Brookville Lake transforms community

Southeastern Indiana destination controls flooding, draws visitors

  • 5 min to read

BROOKVILLE – War was the only thing that could stand in the way of the creation of Brookville Lake on the Whitewater River in southeastern Indiana.

The Army Corps of Engineers, authorized by the Flood Control Act of 1938, had begun the project in 1965. But in 1968, President Richard Nixon halted Brookville Lake construction, as well as other public works projects around the country, because of the nation’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

Residents of Brookville signed petitions in 1970 for the lake project to be resumed, and it was finally finished in 1974.

Ronnie Creech was growing up in Brookville when the dam was created.

“There was no opposition to the reservoir,” he said. “I can remember signing a petition because they stopped working on it and to get it started again.”

Of the lakes in Indiana and contiguous states, Brookville Lake is most similar to the reservoir that would be created by the Mounds Lake proposal, according to Rob Sparks, spokesman for Mounds Lake and executive director of the Madison County Corporation for Economic Development.

The Brookville Lake property, which isn’t used as a water supply for surrounding communities, covers 11,185 acres and stretches more than 16 miles. The body of water covers about 5,000 acres, making it more than twice the size Mounds Lake would be.

Whitewater State Park is located on the lake near the town of Liberty, and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources operates two other lake recreational areas there, as well.

The Brookville Lake boasts 35 miles of trails, two beaches, two campgrounds and a shooting range.

From the dam, the Whitewater River flows through Brookville and enters the Ohio River west of Cincinnati. An additional, 200-acre lake at the Whitewater State Park flows into Brookville Lake.

The Army Corps of Engineers controls all the property rights up to the flood plain and leases ground to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

Over the years, the farmland surrounding the lake has returned to a natural state. Lush forests grow along the shore, which is mostly public land with some private property mixed in.

The 17-mile lake stretches from Liberty to Brookville and includes campgrounds, restaurants, boat repair shops, marinas, a sailboat club, taverns, a resort and an 18-hole golf course.

From some vantage points on a pontoon out on the lake, the shore is lined with trees in all directions.

A Brookville town park stands at the south end of the dam, which is 120 feet high.

Water quality tested weekly

“It’s one of the deepest reservoirs in the country,” said Scott Crossley, Brookville park manager for the DNR. “The average depth is 30 feet.”

As with most lakes, blue-green algae, which can be toxic to people and animals, are a problem at the Brookville Lake.

“We do have an advisory at two beaches,” said Crossley, who formerly lived in Anderson. “We warn people not to drink the water and to shower after swimming. We test it every week.”

For protection against exposure to algae toxins, the Indiana DNR follows World Health Organization guidelines. If the toxins reach 6 parts per billion, a recreation advisory is issued, warning people about the danger of exposure. Beaches are closed if the level reaches 20 parts per billion.

Crossley noted there’s little runoff from nearby agricultural fields; most of the reservoir area is hilly, particularly near the southern part of the lake.

“It’s nice that the Corps owns all the ground in the flood plain, which keeps the area from being developed for farm use,” he explained.

Since the lake’s completion in 1974, the state and federal government have created some wetlands and more are planned. Wetlands filter pollutants from water entering the lake.

lake, park attract tourists

Many Hoosiers would assume that Brown County, with its brilliant fall colors and rolling hills, near Bloomington is the most-visited state park in Indiana. But Brookville draws more people in an average year.

According to Crossley, the Brookville Lake park attracts more than a million visitors annually and generated more than $2.5 million in revenue from park receipts in 2014. The park has 800 camping sites. In good weather, all three campgrounds are usually full.

“This has been rated as the 20th-best fishing lake in the country,” Crossley said. “There are walleye, small-mouth bass, muskie, stripers, large-mouth bass and crappie. Fishing is one of the prime attractions for the region.”

The reservoir is stocked with 10 million walleye annually. A fish hatchery on the lake provides the popular species for other lakes operated by the Indiana DNR.

Summer months feature fishing tournaments and a bird dog trial field competition. In the fall, park attendance peaks during deer hunting season. In the winter, people come to Brookville Lake to ride sleighs and ice fish.

Melissa Browning, director of economic development, the local chamber of commerce and the department of tourism for Union County, can’t offer a specific dollar amount for the local impact of tourism. But she noted that, on holiday weekends, Ind.101 has bumper-to-bumper traffic.

“We don’t have a specific budget to devote to tourism, but we’re working on it,” she said. “I started in 2012 as a part-time position, but it’s now full time. We now have dedicated money for tourism. But it took a long time to convince county government and merchants that we need to take advantage of tourism.

“Businesses wouldn’t survive without the reservoir.”

Browning noted that many Brookville residents choose to live there because of the lake, opting to drive long distances to work outside Union County.

According to the Stats Indiana website, in 2013, almost 40 percent of Union County’s workforce commuted to jobs outside the county. By comparison, about 18 percent of Madison County’s workforce travel to jobs outside the county.

A way of lifefor locals

Amanda Herbert, 25, grew up with Brookville Lake. Drawn by the reservoir, her grandparents had moved to the area from Hamilton, Ohio.

“My grandma used to take us fishing and boating,” she said. “I don’t think my grandparents would be here if the lake wasn’t here.”

Tina McIntyre moved to the Brookville area about 23 years ago and hikes along the top of the dam in the summer months. A trail connects her home on the west side of the lake to the trail system.

“The lake makes living here better,” she said, noting that she would break down in tears if the dam were removed.

“We’ve stayed a small-town community with a lot of visitors, not grown into a huge city,” she explained. “The tourists keep the local businesses operating and create jobs for a lot of people.”

McIntyre’s parents wanted to live near the lake and purchased a campground.

Standing at the overlook north of the dam on a pleasant July day, Pamela Creech looked back 40 years to the first time she stood on the property.

“My brother was born in Fairfield,” she recalled. “Where he was born is now underwater.”

Before the dam was created, those who had lived in the tiny village were moved to a new community that was created nearby. It was named New Fairfield. The old town of Fairfield was submerged.

Barbara Hayes, another regular hiker on the Brookville trail system, was 15 years old and living in Brookville when the dam was constructed in the 1970s.

“People couldn’t believe it,” she recounted. ‘What good is it going to do?’ they asked. My dad said they would never do it. But he died the next year, and they built it.”

Advice for Anderson area

Residents of the two southern Indiana communities near Brookville Lake stressed two considerations in planning for Mounds Lake: tourism and water quality.

Browning noted that investment in surrounding properties to create businesses, such as marinas, restaurants and retailers, would be essential to capitalize on the new reservoir.

“The investors are needed to make the area unique,” she said. “The community has to find the right niche, which is what brings people to an area.”

Browning also noted that -- in addition to boating, fishing and swimming on the lake -- the community would need to offer clean parks, entertainment and other attractions.

“You have to train the restaurant workers on how to talk to tourists,” Browning said. “Local people tend to take things for granted.”

In recent years, several new businesses, including restaurants, have opened to serve people using Brookville Lake. The area, according to Browning, is flourishing.

“I’d like to build to the point where we have events every weekend,” she said, noting that, 40 years after the completion of the Brookville Lake dam, the community is still learning how to take full advantage of the resources the lake offers and the activity it generates.

Follow Ken de la Bastide on Twitter @KendelaBastide, or call 640-4863.

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