Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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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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