Nature Bulletin No. 488-A April 7, 1973
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
Modern Chicago is the most fortunate of the world's large cities. On her
doorstep is Lake Michigan with an unfailing supply of good fresh
water. New York City, on the other hand, has had to buy and protect
huge watersheds, build reservoirs to collect the rainfall from them, and
pipe their water into the city from these distant points. In New York a
drought creates a critical time with restrictions or threats of restrictions
on air conditioning, lawn sprinkling, car washing and bathing.
Chicago people have short memories. 1871 was a year of widespread
drought. After days of hot drying winds, the Great Chicago Fire started
on the evening of October 8 and roared through the wooden buildings
of the downtown part of the city, killing 250 people and rendering
100,000 more homeless. On the same day, although it almost passed
unnoticed, a tornado of fire swept through the little lumbering town of
Peshtigo, Wisconsin taking 1152 lives. Dozens of other communities in
Wisconsin and Michigan were damaged or destroyed by forest fires on
that fateful Sunday. Holland, Michigan was in ashes and its Hope
College in ruins, partly because its people thought it wrong to do any
work, even fight fire, on the Sabbath. Since colonial times forest fires
have killed more pioneers than the Indians, and have destroyed more
trees than the lumberjacks.
To all people everywhere drought is a serious matter. Dry spells of
three to six weeks during the growing season often parch wide areas,
even whole nations, and cut down crop yields sharply. The severity of a
drought cannot be measured merely by its length in weeks, or its lack of
rain. The degree of damage depends on several other things: on the
amount of moisture which has percolated into the soil and held during
the previous months or years on the type of soil; on temperature,
humidity and wind. The effects are quickly seen when plants are unable
to absorb water through their roots as fast as they lose it through their
leaves and stems. Some kinds wilt; some lose part of their leaves by
withering; some, such as corn, roll their leaves to cut down water
losses; still others like the pasture grasses become brown, dry and
appear dead. Then livestock go hungry and must be fed other food or
sold and shipped away. During prolonged droughts, the life-giving
topsoil on cultivated fields blows in the wind and drifts like snow.
Every few years clouds of red soil sift down on Chicago, blown from
those western states called the Dust Bowl.
Our increasing demand for water and its diminishing supply is now a
national problem. For years wells in many parts of Illinois have been
going dry or yielding a dwindling supply, necessitating bigger and
deeper wells or the construction of reservoirs for storing surface water.
Wild plants and wild animals also suffer during droughts. The topmost
branches of our big oaks die because their deep taproots cannot draw
enough water from the subsoil. Wildberries, fruits and nuts are scanty.
The birds and mammals that eat them go hungry. Streams shrivel, ponds
go dry and lakes drop to low levels. Then waterfowl, muskrats, fish and
other water life all have a tough time.
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Update: June 2012