History of the Water Survey, Illinois State Water Survey

Office of the Director

History of the Water Survey

The Water Survey was founded in 1895 as a unit of the University of Illinois Department of Chemistry. Its original mission was to survey the waters of Illinois to trace the spread of waterborne disease, particularly typhoid. In its first fifteen months of operation, the Water Survey responded to public requests for chemical analyses of 1,787 water samples from 156 towns in 68 Illinois counties. The Water Survey also addressed the health and safety of public water supplies, water softening methods, sewage and wastewater treatment, and the establishment of sanitary standards for drinking water.

In 1917 the Water Survey was transferred to the state Department of Registration and Education. At that time, the Board of Natural Resources and Conservation, composed of eminent scientists and professionals selected by the Governor, was established to guide Survey activities. Scientific investigations were expanded, and the state's first inventory of municipal groundwater supplies was published. Activities also focused on methods to determine water levels in wells, yield testing, and establishment of an ongoing survey of the state's surface waters.

During World War II, Water Survey chemists cooperated with the University and the federal government in studies on the detection of chemical warfare agents in water and methods for their removal. Meteorological efforts expanded in the postwar years, including the use of radar to measure rainfall and track severe storms and the establishment of networks of densely spaced raingages. In fact, the Water Survey was the first in the world to use radar technology to observe the "hook echo" of a tornado, which develops on the leading edge of a severe storm where tornados often are spawned. In the mid-1960s, the ISWS designed and created the nation's first Dopplar radar, which is widely used today to measure storm activity.

When the U.S. Weather Bureau transferred the state climatologist to the Water Survey, computerization of the Survey's historical weather records was begun.

Population growth in the late 1950s and 1960s created the need for expanded water resources, and the Water Survey attempted to identify and increase usable supplies. Studies addressed reservoir development and maintenance, new methods for evaluating wells and aquifers, and the effects of future development. A statewide network of observation wells was established, and investigations of groundwater resources in the Chicago and East St. Louis areas led to a comprehensive inventory of the state's principal ground-water formations.

When the Department of Registration and Education was abolished in the late 1970s, the state created the Department of Natural Resources, which housed the Survey until 2008. That year, the Water Survey transferred to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as a division of the newly established Institute of Natural Resource Sustainability, now known as the Prairie Research Institute.

Since the turn of a new century, the Water Survey has addressed societal problems concerning air pollution, contaminated drinking water, disintegrating wetlands, and water shortages. Ongoing research seeks to better understand natural and anthropogenic processes and to provide information to government, businesses, city and county planners, and Illinois citizens. All these activities reflect a continuing commitment to provide scientific information to help protect, preserve, and restore natural resources, and to use them wisely.

Also see: Achievements
           ISWS Projects List

Illinois State Water Survey

2204 Griffith Dr
Champaign, IL 61820-7463

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