Ideology and the end of Oakley Dam


On the wall of my campus office hangs a picture of two plaid shirted area farmers with a pitchfork between them ‘American Gothic’ style. They are gazing intently and quizzically forward, hands on their chins as if to say “What the…?!” 

And suspended on the tines of the pitchfork are the printed words “Stop the Dam.” The image reflects the effort in the late 60’s and early 70’s to dam the Sangamon River just upstream of the existing dam at Lake Decatur. At last we have come to the final installment in that tale and the end of this ‘big government’ project.

I like the image of these not so happy farmers, not just because it represents my 2011’River Steward of the Year’ award, but also because these aren’t what conventional wisdom views as lefty, liberal, environmentalist radicals. These are (presumably) rather conservative leaning Central Illinois farmers rising up in protest against something that much of the area’s conservative establishment strongly supported. And generally I like challenging conventional wisdom.

Conventional wisdom says ‘conservatives’ support a smaller role for government in our lives, and ‘liberals’ support a greater role for government.

But these lines blur when conservatives back government’s liberal use of public resources to promote economic development while liberals feel that government should manage the public’s resources conservatively. Such twists arise frequently in natural resource debates. Conservatives feel that public goods are put here for us to use (i.e. lumber, water, oil, gas, coal), while liberals feel that they should be conserved, sometimes just for the sake of conservation. 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers originally proposed Oakley Dam for flood control, justifying federal government involvement in this ‘local’ enterprise. Quickly, the city of Decatur realized that Oakley was important to provide an improved water source for its people and industry (particularly for Staley and Tate and Lyle, two of Decatur’s largest industries). Later others argued that the lake created by Oakley Dam would provide opportunities for recreation, tourism, and of course, economic development.

Area ‘conservatives’ from all around quickly became enamored with this massive government project and massive expense of taxpayer dollars by relying on a basic principle of ‘conservative’ economic principles, cost-benefit analysis: Do the benefits outweigh the costs? And the answer was “yes” with the project yielding 20 cents on every dollar of government investment, an economic boon for the area.

But ‘liberal’ activists, realizing that Oakley would not only inundate thousands of acres of farmland but would also inundate much of the beautiful Allerton Park, mounted an aggressive effort to oppose the Oakley project, placing them directly in the crosshairs of ‘progress’, and favoring a ‘conservative’ approach to our natural resources.

A key piece to building opposition to Oakley was to transcend politics with sound scientific analysis. John Marlin, one of the leaders of the effort to oppose this project, led the charge to collect and amass the best scientific data available about the dam and its implications, and none of this data showed any practical benefit for the Oakley project.  While the costs associated with land acquisition and construction were continually rising, the benefits were also beginning to raise questions.

Scientific evidence showed how the “Oakley pool” (the water backed up by the dam) would be shallow, poor, turbid (silty) and would pose public health risks due to pollution. Swimming and water skiing would be prohibited. Motor boating would be severely limited due to shallow water and even fishing would be limited since the Illinois Department of Conservation would not allow stocking of such a shallow reservoir. Ultimately, the benefit ratio was revised down to 6 cents on the dollar. But that was still good enough for area conservatives to continue support for the project.

But liberal dam opponents were also pointing to the failures of other similar ‘big government’ projects. Dramatic failures of previous Corps initiated reservoir projects at Carlyle and Shelbyville had resulted in shoreline erosion, killing of trees, and very poor water quality, severely limiting recreational uses. But perhaps even worse, these dams were disasters for area farmers, who experienced greater flooding problems after these dams were built, which was their initial justification.

This flooding of valuable farmland, without any corresponding flood control benefit, brought farmers together in opposition.  My photo was part of a Chicago Sun Times story about an April 1974 protest in Springfield in which over 100 area farmers went to Springfield “brandishing pitchforks” in opposition to Oakley and three other proposed area reservoirs. These ‘conservative’ farmers stood shoulder to shoulder with ‘liberal’ environmental activists, both opposing this ‘big government’ program.

Despite all of this, the end of the Oakley Dam project did not come until the April 1975 release of a General Accounting Office study commissioned by Republican Illinois Senator Charles Percy. While initially supportive, Percy, like many others, had come to be increasingly skeptical of the project. This GAO study was a “devastating analysis of the shortcomings” of the Oakley project.

At a press conference, Senator Percy revealed that if questionable benefits were excluded, the project’s benefit cost ratio would drop to a negative figure. In May of ‘75, there was a meeting in Springfield of dam opponents and seemingly every politician “except the President” where the Oakley Dam project was officially declared dead.

Throughout discussions of Oakley’s costs and benefits, there was never mention of the cost of losing a substantial part of Allerton Park. Oakley’s supporters felt Allerton would be an acceptable loss in lieu of the benefits. Oakley’s opponents felt that Allerton Park‘s value transcended economics. This raises the question: what is the value of our natural resources?

As we look to current controversies surrounding the disposal of PCB’s at Clinton Landfill and the construction of a coal mine near Homer, we should ask: What are our natural resources for? What is their economic value? Or is that even relevant? Do we take a liberal or a conservative approach to our natural resources? And just what the heck do these labels mean anyway?

Appeared as Notes from the River, January 10, 2013, Mahomet Citizen, by Scott Hays

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