Open Spaces

Why Care About Water?


story by Nancy Schumm | photography by Lisa Stamos

Most people don’t think much about the water they drink, bathe in, or cook with until it changes color or smells funny and the only time we really think about storm-water is when it blocks roads. But water is critical to our daily lives. To really understand how water impacts us today, it is good to look at our history.

The Barrington area was opened for settlement in 1833. Land sold for $1.25 per acre and initially in 40-acre lots that were surveyed and touted as the richest loam in the world. The value of the region was enhanced by the additional plant materials available. Historic prairies and wetlands served as the Walgreens, Jewel, and Joanne Fabrics we have today. These pioneer landscapes were full of a plant diversity that could provide medicine, herbs, and food to the early farmers.

The second most attractive feature was the fresh glacial water. Once people arrived, they quickly changed the cleanliness of the water. In the early days you could drink fresh water with no impact to your intestinal system (this is not possible today). To put it into perspective, in 1833 a rule was passed in Chicago that read; “No person or persons shall throw, place or deposit, or cause to be thrown, placed or deposited any dung, carrion, dead animal, offal of other putrid or unwholesome substance, or the contents of any privy upon the margin or banks, or in the waters of Lake Michigan within the limits of said city of Chicago, or upon the margin, banks or into the waters of the Chicago River or either of its branches.” The rule was not followed. Studies eventually found a direct relationship between disposal of waste and access to clean drinking water and simple sanitation methods such as lifting the streets of the city to raise them above the dirty water in the river solved some problems, but encouraged others downstream. Water does not recover from pollution unless complete contamination is eradicated.

Meanwhile in the suburbs, the development of drain-tiles allowed wetlands to shed excess water and send it more rapidly to the creeks and streams, so the land would be dry enough to farm. Wells were dug to reach clean drinking water below the earth surface. Initially, a settler could find clean water in a 20-foot well, but as time passed, wells needed to be deeper. Today, the average depth is greater than 140 feet below the surface.

What does this have to do with wetlands?

Wetlands function like a sponge that absorbs excess water and cleans it before it is released into groundwater or drained into rivers and streams. Chicago Wilderness estimated in 1996 that there were only 10 percent of our original wetlands remaining in existence in this area. What this means is that water drains from our houses, streets, and storm sewers very rapidly and it carries pollution like road salt, dirt, pet waste, and other pollution with it to the nearest water bodies. It no longer has a wetland to run through before hitting the primary water bodies. Add to the mix that we have a lot of turf grass that sheds water quickly instead of plants that will block and absorb this water, and the result is more dirty water. We lost our wetland sponges, and we need to protect the ones that remain because they help clean our water.

Many of the wetlands that remain have lost their full function because they became dominated by plants that don’t do a good job of filtering the water. In our eagerness to settle and build, we lost the diversity of those early pioneer plants and thus the functionality of our wetlands. Watershed groups have worked to develop easy strategies for improving and protecting our local watersheds. These groups were encouraged by the Environmental Protection Agency because they are run by locals who know the territory, rather than by government agencies who only know general ideals for watershed protection.

Industrial Age Impacts and Clean Water Regulations

In the mid-1900s, there was still no federal regulation to control pollution other than acts that prevented large scale detritus in rivers for better navigation. In 1945, it was reported that over 3,500 communities in the country pumped 2.5 billion tons of raw sewage into streams, lakes, and coastal waters every day. The Surgeon General warned that, “over half of the U.S. population relied upon drinking water supplies of doubtful purity.” In response, the first Federal Water Pollution Control Act in 1948.

Industrial pollution accelerated contamination and with the advent of television the world was able to witness the dramatic burning of the Cuyahoga River on June 22, 1969. While Cleveland, Ohio, is still reeling from a public relations nightmare, it is important to note that it was not the only river burning in the country. The result of the Cleveland conflagration was the birth of the environmental movement resulting in the Clean Water Act of 1972. Through the years, the Clean Water Act has morphed into what it is today. Our water quality is still impacted by population and wetlands play a part in that. While some feel the Clean Water Act regulations are onerous, without these regulations our rivers would still be catching on fire and our water quality would be more severely compromised.

What is a watershed?

A watershed is an area that all the water surrounding drains to. An example is that the Fox River receives water from tributaries like Flint Creek, Spring Creek, and the Tower Lakes Drain. These smaller tributaries are called sub-watersheds (an area smaller than the biggest water body). In Barrington, we live in either the Tower Lakes Drain, Flint Creek, or Spring Creek Watersheds. These watersheds are smaller parts of the larger system that handle our excess storm water.

What can people who don’t study wetlands do to help?

Like a delicate house of cards, water protection decisions are often made at a local level by local municipal leaders who don’t necessarily understand how critical our water supply is and how easily it can be compromised. However, their jobs can be enhanced by the experts around them who study water. These include water resource professionals, civil engineers, Lake County Stormwater Management Commission, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Cook County, and the Barrington Area Council of Governments (BACOG) who have been working to protect water in the region since the early 1970s. With simple help, the local water can be protected.

Individuals Landowners Can Help

Here are some simple ideas that can help the quality of our water supply.

  • Build a raingarden on your property. These will help retain some water and clean it before it runs down the street, there are plenty of local resources to teach you how to do this.
  • Support local decisions that protect water even if it spends tax money. Water has no political boundaries and needs any help it can get.
  • Pick up your dog waste and don’t encourage geese on your property.
  • Don’t use phosphorus fertilizers.
  • Grow wildflowers instead of grass (the short roots of turf grass do not filter nutrients.)
  • Join your watershed group and read the local watershed plans. (Tower Lakes Drain, Flint Creek/Spring Creek Watersheds welcome homeowners to their free meetings.)
  • Support your local conservation groups through volunteering or financial assistance. They need your help and are a wealth of information. (Citizens for Conservation and the Barrington Area Conservation Trust are excellent resources for Barrington.)
  • Reduce your use of salt and coal tar sealants on driveways. (There are alternatives, BACOG has info on these.)
  • The Magic School Bus has an excellent video on the importance of wetlands for kids and science-minded adults(“Magic School Bus Get Swamped”).

Nancy Schumm is the award-winning author of six books on natural areas and regional history. She has been presenting professional papers internationally since 1997 including a program on the History of the Clean Water Act. Schumm has been featured in four national videos and a movie on Midwestern history and has been interviewed on Wisconsin Public Radio, Faith Marketplace with Bob Lambert, and WGN news, and has been featured in magazines, newspapers, and on the Oprah Winfrey Show. She has recently moved from Barrington to work in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed in Maryland.