south branch, causing a reversal of flow in the Chicago River, and diverting Lake water into the Mississippi River system. New sewers fed wastes into the river rather than the Lake. During heavy rains, sewage contaminated waters backed up into the Lake however, which served as the city's water supply. Later, an additional North Shore Channel was constructed from the north branch of the Chicago River to the Lake.

Prior to 1900, the City of Chicago discharged sewage directly into Lake Michigan, the Chicago River, and Calumet River.

In 1922, the Sanitary District completed the Calumet-Sag Channel extending the Sanitary and Ship Canal, and reversing the Calumet and Little Calumet Rivers as well as another diversion of lake water into Illinois.

Early in the 1920's the Sanitary District began constructing an extensive system of intercepting sewers and sewage treatment works.

A 1930 Supreme Court decision necessitated a reduction in water taken from the lake. And, the growing city was overloading existing sewer systems leading to backups into tens of thousands of basements. New sewers eased the basement flooding, but led instead to overloaded rivers and the 1954 overflowing into Union Station and the Chicago Daily News building before water could escape via a navigation lock into the Lake. The Calumet and North Branch Chicago River reversed course to overflow into the Lake as well.

Before sewage treatment plants were built in the early 1900s, the combined sewage flowed directly into the waterways. By the 1950s, the District's treatment plants could capture and treat about a billion gallons per day.