Movement looking to ditch streams' many names

Movement looking to ditch streams' many names

URBANA – You can't step in the same river twice, and for that matter, it might have a different name the next time you walk along its banks.

Same body of water, different maps: Upper Salt Fork, Upper Salt Fork Drainage District, Salt Fork, Salt Fork of the Vermilion River, Spoon River, Upper Salt Fork Ditch, Upper Salt Fork Drainage Ditch, Upper Salt Fork River.

Clark Bullard, a longtime University of Illinois professor and member of the environmentalist Prairie Rivers Network, and Morris "Brud" Leighton, the emeritus director of the Illinois State Geological Survey, have asked a federal board to change the names of two small streams in Champaign County.

The U.S. Board on Geographical Names is now taking comments on their proposal to rename the Upper Salt Fork Drainage Ditch as simply Upper Salt Fork, and the Saline Branch Drainage District as West Salt Fork.

The Illinois Geographical Names Authority, a board of three members that includes water consultant Robert Sinclair of Champaign, approved the revisions in December, passing them forward to the federal authority.

Leighton, a member of the Urbana Country Club, has been trying to get a name change since 1997, when a fellow club member asked about the history of the name of the stream that flowed through the club into Busey Woods.

Leighton said Saline Branch Drainage Ditch is a misnomer in more than one way. Saline means salty, and the water isn't.

And though it's a ditch, meaning man-made, where it has been artificially straightened, it generally follows a natural path found on maps more than a century old. And it does more than drain the area, Leighton said.

Leighton said the drainage function is certainly important.

"Draining this land made it possible to have farms," he said, standing near a stretch of the Saline that was straightened to improve flow.

But the stream also serves an aesthetic function, and it is useful for swimming, fishing, canoeing and other activities, he said.

Bullard said the name of a stream is important in terms of the expectations of those who discharge into it, including sewage treatment plants, municipalities with storm sewer discharges, industries and university power plants.

He said federal guidelines for naming geographical features stress other factors, such as simplicity, and saying "Upper Salt Fork" is just less of a mouthful than "Upper Salt Fork Drainage Ditch."

The guidelines also stress relating a stream to its larger system, so he prefers "West Salt Fork" to "Saline."

The federal government already informed local government leaders about the proposed changes. Champaign County Clerk Mark Shelden sees a little politicking in the name choice.

"Probably the best thing is to include at least the (drainage) commissioners in that discussion, and probably the property owners," he said.

Shelden has found a county board agenda from 1916 describing the stream as a ditch. Bullard and Leighton find references to it as a river.

The term "ditch" has been a source of controversy between farm interests and environmentalists.

"Ditch" implies man-made, while environmentalists stress that, except where the streams have been straightened, they follow paths that were mapped as early as 1820 and fairly accurately mapped by 1870.

Farm interests like to stress the hard work that has been put in to improve the flow of the streams to better drain the swampy land that settlers found.

Jeffrey Tock, a Champaign lawyer who represents the Upper Salt Fork Drainage District, said he questions the motivation behind the proposed name changes.

"Here we've known this one as the Saline Drainage ditch for at least 50 years," he said.

Tock said he saw no advantage – for the district – in changing names.

"The district would stay the same. Why go in and change it – unless there is some advantage to Clark Bullard and the Prairie Rivers Network" in its environmental activism, Tock said.

Leighton said he's heard the Saline referred to as an "open sewer," but he wants to stress the multipurpose nature of the stream. He looked south toward Busey Woods, where an oxbow cut-off section of the stream provides habitat for wildlife.

"This isn't a sewer; it's a vital, natural stream," he said.

Sections (2):News, Local
Topics (1):Environment
Categories (2):News, Environment