ANDERSON — With Lake Michigan along the state's northern border and the Ohio river to the south, widespread droughts and rain shortages are few and far between in the Hoosier state.
But as population climbs and more water is used for industrial purposes, state lawmakers and business leaders say it's time to focus on ensuring water remains for human and industrial use far into the future.
However, environmentalists urge developers and utilities to balance future human water needs with a focus on keeping water clean and protecting natural landscapes from over-development.
Central Indiana could see an increase in demand of 50 million gallons of water per day by 2050 based solely on population growth, according to a 2014 study commissioned by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce.
Although utilities have identified the need and taken initial steps, the report said "supplies are limited and, without new sources, economic growth is at risk."
However, future needs for water vary across the state.
A 2015 study by the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission found northern Indiana’s groundwater resources are considered good to excellent with access to several surface water sources, most notably Lake Michigan.
Central Indiana’s groundwater resources are rated fair to good and its access to surface water includes many rivers, streams and reservoirs.
Southern Indiana has the most limited supply of groundwater but access to several rivers for surface supply. However, streams do not have a hydraulic connection to groundwater, meaning groundwater is seldom replenished by surface streams.
Some reservoirs do exist in southern Indiana, but drinking water supplies are not fully allocated, the study found.
As projections call for expanded access to water, water utilities face rising costs with rates ballooning in recent years.
Nationally, water and waste water rates are outpacing inflation.
The IURC commission notes Indiana is in a similar situation. Water and waste water utilities are experiencing cost increases for many reasons: a need to replace aging infrastructure, costs associated with meeting compliance to U.S. EPA standards, increases in expenses associated with labor, chemical, and power; and maintenance projects to uphold the quality of service and relocation of facilities.
Because of these cost increases, rates are rising faster than electricity or natural gas rates and much faster than the overall consumer price index. From 2005 to 2014, water and waste water rates rose 5.74 percent per year, while the CPI rose at a slower pace of 2.21 percent per year.
Overall, the number of general rate increase requests, which excludes trackers, was similar to those made in 2013, with eight water utilities approved for a rate increase.
As of Jan. 1, 2015, the average water and waste water rates regulated by the commission are relatively low, compared to other states, at $29.83 per 5,000 gallons for water and $55.20 per 5,000 gallons for waste water, on average.
Early 2015 data is the most recent available, because in 2016 then-Gov. Mike Pence signed Senate Bill 347 into law, which repealed the regulation requiring the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission to collect from all water utilities data regarding use of water resources within Indiana.
One way to lower costs for utilities may be to increase supply by drilling new underground wells or creating more above ground resources. Not only would new supply offer lower costs, but using new instruments and supplies would help to lower upkeep costs, said Kevin Brinegar, president of the Indiana Chamber.
“Water… is a jobs and economic development issue," Brinegar said. "In Indiana, we build things. It takes plentiful supplies of water to do so. In Indiana, we want to continue to grow and thrive. Our state has an economic advantage right now with its water availability. Droughts, however, do happen — remember 2012 — and without proper management, our water strength will become a liability.”
Indiana's water dependence
A recent study by the state of Michigan found that Indiana is the most water dependent state in the country, as it relates to its impact on the economy.
Brinegar called on the Indiana General Assembly to craft a comprehensive study of water supply and need to better understand the state’s water need.
“There is currently no coordination of water use in Indiana’s major river watersheds and, while implementing a regional/state planning process will require establishing rules and procedures, the cooperation among water users that this process establishes will enhance resource utilization and improve water supply reliability throughout the state,” Brinegar wrote.
But while Jesse Kharbanda, president of the Hoosier Environmental Council, agrees the state will see an increase in water need as long as population and industrial use increases, he argues natural preservation and increased water quality is equally important.
“Our outlook in general is to advance solutions that are good for the economy and the environment,” Kharbanda said. “Our work with water is very much within that framework.”
Indiana is facing a “tough situation,” Kharbanda said, because as people become more water conscious, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management shows 60 percent of the state’s rivers are considered impaired.
One of the HEC’s solutions is to focus on increased funding of IDEM to ensure current waters are properly protected, which has the effect of increasing potable water.
“There has been a 20 percent reduction in drinking water staff between 2005 and 2017," he said. "It’s still dealing with a situation where you have 4,000 public drinking sources and a staff of 50.”
Preservation vs. need
A clash between natural preservation and water need is currently playing out in Anderson.
The Mounds Lake Project, backed by the Corporation for Economic Development, would see a dam installed on the White River, creating a 2,100-acre lake near downtown Anderson. The CED argues this would not only supply water but also spur economic development.
However, the dam and resulting lake would interrupt the free flowing White River, which the HEC argues would destroy natural habitat.
The HEC introduced its own project, the Mounds Greenway, which would create a walking and biking route along the White River, preserving the natural landscape and, the HEC argues, also allowing for local development.
As water needs continue to rise, these types of battles are likely to continue to play out across Indiana to both meet human need while preserving the state’s natural wetlands.
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