By JAMES KROHE JR.
The fecundity of Illinois' floodplains has encouraged Illinoisans to farm there for over 150 years; the risks are great, but so are the returns. Developers have also found the floodplains tempting and shopping centers and subdivisions have been planted along the banks of many Illinois rivers and streams. Levees and dams provide only limited protection and have created even greater flooding downriver. Droughts are also common to Illinois, although the last serious one occurred nearly 30 years ago. Unless communities consider the possibility of drought in their water use planning, Eldorado's plight in 1980-81 could become common. In this third article on state water resources, the effects of floods and droughts in the state are examined. The six-part series is funded by The Joyce Foundation.
SEEN as a set of averages, Illinois' climate seems simple enough. The average high temperature in the winter is in the 30s, in the summer the 80s. More important in a state in which agriculture is the principal industry is the fact that the state receives between three and four feet of precipitation in an average year, most of it in the form of rain.
However, as any farmer will tell you, there is no such thing as an "average" year. Indeed, weather in Illinois tends to be characterized by extremes, not averages. Of these, the extremes of flood and drought are the most dramatic, and the most destructive.
Take floods, for example. Floods are common in Illinois. Damage from water in the state's urban areas has been averaging roughly $300 million a year in recent years, with another $50 million damage being done in rural areas, mainly to crops. A one-day rainfall of 5.63 inches in Chicago in 1954 caused $25 million damage — that's 25 million 1954 dollars. Similar floods hit the southern Chicago area and Joliet in the summer of 1981; 20,000 buildings were affected, causing damage estimated at $66 million. In March and April of 1979 floods caused another $48 million in damage in 29 counties along the Mississippi, Illinois and other major rivers.
Floods are as much a social phenomenon as a natural one. For example, nature had evolved a complex and ingenious system of flood mitigation along Illinois' major rivers. When more water entered, say, the lower Illinois than the channel could accommodate, the surplus flowed into low areas along the banks — the river's flood-plain. Such overflows reduced the
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volume of water surging downstream, and so reduced its speed and erosive power.
These repeated dunkings left flood-plains flat and (because of the eroded upstream topsoil deposited on them as silt) richly fertile. Thus floodplains in Illinois came to serve a second, human function besides their natural one of flood control — farming. Aided in part by the authorization of local drainage districts with taxing powers in the 1880s, farmers undertook a massive campaign (still underway) to recapture Illinois from water. They built levees separating their fields from marauding watercourses and laid drain tiles to carry water away from them. Later, whole rivers would be "channelized." Improve the flow of water through a stream, the reasoning goes, and the stream will be able to move more water without overspilling its banks. To do this, stream channels were straightened and dredged and their banks stripped of channel-clogging trees.
Water which once spilled out of a channel now was confined to it. The extra volume of water added to its speed, which increased its erosive power which was turned indiscriminately against levees and natural stream banks alike. Worse, whereas previously only a fraction of the water entering a channel upstream made it to the stream's end without being at least temporarily waylaid, now all of it was sent careening downstream. Flooding eased upstream, but downstream areas grew increasingly vulnerable as their neighbors upriver sent them their flood problems, C.O.D. The result is one of those ironies to which certain public works bureaucracies seem insensible: Flooding has been made worse rather than alleviated. The highest flood on record at St. Louis happened in 1973. The Mississippi had been jammed with more water at least eight times before 1973, but it was being squeezed higher and higher by levees into a smaller and smaller space.
In many ways Illinoisans have been engaged in an ongoing war with the state's rivers for control of its rich floodplains. As the flood damage statistics prove, the rivers enjoy superior forces. Like most occupying powers, humans pay a high price for security in
In the past, flood damages, and thus flood control projects, were concentrated in rural areas. The lower 80 miles of the Illinois River, for example, has been hemmed in by more than a dozen major levees (often with secondary levees behind them). Some of these levees are as long as eight miles, and most were built to keep dry the four to five miles of rich bottomland that lies between the present river channel and the river valley walls.
This remodeling pales beside the work of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has built 278 miles of levees between Alton and the mouth of the Ohio on the Mississippi — a river the Corps has called, without irony, a "threat to the security of the valley." The Corps also is responsible for giant dam-and-reservoir projects such as Lake Carlyle (1958) and Lake Shelbyville (1963) on the Kaskaskia River. Combined cost of these two projects (which offer benefits besides flood control, chiefly recreation) in unadjusted dollars was $97 million.
However, the cost-benefit arithmetic of flood control in Illinois is changing. Stagnant price levels for farm crops on one hand and the escalating costs of construction on the other have made building dams and levees to protect agricultural land less and less affordable. Partly as a result, more public money is being invested in urban areas, where damages are more concentrated. The Soil Conservation Service (SCS), for example, for years spent its money on rural watershed projects, but in recent years has been working more in urban areas. The SCS is awaiting a final funding decision on a cooperative project with the Illinois Department of Transportation and the Chicago Metropolitan Sanitary District to built four detention reservoirs along the flood-prone Little Calumet River in southern Cook County. The service share in the cost of this one project estimated at $31.4 million in 1978 more than all the money it has spent on all its other projects in the state in the past 27 years.
Yet even these investments are considered inadequate to the task. The Illinois State Water Plan Task Force, interagency group set up by Gov. James R. Thompson in 1980, notes that through the 1960s and '70s the ratio of state flood control spending flood damages was typically 20:1. In 1980, the ratio was 100:1. And, the task force goes on to say, there is a backlog of projects planned through 1995 whose initial costs alone total a quarter billion dollars. Federal dollars ease this imbalance somewhat, but budget trimming in Washington makes
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it unlikely that the feds can do more than improve a hopeless situation to a merely inadequate one.
A cheaper — and possibly wiser — alternative to dams and detention reservoirs might be prevention. Don't try to keep flood water out of shopping centers and subdivisions, critics say. Instead, keep shopping centers and subdivisions out of floodplains. The water plan task force notes that the rise in flood toll is not due to more rain but to what it calls "unwise and irresponsible developments. . . in flood prone areas."
Yet the process of floodplain regulation in Illinois is as leaky as an old levee. Flood control (like virtually all water issues in Illinois) is usually regarded as a local problem. If one has too much water, one simply sends it somewhere else; often the only question asked by public officials and property owners is how to send it cheaply. The downstream effects of such decisions, as well as the broader ecological impacts on the streams themselves, were seldom considered.
Such singlemindedness is no longer so typical, but neither has it completely vanished. For example, the Division of Water Resources of the Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) was granted authority under the 1911 Rivers, Lakes and Streams Act to preserve the flood-carrying capacity of the state's streams. To accomplish this, the division requires permits for the construction of levees, bridges, dikes and other structures in floodplains. Such permits are granted only if it is determined that such structures will not interfere with navigation, increase flood stages upstream, and so on.
But while IDOT has authority to deny permits for the construction of structures which themselves impair a stream's function, the department cannot (with a few exceptions) ban construction in floodplains merely because that construction itself would be imperiled by floods. One section of the Rivers Act gives IDOT the authority to more closely regulate construction in eight specific watersheds around the state, mainly in the greater Chicago area. But, says the task force, "Without continued growth in this program. . . flood damages from new developments within Illinois will continue to rise." And local governments are more sensitive to pressure from developers and thus less willing (with a few exceptions) to enforce stringent limits on floodplain building.
The state has not sought stronger authority in the regulation of flood-plain development, largely out of concern for locals touchy over the property rights issue. Indeed, the single most important means by which heedless development in vulnerable flood-plains has been slowed is the obscure Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). That agency's rules require that communities which wish to qualify for federal flood insurance must adopt floodplain development ordinances. In Illinois, roughly 700 communities have done so. But adopting ordinances is one thing; enforcing them is another.
Besides, such programs sometimes have unintended effects. Critics have pointed out that federal flood insurance — by providing a subsidy to property owners of up to 90 percent of the cost of the insurance — in effect eliminated most of the risk of building in floodplains.
One of those critics is John Marlin. Marlin is an environmentalist with the
"Flood control projects have led people to a false sense of security," says Marlin. "They think that once a dam goes in upstream, there will be no more floods. That's not true. A dam doesn't stop a flood. It only alters the peak and duration of a flood, and it does that only to a certain design level. At Carlyle, for instance, instead of a flood that's 10 feet deep and lasts for four to five days they'll get one that's five feet deep but lasts for 20 days.
"If you get a rain beyond the dam's design capacity, the levees behind it will be overtopped. Years ago, most of the levees built in Illinois for agricultural purposes were designed to be overtopped four times a century. [Flood scientists describe a flood of a severity likely to recur on the average of once every 25 years a "25-year flood"; one which might be expected to happen once a century is a "100-year flood," and so on.] They are not 100-year levees. And people moved in behind them and built houses and factories, and they're getting creamed."
As Marlin explains, "The floodplain is part of the river. Look at an expressway at rush hour, and look at the same expressway at 3 a.m. At rush hour all eight lanes are jammed with cars. At 3 a.m. it's practically empty. Well, a flood is rush hour on the river. Only when the river tries to claim all eight lanes, it finds that people have built houses and factories on six of them."
The preferred technology of flood control has changed somewhat over the years, at least among state agencies. Channelization used to be popular; now IDOT and SCS hardly do it anymore. Now, engineers are taking a hint from nature: Instead of speeding the flow of water out of an area, nature slows it down. Similarly, IDOT and SCS are building more upstream catch basins and other water-detention systems to control the release of flood waters downstream.
The state has taken a similarly skeptical view in recent years of the other popular remedy and the choicest bit in the pork barrel, the big flood control
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dam project. The state has what Marlin regards as a fairly enlightened policy toward big dams, by which he means that it hasn't built any lately. Money is again a problem; IDOT's flood control capital budget (down to $10.4 million from $13.5 million) was cut so much in the 1983 fiscal year that no new projects could be started. But environmental objections to reservoirs (including worries about the loss of prime farm acres) are another big factor. Laments one IDOT official, "You can't hardly build a reservoir anymore."
Indeed, flood control is in many respects a zero-sum game. Benefits achieved in one part of a watershed are often erased by problems caused in others. For example, in the late 1970s the McKee Creek Water Conservancy District in west central Illinois proposed to spend $14.5 million to build 16 earthen dams to control flooding in 338 square miles of Adams, Pike and Brown counties. Proponents claimed the project would reduce the flooding which left nearly 7,500 acres awash in sand and muck every other year, leaving only about 2,100 acres vulnerable and trimming flood damages by 78 percent. But opponents noted that in order to reduce flooding on 9,900 acres, the district would have to buy or get damage easements on 9,195 other acres. (Proponents responded that many of the latter acres were of marginal value, although more than half the affected acres were in pasture or cropland at the time.)
In the past, the most sophisticated cost-benefit analysis of flood control projects was done by the politicians who supported them. As Marlin once said, even an unnecessary dam is "concrete evidence" that a legislator is doing something for his district. In 1976, William Redmond, then speaker of the Illinois House, insisted in a speech that the reason then Gov. Richard Ogilvie lost to Dan Walker in 1972 was not because of the former's support for the new state income tax. Ogilvie lost, Redmond insisted, because he refused to release funds for flood control projects in Salt Creek in DuPage County — one of nine flood control programs proposed that year (out of 13 statewide) for the politically potent Chicago collar counties.
The fact that most people don't think about flood protection until after they build does little to loosen their
"I'm not saying that we shouldn't build on all floodplains," Marlin explains. Rather, building needs to be done intelligently. A residential subdivision in a plain subject to 25-year floods is a bad idea, but a golf course or park or parking lot would be an acceptable use of that land. In some cases changes in construction practices can accomplish as much as a ban; simply installing mechanical systems such as circuit boxes on second floors can do a lot to protect a building from flood damage even if it can't be protected from the flood itself.
It is ironic that, as the cost of flood-proofing cities gets higher and higher, evidence mounts that cities themselves may be making floods worse. It is known that cities create their own weather. A pioneering six-year study of so-called "inadvertent weather" was made beginning in 1971 by the staff of the Illinois State Water Survey (ISWS). "METROMEX" (Metropolitan Meteorological Experiment) revealed that larger cities (in this case St. Louis) create "heat islands" as a result of heat from engine exhausts, the heat-holding properties of brick and asphalt, and fewer trees means less cooling evapo-transpiration. The effects are felt both in the city and downwind of it. METROMEX research discovered that summer precipitation rises across an area three times the size of the city itself. Downwind, weather is cloudier (up to 10 percent), rainier (30 percent) and stormier (50 percent more heavy rains and 100 percent increase in hail) than otherwise might be expected.
These "urban effects" have generally happy consequences in rural areas downwind from cities. METROMEX researchers found for example that, because of the extra rain, crop yields on the Illinois side of St. Louis averaged 3 to 4 percent higher than normal. (Into each life more than a little rain must fall, however; the study also found that the same farmers suffered increased hail damage which in turn boosted crop insurance premiums an average $63 per farmer.)
In the city itself, urban weather effects are less benign. In St. Louis, researchers concluded that the anomalous precipitation led to more traffic accidents, aggravated suburban flooding and consequent sewage plant overflows, and so on. The estimated extra cost of meeting sewage treatment standards in the face of this burden of unintended water was $15-20 million.
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Improvements in the drainage systems in the low-lying floodplain on the Illinois side of the St. Louis metropolitan area were estimated to be another $74 million.
A similar, less exhaustive study of summer flooding in Chicago by ISWS head Stanley Changnon confirmed these results. Concluded Changnon in a 1980 paper, "Flooding events in Chicago range from 10 to 100 percent more than expected due at least partly to urban influences leading to heavier and more frequent heavy rain conditions."
The implications of these conclusions for engineers and planners — not to mention taxpayers — are sobering. In Chicago, storm sewer systems are generally designed to accommodate rains recurring every 5 to 10 years, on average, while such rains are actually occurring every year or two. (Money is a limit on storm sewer design as well. It is often cheaper to "store" excess rain-water in traffic underpasses than to construct expensive sewers.) When it rains in urban areas, it really does pour.
An invisible menace
Like floods, droughts are a misallocation of a resource. Also like floods, droughts in Illinois are episodic and expensive. Unlike floods, most of the damage done by droughts tends to occur in rural rather than urban areas, chiefly to farm crops.
Indeed, droughts are nearly an invisible menace in Illinois. Rural water users, for instance, who rely on shallow individual wells suffer first and most in a drought, but a generation has passed since large numbers of urban Illinoisans have been seriously inconvienced by drought.
Still, droughts of modest duration and severity are fairly common in Illinois. Rainfall records kept by the ISWS suggest that there is one chance in two that droughts lasting 3, 6, 12 or 24 months will occur somewhere in the state every 30 months or so. However, what the climatologists call "extensive and severe droughts" (in which average precipitation is 50 percent or more below normal over a period of at least 12 months) have been rare in recent years.
Droughts in Illinois vary according to locale, duration, severity and frequency. The most geographically extensive droughts in Illinois tend to occur in its central and northern counties (because these counties usually go dry only during large, multistate droughts) while droughts farther south, for complex climatological reasons, tend to be "pocket" droughts — smaller areas but more severe. One reason southern Illinois is plagued by droughts is that the number of hot summer days is markedly higher compared to the rest of the state, even though the average summer temperatures are fairly similar. Temperature is the principal factor in lake evaporation; water will evaporate twice as fast (0.30 inches compared to 0.15 inches) at 90 degrees F as it does at 70 degrees F). Shorter droughts (of a few months' duration) tend to happen during winter, when precipitation is lower anyway; longer droughts span several seasons, but not surprisingly tend to be centered in the colder months.
A drought is not merely a period of below-average rainfall; downstate cities which draw water from mammoth Rend Lake suffered no inconvenience as a result of the drought of 1980-81 in southern Illinois, for example, because their water storage capacity was generous enough to more than make up for nature's niggardliness. For a period of below-average precipitation to become a drought requires that human affairs be somehow impaired by a shortage of water.
Assessing the cost of drought in Illinois is not easy. To the urban dweller, drought may mean little more than a switch to watering one's lawn at night instead of during daylight hours. To the farm-oriented countryside, drought's effects fall more heavily on the economy. It has been estimated that the total cost to Illinoisans of the 1980-81 drought — a drought whose driest six months rank only 13th among the recorded 6-month droughts in Illinois — was $1 billion.
Much of this money was lost on the farm. Crop yields in some counties in 1980 were more than 37 percent below 1979's bumper crops. Individual farm losses have been estimated to range from $12,000 to $20,000. Livestock farmers had to haul water when ponds dried up; at a cost of up to $15 for 1,000 gallons, water hauling added as much as 40 cents per day to the cost of keeping animals, not counting the costs of transportation and time. Low water levels in several of the key barge rivers in Illinois led to curtailed shipping schedules and drops in tonnage allowable on tows, all of which meant it took longer and cost more to move grain to market. Rural households also had to haul water — an estimated 12,000 of them during the peak of the drought in February 1981. Small towns had to install new pipelines and pumps to connect their thirsty reservoirs to auxiliary water sources; the cost of a single mile of one such typical pipeline at Centralia is estimated to be $370,000.
It is useful to recall again that these losses occurred during only the 13th worst six-month drought since 1905, and in parts of the state which are not among its richest farming areas. This dry spell hardly deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the state's worst droughts which plagued the 1930s. Indeed, serious droughts used to be commonplace in Illinois. A cluster of droughts bedeviled Illinois between roughly 1910 and 1925, and the 1930s' dry spell was followed by another cycle of shortages in the mid-1950s. (It was the spate of reservoir-building and well-digging occasioned by the 1950s'
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droughts that rendered subsequent, less severe droughts so innocuous in so many Illinois cities.) There has been no really severe drought since the 1950s, however.
It was largely this unfamiliarity which made the fairly modest 15-month drought of 1980-81 so painful in many parts of the state. As the ISWS phrases it in a new study of the drought, "This period of more than 20 years without any droughts of consequence in Illinois occurred at a time of rapidly changing agricultural technology, major new water resource development, and a major shift in life styles [and water use] in Illinois." And, the ISWS predicts with scientific understatement, a return to historical droughtiness will "greatly affect the state, and in ways not previously experienced."
Yet people seem infected by the same sort of fatalism about droughts with which they confront floods — a heedlessness aggravated by the fact that very few of the people making decisions about water in Illinois have ever had to deal with a prolonged and severe drought.
The effects of droughts are as scattered and as local as the drought itself. When drought coincides with inexperience, bad planning and official confusion, the result can be very worrisome indeed. A classic example from the 1980-81 drought is provided by the town of Eldorado in Saline County. It didn't rain any less on Eldorado in 1980 than it did on dozens of other southern Illinois towns. But Eldorado was less well-prepared. Like dozens of other Illinois towns, its privately owned water company relied on a small (258 million gallon capacity), old (60 years) reservoir with a tiny (2.2 square miles) watershed. Also like so many of its neighbors, Eldorado's reservoir had lost much of its capacity (an estimated 35 percent) to siltation. Because of its limited storage capacity, precipitation shortfalls of 25 percent over 12 months — droughts which might be expected to recur every seven years on average — were enough to put the town on the edge of shortages. A modest dry spell led to a month's rationing in 1977, but saving rains had obviated the need for permanent solutions.
Or so Eldoradans believed. Rainfall was below average in much of Illinois through the last 11 months of 1980. By October Eldorado was already facing impending shortage. The state's Emergency Services and Disaster Agency advised town officials to wait for winter rains — rains which the ISWS were predicting would also be below normal.
By spring local farmers were hauling water to livestock. With fewer than three months' supply remaining, the town closed local car washes and banned gym showers at local schools. With a little more than two months' supply left, a voluntary conservation program was instituted with the aim of cutting usage by 25 percent. Within about six weeks in March and April of 1981, the town negotiated an emergency water purchase agreement with a nearby town and imposed a water surcharge to pay for it and boosted the voluntary conservation goal to 50 percent; the Illinois Commerce Commission ordered mandatory usage quotas; the mayor declared a state of emergency; arrangements were made to buy water temporarily from the Rend Lake Water District and to participate in a proposed regional water supply scheme the last decision coming with only eight days' water left in the reservoir.
The rains finally came on May 8, but not until Eldoradans suffered economic losses estimated to be $2 million.
Changnon of the ISWS, in a study of the Eldorado experience, describes it as "a story of local confusion, economic loss, anxiety, extreme conservation, rationing and higher prices over too little water." Low water rates left the water company with too little borrowing power to make needed improvements in the aging system. Local officials received contradictory weather predictions from federal and state agencies. The Illinois Commerce Commission's decision to impose quotas without a hearing stirred local resentment. Officials discovered that conservation measures were hard to enforce (a meter survey at one point showed that while 65 percent of customers had cut back usage to the requested 50 percent, the rest had not cut back at all). Such problems, writes Changnon, "may well be precursors of activities that most in Illinois will face in the future."
During the crisis in Eldorado, residents resorted to carrying umbrellas to "make" it rain, and hired water witchers to find water underground. Yet there is a more scientific method which town officials apparently did not consider. Climatologists call it "planned
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weather modification." Most people call it rainmaking, or cloudseeding.
Weather is no longer something which people talk about but do nothing about. Cloud-seeding with dry ice or silver iodide was first tried in the 1940s. It is a technique much used in such states as Utah, Colorado and the Dakotas. Its applications during droughts are obvious, but its real appeal in a state like Illinois is to agriculturalists. With farm profits squeezed by ever-higher production costs, even small losses of yield from lack of rain can mean financial disaster. Irrigation is one solution, but that requires access to plentiful local water supplies and a gentle slope — conditions which experts believe pertain on only about 25 percent of the state's farmland. Even then, irrigation can be terribly expensive. In 1980 the cost per acre was estimated to be $100; when it works, weather modification can deliver water from the sky at a cost of 25 cents per acre.
It should be no surprise then that the impetus for "weather mod" in Illinois should come from farmers. During the sere days of the mid-1950s farmers in towns such as Mattoon and Mount Vernon hired private rainmakers who tossed dry ice from the open cockpits of biplanes, with unimpressive results.
Most systematic research into the technique began at the ISWS in the earlly 1960s, according to Changnon, at that time head of the ISWS Atmospheric Sciences Section. "Our research had two thrusts," he recalls. "One was to find out what are the actual physics of clouds. The other was to find out how we could tamper with those physics to make it rain, or not rain, when we wanted."
Since then the ISWS has undertaken a variety of research into not just the scientific but the economic, social and Environmental aspects of weather mod. But funds have been as undependable as summer rains. "We know that clouds can be made to rain," explains Changnon. "Our technologic assessment shows that you need to produce a pretty fair amount of rain — about a 30 percent increase in normal July and August amounts — to make it pay for itself. We are halfway to the answer. We need to run field experiments over a period of five to six years. We estimate the cost to be $10 to $15 million."
Until that money comes, ISWS scientists are studying private rain-making projects. Between 1976 and 1980 there were eight such projects (done under four separate programs) in central and southern Illinois. In each case the project was initiated by local farmers and agribusinessmen.
None of the projects progressed beyond experiment. There were two reasons. One, according to Changnon, was that "there was no clear evidence that anything happened" — meaning there was no statistically meaningful increase in rainfall. Two, rain, when it comes, falls indiscriminately on participating landowners who contribute to the cost of rainmaking and those who do not. It was this quandary which led the ISWS to lobby the General Assembly in 1981 for a law allowing the creation by referendum of special weather modification districts. These districts (none of which has yet been formed) would be empowered to levy fees on landowners, thus doing by force of statute what neighborliness so often had failed to do.
What is good for the farmer may not necessarily be good for the riverfront home owner or the retailer. It was the fear that indiscriminate weather modification might lead to some undesired modifications on the ground that led the ISWS to draft, then help pass in 1973 one of the nation's first state laws regulating private weather modification projects.
Indeed, whether one is speaking of curtailing the headlong development of floodplains or the failure of municipal officials to build drought-proof water supplies, human indifference has proven every bit as intractable as the weather. Human memory is short, and people continue to see droughts and floods as aberrations to be survived rather than as recurring phenomena to be planned for. As a result, we spend too little money, or we spend it on the wrong things, or we spend it too late. Most dangerous of all, we spend money in the hope that it will buy us exemption from the larger processes of nature — forgetting that that is something which is not for sale.
James Krohe Jr. is a contributing editor to Illinois Issues and associate editor of the Illinois Times in Springfield; he specializes in planning, land use and energy issues.
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