The Springfield City Council recently approved another $285,000 for yet more studies on the city's favorite 50-year-plus boondoggle, Lake 2. At the council meeting, Alderman Gregory asked the best, most obvious question: Is this the last of these endless studies? His question drew laughter, for we know the answer.
Why more studies? The mayor and Lake 2 supporters blame the federal permitting agency, the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) for the studies, and for what they complain are inordinate delays in getting a decision from ACE. But the city is almost entirely to blame.
In the early 1990s, the city submitted a required environmental impact study devoid of alternatives, a glaring legal error prompting vigorous opposition. ACE told the city the law requires study of alternatives, and choosing one that meets defined needs at the least cost with the least environmental damage. When the city finally did, it seized every opportunity to make alternatives appear too costly, and failed to define the need. Opponents again objected, and ACE agreed to let the city try again. During much of the 90s the city did little to move the project ahead. When they finally did, they screwed up again in 2007/08, failing to look at specific alternatives opponents pushed for years, and failing to explain how the lake could meet Clean Water Act regulations. Faced with a permit denial, the city asked to withdraw and resubmit. ACE again acquiesced, but the project lay moribund until Mayor Langfelder revived it in 2015.
ACE noted the previous deficiencies and passage of considerable time. It required a Supplemental Environmental Impact Study (SEIS), forcing the city to select from an approved list of SEIS contractors instead of using the old local contractors. The city picked one who promised in advance that its studies would deliver Lake 2 as the preferred alternative, hardly an objective contractor. A public scoping meeting, focused on water supply needs, was followed by a presentation from the new contractor. The city was told previous designs for Lake 2 were fundamentally flawed. The proposed lake had to be redesigned, shrunken in size by 40%, and requiring three dams, not one.
The world was changing, too. The recent closure of the three oldest, water-intensive, coal-fired power plants means that 30 percent of all raw water previously consumed by these units was now available to meet Springfield's demand for water. Though opponents of Lake 2 had shown no need for decades, even with those plants operating, closure of the plants made clear the lack of need for another lake. The mayor and proponents of Lake 2 came up with a new scheme to justify it: It's needed for recreation, they claim, even though ever since the city first applied, the permit application and countless other documents told ACE that the sole purpose and need for another lake was "water supply."
ACE immediately advised the city that its permit application was for water supply, not recreation, and while the city was free to change it, it had to demonstrate there was a need, and then study alternatives – that's the law. The city balked, spending many months arguing over whether it had to comply with clear law before finally conceding and submitting a revised permit application. Months later, the city commissioned a study to prove "need" for recreation. This concluded there was such high demand for flatwater recreation that we need not one new lake, but four, all within 50 miles of downtown, to meet this immense need. This is a laughable conclusion reached by claiming, for just one example, that each swimmer needs an area of about 8,500 square feet. Given that the last beach at Lake Springfield was closed in 2008, citing "lack of demand," this is indeed amusing.
Then the city delayed again. ACE insisted that if it were to accept this supposed "need," existing law requires the city had to look at alternatives to Lake 2 – for example, things like reopening Lake Springfield beaches, or increasing access to Lake Springfield, or any of a dozen other cheaper, less destructive ways to boost flatwater recreation. A few weeks ago, finally, the mayor asked the council to spend $285,000 for its contractor to show that building a huge new lake was the best, cheapest and least environmentally destructive way to meet recreational demand.
Time marches on, and now Vistra is closing its Kincaid power plant, making Lake Sangchris water potentially available for any drought needs here. Worse, the city's contractor is ignoring obvious water supply alternatives and relying on a seriously flawed recreational study that didn't even bother to see if existing recreational facilities were overused. Alderman Gregory's spot-on question does have an answer. It's the last study, only if the city finally abandons this hopeless boondoggle.
Don Hanrahan is a Springfield attorney who has been involved in the opposition to Lake 2 since 1988.