Top of the Morning, July 14, 2014: From the archives

Things were never great for the Boneyard, apparently.

"From earliest accounts in the early 1800s, it was agreed that there were piles of bones all along the banks," says a 1998 bibliography by Patricia Gobert at the Illinois State Water Survey Library. "An exposed Indian burial ground or a hunting site? According to one story, hundreds of animals perished in a heavy snowstorm.

"Since that time, problems on the banks of the Boneyard have been a continuing source of concern, consternation, and costly damage to area businesses and residents."

Bruce Hannon can vouch for that. The Boneyard has played a role in the half-century of environmental work he's done.

"My first work on the creek was in 1965 as a grad student and instructor in engineering," he said.

"I assembled a group of engineering students and we painted the outlet pipes into the creek and put up a sign with an ID number and a phone number. People were encouraged to call if they saw any discharge and the students would rush out with a bottle to catch a sample. The precursor agency to the IEPA had an office on South First. This was quite successful. A great deal of the pollution was coming from the City of Champaign and the university. Both agencies got moving on their own to find the pollution."

Heavy rain — like the downpours this weekend — historically has led the Boneyard out of its banks.

So on April 29, 1989, you opened your Saturday morning News-Gazette, in which reporter Phil Bloomer began a story this way:

"Complaints of Boneyard Creek flooding problems are as regular as rain, and Friday was no exception."

In May 1990, Peter Rooney reported that four inches of rain the night before had sent water from the Boneyard into at least 12 buildings on the University of Illinois campus, causing damage estimated at a million dollars.

And just this weekend, social media were full of photos of flooded streets and parks and yards. But not a single picture of a flooded Green Street or a washed-out foundation on a campus business.

You may also have seen photos of the Second Street detention basin in Champaign as you've never seen it: full of water. Most days, it's a recreational trail and a maze of goose poop, but it was built to do just what it did this weekend: Keep the torrent of water from rushing to campus. By early Sunday afternoon, the basin was back to its normal level.

The little stream that runs through town also was an important part more than 20 years ago in a series of agreements that govern much of life now in Champaign-Urbana.

One critical piece of an agreement between the two cities, approved in the summer of 1992, transferred authority over the Boneyard from the Urbana & Champaign Sanitary District to the cities.

A separate piece required that anyone in unincorporated areas wanting to connect to the sanitary district's sewer system would have to annex into the cities.

The cities weren't happy with each other at the time, and there was a good deal of grumbling, but the proposal was all-or-nothing, with a multimillion-dollar debt hanging in the balance if the plan was rejected.

That it was approved has played a major role in the growth of the cities ever since.

"That whole series of agreements was very significant in a number of ways," said Champaign Planning Director Bruce Knight.

"First, it gave the cities control of growth on our edges, allowing us to truly plan for the future development of the City rather than being in a purely reactionary mode.

"Second, they resulted in boundary agreements defining the future growth areas between Champaign, Urbana and Savoy and created metro zone areas where we jointly share in revenue generation which has allowed a more cooperative and regional approach to economic development.

"Lastly it put the Boneyard Creek under the jurisdiction of entities that had broader reasons to upgrade what was there, namely getting the Campustown area out of the floodplain. Much of the private investment occurring there now is a direct result of that investment.

"Honestly I've always thought that series of agreements ... are invisible to most of our citizens, and yet resulted in an era of the most significant economic investment and growth Champaign has ever experienced."

But that doesn't mean all is well with the creek. If it was, Eliana Brown would have other tasks to occupy her time in April.

Brown, who has a master's from the UI in civil and environmental engineering, is the UI's stormwater coordinator.

She also is co-chair of the annual Boneyard Creek Community Day in April, when volunteers fan out and clean up the Boneyard.

You should see what they pull out of the creek on that once-a-year communitywide effort. In fact, you can see it at http://www.boneyardcreek.org/photos.html

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Boneyard facts

Things you may not know about the Boneyard, courtesy Eliana Brown, co-chair of the Boneyard Creek Community Day:

— Bethany Anderson of the University Archives writes that the creek "originally referred to as the Silver Creek was nicknamed the 'Boneyard Creek' even before the founding of the university in 1867." The exact reason for the nickname remains uncertain, but you can't deny its staying power.

— Flooding has been an issue in C-U for many years, prompting infrastructure improvement projects. The City of Champaign's Second Street detention basin does a great job of providing flood protection and recreational space — an example of green infrastructure. The City of Urbana's Improvement Project is reimagining the creek as an amenity rather than merely a water conveyance.

— The university's Boneyard project is multi-functional; many of the decorative elements have purpose. For example, the stairway at Wright Street is actually a flood wall.

— The U.S. Geological Survey gaging station on Boneyard Creek at the Engineering campus is one of the oldest of the 7,000 stations in the country. It is dedicated to Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Ben Chie Yen in recognition of his contributions to the field of water resources.

— The Illinois EPA includes Boneyard Creek on the 303 (d) list of impaired waters. This means that we have work to do to protect and clean it up. A great way to do this is participate in Boneyard Creek Community Day, which is a clean-up day in April. Another way is to plant a rain garden — a sunken garden that uses rainwater on-site so it doesn't overwhelm and scour the creek. The cities have monetary incentives that help defray rain garden costs.

— Fish do live in Boneyard Creek. University Professor Becky Fuller's students have a website that depicts 16 different fish species. They provide an educational fish "petting" zoo at Boneyard Creek Community Day. Environmental Almanac's Rob Kanter has documented other examples of wildlife along the creek.

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More from Hannon

Here are more recollections from Bruce Hannon, Jubilee Emeritus Professor of geography and geographic information science and of the School of Earth, Society and Environment at the University of Illinois:

My first work on the creek was in 1965 as a grad student and instructor in engineering.

I assembled a group of engineering students and we painted the outlet pipes into the creek and put up a sign with an ID number and a phone number. People were encouraged to call if they saw any discharge and the students would rush out with a bottle to catch a sample. The precursor agency to the IEPA had an office on South First. This was quite successful. A great deal of the pollution was coming from the City of Champaign and the university. Both agencies got moving on their own to find the pollution.

The big problem was the cracked sanitary and storm sewers in Urbana. Someone had installed the lines so they touched where they crossed and they cracked at the contact point, dumping sanitary waste into the storm sewers, thus into the Boneyard. A WBBM TV crew out of Chicago was here for the Allerton Oakley fight (over a proposal by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dam the Sangamon River near Allerton, which would have flooded much of the park) and asked at the end if there were any other issues in town. They photographed human waste going into the Boneyard at the Coler (we called it the Colon) Street sewer and it appeared on Chicago TV. Apparently that was enough publicity for Urbana and they lauched a citywide repair.

The second group of engineering students joined with a large group of landscape architecture students to design a hydraulic and aesthetic redesign of the Boneyard with detention basins. They made a model of the entire creek on about 6 or so 4 by 8 foot plywood sheets and we made presentations to both cities and the University.

One of the pollution problems was solid waste getting into the creek.

We launched the first Boneyard clean out in 1970 and it was then that I realized more dramatic action was needed. I learned that the Illinois Game Code made it unlawful to push or even place solid waste of any kind in any way that it could wash into a stream. I engaged two Game Wardens and we arrested the Champaign Mattress Factory, Bankier apartments and the City of Champaign (Public Works Director Kerns if memory serves.) The city was placing all their street sweepings on the edge of the Boneyard on north Market where upon the stuff magically disappeared. The University and the cities gradually got their act together, though once strolling along the creek around First Street only to notice that the entire creek bed was bright orange. Thinking it was a prank I traced it back to the Abbott Power plant where they had acid washed the boilers. Thanks to the Bankier arrest, the Sanitary District clearcut a block of the Creek near those apartments. Jack Beaty, District engineer sent me a note/photo asking how I liked this! It was clear we needed to get control of the creek away from the sanitary district. I managed to get Profs. John Pfeffer and Tom Ulen on the board long enough to vote control to the cities.

Councilman/Mayor Dan McCollom then launched a whole remake of the Champaign part of the Creek. We had to fight very hard to keep the city from using Scott Park as a detention basin. Jim Gallivan and I worked together to place the detention on Healey near the railroad. This should have been done when Lake Neil was drained into the boneyard at First in 1974. It was then that the campus regularly flooded, a problem years later solved with the Healey street detention.

Still another issue arose when the Second Street basin was to be constructed. To drain that basin, the creek through Scott park would have to have been deepened seven more feet. It had already been deepened several feet from its historic depth. We suggested that the basin be drained with pipes under the creek in Scott Park, allowing the surface stream to resume its prairie like configuration. The city did a great job on the basin but I was opposed to burying the creek. Fortunately the University celebrated the creek for most of their portion. Urbana had sheet piled the creek from Lincoln to Race (with a concrete bottom) in the 1950s, an aesthetic disaster. They are now creating a recreation area around the creek at Race Street.

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