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Evolution of the Lake

by Jan Mathew

As biographies go, there’s nothing too lofty about the first chapter of Lake Decatur’s.

Rather than ancestry as a boater or angler’s paradise, or lakefront resort, Lake Decatur was created for a relatively prosaic purpose: To meet A.E. Staley’s need for, “a Niagara of water supply — 10 million gallons a day, including five million for glucose syrup alone.” As author Dan Forrestal recounts in, “The Kernel & The Bean,” if “dry Decatur” couldn’t provide a “Niagara” for his current and future expansions, Gene Staley threatened in 1920, the corn and soybean company would pull up stakes and head to “an ideal 72-acre site on the free-flowing Illinois River in Peoria.”

Hometown pride swelled and, by 1922, Decatur answered with Lake Decatur, the state’s largest artificial body of water with a total of 2,800 acres and a 30-mile shoreline.

Lake Decatur

Decatur celebrated the birth of this $2 million manmade reservoir with a dedication extravaganza spanning four days — July 4-7, 1923. Speeches, parades, pageants, swimming contests, diving events, and speedboat races filled the docket, and world and national swimming champions were among the participants. Nineteen-year-old Johnny Weissmuller, who later won five Olympic gold swimming medals and reached Hollywood fame as “Tarzan,” won the 500-meter freestyle competition, swimming the distance in 6 minutes and 55 seconds for a new world record. Boasted Decatur Association of Commerce Secretary Henry Bolz: “A.E. Staley has literally kicked the community upstairs. The Lake is a monument to his wisdom.”

However, just as genes pre-determine physical characteristics, Lake Decatur’s parentage largely programmed its path. For instance, the Lake’s long and relatively narrow upside-down “T” configuration — 11 miles long and an average width of 0.4 miles — plus six major bridges, somewhat limited boating activity. Lake Decatur is a shallow body as well, with an average depth of only eight feet.

Longevity also influenced its course, says Keith Alexander, director of water management for the City of Decatur. “Sheer size separates us from lakes like Shelbyville, Rend, and Carlyle. But these also were federal government projects and were designed for multiple benefits including flood control, recreation, and water supply — all concepts that weren’t around in the 1920s when Lake Decatur was planned.”

Sharing the Lake’s long history is the Decatur Park District, established in 1924 with the charge to enhance quality of life through preserving open spaces and providing recreational opportunities for Decatur residents, according to Park District Executive Director Bill Clevenger. While the City of Decatur owns the Lake, the Park District owns 2,000 acres of land around the Lake — a split that has accounted for commercial lakefront development, or lack thereof. Ownership dates to 1925, when the daughters of local inventor, industrialist, philanthropist, and nature lover Robert Faries gifted a section of Faries Park to the District. Through the years, the Park District has continued to acquire and maintain ownership of lakeside property — strategies which also distinguish Lake Decatur. “The amount of public access to Lake Decatur is unheard of in our sister communities of Bloomington and Springfield,” says Clevenger.


The “Little” Lake That Could
Today, 85 percent of the Lake’s water originates from the Sangamon River, with Long, Big, and Sand Creeks contributing the remainder. Water that ultimately drains into Lake Decatur comes from an area, or watershed, of 925 square miles — 592,000 acres — in seven counties. “ We think of Lake Decatur as an urban lake because it’s entirely contained within city limits,” says Alexander, “but only about half of the city (generally east of Route 51) drains into it.”

Sheer volume surprises as well. The Lake’s capacity is 6.5 billion gallons and, along with 10 groundwater wells, it provides water to approximately 34,000 service connections and about 87,000 people. On an average day, the needs of the City and Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) alone consume 38 million gallons of Lake water. The impetus for Lake Decatur — Tate & Lyle North America (A.E. Staley) — is the City’s second largest water customer, behind ADM and just above Intermet Corporation. Decatur’s water rates also are among the ten lowest statewide.

Lake Decatur

“The economic development web is very tight,” Alexander says. “About one-half million acres of farmland supply the Lake with water, and our agribusiness companies use their products and our water.”

The Lake also is a valuable contributor to the community’s quality of life, offering recreational opportunities and wildlife vistas. According to Alexander, the City annually issues about 3,000 boat licenses; 1,450 24-hour boat licenses; 475 dock licenses; and 53 waterfowl hunting blind licenses. The Park District complements the lineup with five lakeside parks and, most recently, renovation of Sportsmen’s Park to include a wildlife/flyway observation deck, canoe launch and the Schaub Floral Display Center.

All In Good Health

Water usage, recreation, and wildlife all hinge on the health of Lake Decatur and, historically, physical crises have prompted action.

For instance, a drought in 1953-54 resulted in raising the Lake five feet. More vivid for many residents, however, is the drought of 1988. “People actually walked across sections of the Lake near Lost Bridge, and they put up ‘For Sale’ signs on several exposed islands,” recalls Alexander. Water to replenish the Lake was pumped in from nearby Lake Tokorozawa.

Although the ’88 drought jumpstarted a multi-phased dredging project, the Lakeactually had been filling with sediment at a rate of 7,273 semi-truck trailer loads annually from 1923 to 1983, and had lost 35 percent of its storage volume. In 1993-94, the City dredged the Faries Park Basin, and a current three-phase project will remove 5.8 million cubic yards of material in Basin 6, Big Creek, and Sand Creek. By its completion in 2012, the $25 million project will increase Lake Decatur’s storage capacity by 16 percent.

Initiated about 20 years ago, the City’s shoreline erosion program fortifies Lake borders on an ongoing basis, says Alexander. Higher bluff areas, such as Scovill, are rebuilt annually using topsoil, grass seed, and recycled concrete.

A new nitrate facility, operational in June 2002, permanently reduced the amount of nitrate in Decatur’s drinking water. According to Alexander, the nitrate level had exceeded the 10 parts per million federal standard, due to heavy rainfalls in the Lake Decatur watershed from February until June 2002. “Technology is getting better and cheaper, and it’s now easier to detect regulated substances in less volume — parts per million, rather than billion,” says Alexander.

Lake Decatur Shoreline

The Next Cycle
Despite a generally cooperative relationship between the City and Park District, sources see a few waves ahead regarding development of our community’s historic Lake. From a physical standpoint, another drought is inevitable, says Alexander, and a local committee currently is examining options for long-term water storage.

Wildlife is “holding its own,” reports Carl Handel, district wildlife biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, but he cautions additional Lake area development will further decrease numbers of species. “When you remove something from the ecosystem, you destroy the balance,” he says. “If we’re not careful, we’ll be left with species that can adapt to urban settings, like raccoons, opossum, and skunks, and they’ll become even bigger nuisances.”

From a philosophical perspective, Clevenger and Park District Board President Don Luy are similarly cautious about balancing public access and commercial development. The two believe the push for Lake area development has intensified over the past several years, due primarily to pressure on the City to generate revenue without increasing property taxes. “If we were willing to divest ourselves of all public access, the market would be huge,” says Clevenger. “But once you give up land, it never comes back to public use.” (see area map indicating ownership of lakefront property above)

Definitions of “development” diverge as well, with the City equating it to a hotel-conference center, condominiums, or additional retail and restaurants, and the Park District envisioning changessuch as the widening and extension of an 18-year-old walkway, or a passenger ferry.

“If development means adding amenities that would be economically viable and complement what’s here, we’ll take a good, hard look at it,” Clevenger says. “Let’s just be sure we’re not putting something up just because it’s easy.”

All hope the Lake’s next phase holds mutually beneficial scenarios. In keeping with a federal funding requirement to update its master plan every six to eight years, Chicago-based Smith Group/JJR will present a Park District-funded master plan for the Lake later this summer. Input for the plan came from focus groups of residents and users, as well as independent interviews with City, school district, and county representatives. “This is a fluid process, and there will be more opportunity for public input after the plan is reviewed,” Clevenger says. “Our goal is to move toward a working document.”

“We’ll always have the challenge of balancing groups that represent different interests,” Alexander adds, “from power boats versus fishermen to bricks and mortar versus natural shorelines.

“The bottom line is, we all have a vested interest in the quality of Lake Decatur.”


Jan Mathew is Contributing Editor of Decatur Magazine.


This article originally appeared in the April / May 2004 issue of Decatur Magazine.
It may not be reproduced or redistributed in whole or in part without the publisher's consent.
Copyright 2004 Decatur Magazine - First String Productions. All rights reserved.

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