Water woes in old Bloomington
Bloomington relies on surface water, not aquifers. Until the 1920s the growth of the city was severely challenged by the lack of water. Unlike Indianapolis, Chicago, Louisville or Nashville, there is no river to provide a steady source of drinking water.
Bloomington sits on a rolling plain almost twenty miles from the White River. Its early years were marked by a chronic lack of water. Springs and creeks dry up during the late summer, and we are subject to periodic drought. This is not due to climate change, for during research for my book on the Showers family I discovered historic records of many droughts going back into the 1880s. The average seemed to be about one drought every seven years.
The Showers family was particularly interested in obtaining a stable and abundant source of water for the city, not only out of civic altruism but also because their steam-powered furniture factory required large amounts of water. Beginning in the 1880s the Showers brothers, James and William, began advocating the construction of a reservoir to meet the needs of the growing city. During each bad drought the factory had to shut down, leaving its employees unpaid. This affected the community at large since the factory was the largest employer in town.
The city’s first reservoir was created when a stream was dammed and the waters captured in a pond atop the bluff southwest of town past Landmark Drive, some distance south of where Bloomfield Road runs up the steep hill. The water from that small pond was gravity-fed to the city below. The second reservoir was located at what later became known as Twin Lakes. The first lake there did not furnish enough water and so the second was constructed.
But none of these three small reservoirs was sufficient for the needs of the city and its industries. So Weimer Lake was built, followed by the Leonard Springs reservoir. The problem with all of these reservoirs is that they overlaid porous karst limestone, riddled with sinkholes and crevices. Most of the water percolated down through the porous lakebeds and was lost.
The city suffered. Although plumbed-in city water began to be available to expensive neighborhooods in the early 1900s, it was never enough. During droughts there was not enough water for working-class housewives to wash dishes or launder the family’s clothes. Every house built before 1915 has an underground brick or limestone cistern fed by gutter downspouts. These cisterns were often located just outside the back door, half of the unseen cistern protruding beyond the home’s footprint to receive the downspout, and half underneath the back room of the house, where the housewife used an old-fashioned long-handled iron pump to draw the water up for domestic use. Today the old cisterns are generally capped off with a slab of limestone or concrete, but in the old days they appear to have been open, and I found several tragic items in the newspaper about toddlers who fell into the family’s cistern and drowned.
Fed up by the city’s inability to provide enough water, the University built its own reservoir in the upper Griffy watershed around 1910. But even that reservoir dipped dangerously low in drought. There were times during which students were instructed not to take more than one shower a week. By the late 1910s, when the city began offering sewage services to the first few neighborhoods, the water problem became acute because the act of flushing used so much additional water.
The Showers brothers lent support and money to the construction of the West Side reservoirs but lost patience when it became obvious that the struggle was useless. By around 1920 the Showers family and city residents were fed up with the situation. They demanded that a new reservoir be built on the stable limestone layer that characterizes the eastern half of the county. The mayor blocked their efforts, insisting that the city had invested too much money and infrastructure on the city’s west side to consider moving and starting over. Proponents of change orchestrated a sizeable demonstration at the Courthouse, and the Showers family stepped forward and took matters into their own hands. They announced that a new city reservoir would be built on Griffy Creek north of town. Members of the family personally donated 25 percent of the cost of building the new reservoir, and the three banks controlled by the family provided loans for the remainder of the money. Construction began on the lake in 1923.
As readers know, even the water from Griffy Lake was not sufficient, and Lake Lemon was built in the 1950s followed by Lake Monroe in the 1960s. Lake Monroe displaced an entire small town and its cemetery and historic farmsteads. If it silts up as quickly as all the other lakes, then Bloomington’s water supply will be challenged again within our lifetimes. Where could another reservoir be constructed? The landscape is far more densely settled than it was in the middle of the last century. Securing a permanent water supply, as opposed to one that works for a half-century or so before becoming compromised, will be a challenge not easily solved.
A suggestion: it would add very little the the cost of construction if all new houses came with five- or ten-thousand-gallon subterranean cisterns made of concrete and fed by downspouts. When water is so inherently scarce, it makes no sense to allow rainwater to run off without being used.