Two small waterways flow through north central Champaign County. One drains land from the Rantoul-area, flows through Urbana’s Crystal Lake Park, and then eastward before joining with the Salt Fork River at St. Joseph. The other begins its journey near Ludlow, taking a southerly route past Rantoul and connects with the Spoon River north of St. Joseph, the two of which form the Salt Fork River itself.
These waterways stand out in no particular way from the seemingly innumerable ditches and streams that help to keep Champaign County relatively dry. Most were created or extended and channelized in the county’s early decades of farming and habitation, so that former marshy areas could become fields and homesteads.
Despite their humble nature, these small streams have come into the public spotlight in Champaign-Urbana, thanks in part to a resolution promoted in front of the Urbana City Council by Clark Bullard and Morris Leighton. The resolution in question proposes changing the names of these waterways to better reflect their actualities and to minimize confusion.
Currently, the two waterways hold several names. The branch that flows through Urbana is known as The Saline Branch Drainage Ditch, The Saline Branch, and the West Salt Fork River. The other, less confusingly, only holds two names: The Upper Salt Fork River and the less flattering Upper Salt Fork Drainage Ditch.
The resolution before the Urbana City Council stipulates changing the names to Upper and West Salt Fork River, dropping the term ditch and solidifying the connection with the river system as a whole.
Why bother with this legislation at all? The streams themselves undoubtedly go about their existence regardless of what we happen to label them.
In a word: Perception.
The two streams are indeed of natural origin, though for stretches of their length they may appear man-made — masked by the many “improvements” they have suffered to better drain the land. The term ditch was added to their names once these improvements were made, but that does not stop a plethora of native wildlife from congregating along their banks and in their waters.
While it may be beneficial for the names of the streams to be standardized to avoid confusion, the departure from the term ditch to describe natural waterway courses should be encouraged. A ditch is something for carrying sewage and effluent, while a stream or a river nurtures the land it flows through — and the people that it connects.