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Mission, History, and Structure of the Office of Water Resources

Our Mission
The Office of Water Resources is the lead state agency for water resources planning, navigation, floodplain management, the National Flood Insurance Program, water supply, drought, and interstate organizations on water resources. Interagency duties include the state water plan, drought response, flood emergency situation reports, and the comprehensive review of Illinois water use law.

The primary capital activity of the office is in the area of urban flood damage reduction. The office assists units of local government with urban flood damage reduction projects through planning, design, construction, and financial assistance. The urban program also features the acquisition of flood prone homes and businesses.

Structure and Duties of the Illinois Office of Water Resources

The Office of Water Resources consists of four Divisions: Capital Programs, Regulatory Programs, Coastal Management and Program Development. Office personnel operate the William G. Stratton Lock and Dam on the Fox River, the Sinnissippi Dam on Rock River, and other state-owned dams or water control facilities. The office sponsors water resources research and operates stream gauging stations, flood gauges, and lake water stage recorders in cooperation with federal, state, and local cooperators.  

The Division of Regulatory Programs administers regulatory programs over construction in the floodways of rivers, lakes, and streams; construction in the shorewaters of Lake Michigan; construction and operation of dams; construction in public bodies of water; diversion of water from Lake Michigan; and withdrawal of water from Lake Shelbyville, Carlyle Lake, and Rend Lake. Resource Management inspects dams, gives permits, coordinates the National Flood Insurance Program and regulates floodplains.

In addition to its normal functions, the Capital Programs Division gathers water resource data prior, during and following a flood or other disaster. This data is assembled and disseminated to various state and local agencies. Representatives of the Division act as the Technical Liaison to the Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA) and provide daily briefings on flood conditions of monitored streams throughout the state and its boundary waters. In cooperation with the United States Geological Survey (USGS), a summary sheet of river stage information is provided on their website.

 Capital Programs

Regulatory Programs

Coastal Management

  • Division of 

Program Development

History of the Illinois Office of Water Resources

The Illinois General Assembly created the Board of Canal Commissioners on Feb. 14, 1823 with five members. The Office of Water Resources has a long history beginning with flood control and navigation issues that later grew to include regulation of streams and rivers, locks and dams, construction issues, water conservation, the National Flood Insurance Program and more.

The Board of Canal Commissioners produced a report and then was replaced with the first of three Canal Commissions created in 1825, 1829 and 1835 respectively. In 1830 the second of these was the first to plat the cities of Chicago and Ottawa in 1830. The five members of the 1835 Commission began construction of the I&M Canal in July 1836. The Commission was reorganized in 1837 with three members chosen by the General Assembly.

Financial difficulties in 1845 led to the Canal being turned over to a Board of Trustees. The Canal was completed and opened for navigation in April 1848. The Canal Trustees submitted their final report in 1871 and reverted to the Canal to the State of Illinois after the debt incurred in its creation was paid off.

The successor Canal Commission, consisting of three members, was set up in 1870 and continued until 1917 when the Commission was made a part of the newly created Division of Waterways.

In past times, the streams of Illinois were used mainly as sources of water supply, transportation and communication. The Division of Waterways' attention soon focussed on the inadequate ability of the Illinois Waterway to haul freight competitively, and by 1916 the Illinois and Michigan Canal had very little traffic at all. The Marseilles Lock and Dam when completed was 600 feet long and as wide as the Panama Canal. The new Lockport Lock and Dam had the distinction of having the highest lift of any lock of its size in the world, 41 feet.

The Illinois Legislature created the Department of Purchases and Construction in 1925. Some of the authority formerly vested in the Illinois Waterway Commission was assigned to the newly created Department to enable the design and construction of the Illinois Waterway, with the provision that its powers become void upon completion of the project. The Division of Waterways was thereupon transferred to the new department with the provision for the duration of the waterway project. In 1933 the Department of Purchases and Construction was abolished and the Division of Waterways was again made part of the Department of Public Works and Buildings.

The waterway project completed, Waterways turned its attention to surveying the boundaries of Lake Michigan and Wolf Lake, determining the divide between private encroaching lands, and the public lands in holding for everyone. Collection, compilation and dissemination of information on river flow led to agreements with the US Geological Survey to set up stream gaging programs that are still going today. Swampland draining and the creation of drainage districts to reclaim farmlands continued as well.

In 1943, approximately 80% of the Division of Waterways' work came under war related activity, including maintenance and operation of 14 movable and 23 fixed bridges on the Illinois waterway between Lockport and Grafton. Much war material was being water-shipped and hundreds of naval vessels built in Great Lakes shipyards (including gigantic submarines) were navigated down the waterway to outfitting ports.

Flood control work along the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, especially in the vicinity of war production industries. Cooperation in solving drainage problems affecting agricultural lands, public utilities and war industries such as channel improvements, and channel changes. Cooperation with State and Federal civilian defense agencies in blacking out bridges, etc. Protection of vital water control structures, such as dams, gates and weirs on various public waters. Post war projects emphasized flood control.

The office transitioned from the Department of Public Works to the newly created Department of Transportation in 1972. For a time the Office was known as the Office of Water Resource Management.

  • A History of the Office of Water Resources By Gary R. Clark, C.E.
  • A History of Flood Control & Drainage in Northeastern Illinois By Arlan Juhl, P.E.