Southern Illinois City Fights for a Drink of Water

Twice a year, the Marion City Lake turns.

It happens when the plants living in the city lake become so overgrown that they affect the water quality in the spring and again in the fall when the plants die off for the winter.

Anyone familiar with city knows what it means. City water, never the most pleasant-tasting stuff, becomes almost undrinkable for two or three days.

‘When the algae gets bad, they have to use copper sulfate to kill the algae and then they have dump chemicals into the water to make it drinkable,” Marion, Illinois, Mayor Robert Butler said.

When it happens nothing masks the taste of the water. Mix it with syrup to make soda or brew it into tea or coffee and it still tastes bad.

Residents have come to expect it an learned to live with it. The city is still working to someday change it.

“We expect a decision from the [U.S. Army] Corps of Engineers any day. The application’s been published in the federal record and the comment period been open,” he said. “We expect the Corps to issue the permit.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers makes the decision whether the city can violate the federal wetlands protection regulations by impounding Sugar Creek into a reservoir. To get a permit, the city must hold a public comment period on the proposal, do several environmental studies and submit a complete engineering plan to the Corps.

The permit, designated as a 404 permit for the section of federal code that it allows to be violated, is issued if the Corps believes the city has proven that it will do everything reasonable to minimize environmental impact of the new reservoir and that the reservoir is necessary.

Twice previously, the Corps has issued the permit and twice previously a federal court judge has overturned the permit based on arguments from local residents and members of the Sierra Club. The battle has been brewing for 17 years and no one expects it to end soon.,

Butler expects it to go to the federal court again. “I’m certain if the Corps issues the permit, the Sierra Club will file an injunction in federal court to prevent construction. Then, regardless of how that court rules, the decision will be appealed to the Fifth District Appellate Court.”

The city also had to get construction permits from the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Natural Resources. After that permit was issued and upheld in the state courts, the Sierra Club appealed the ruling. The appeal is still pending.

The prolonged battle has had some positive impacts on area wildlife, Butler said. For years, the argument was that Sugar Creek was one of the few remaining creeks in Southern Illinois that could support the least brook lamprey.

“Until this battle began, no one had done a comprehensive study in Southern Illinois of them. The thinking was that they were few and far between in Southern Illinois, but once we started really looking we found them in several area creeks, I think Lusk Creek may have been one of them. Turns out, they are a lot more common than anyone thought,” Butler said.

And while the courts and officials argue about the environmental impact of the reservoir, for the city of Marion, the impact of the continuing delays have been easy to measure.

More than a decade ago, the city installed pipes and a pump off Ogden Road that allows them in the driest days of August and September to take water out of an old Herrin City Lake and pump it into a depleted Marion City Lake.

Then, once that lake has supplied all it can, if nature hasn’t remedied the situation with fall rain, the city now has water lines in place so that it can buy treated water from Herrin as well. In the worst cases, when the summer is particularly dry, the city resorts to watering restrictions to make up for the lack of available water.

Butler said he hopes it will end someday, but right now, someday seems far away.

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