After hearing experts testify at a legislative summer study committee about the need for a comprehensive understanding of Indiana's water supply and demand, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce decided to step up and get the job done.
The chamber last fall hired Jack Wittman, a hydrogeologist based in Bloomington, Ind., who has worked with water resource issues on a national scale, to survey Indiana's available information to help various stakeholders understand the state of the state's water resources. He is now with a principal geoscientist with Intera, a national geo-engineering firm that specializes in environmental issues, water resources, and waste isolation. What follows are edited excerpts of a March 4 telephone interview with Wittman.
Q: What inspired the effort to commission a survey of the state's water resources?
A: A fog of uncertainty about what will happen. ...The survey will look at facts, conditions and geography; not just physical landscape, but growth of the economies and populations - they're going to tell the story.
The last inventory written by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, "Indiana's Water Resource," was published in 1980.
Q: What sort of trend changes are you seeing?
A: The state has many industrial users that are no longer here, but they weren't everywhere - just in particular regions. So water use in those areas of the state is down, but other counties of the state are losing population as new irrigation is increasing use ... In one county, 43 million gallons a day in the middle of summer when there are 20,000 people.
Q: What can the data tell us about water use around Indy?
A: If you looked around Marion County and mapped GDP to water use, there is a correlation, influenced by the size of yards and whether there is sod and automatic sprinkler systems.
Q: What are the supply and demand issues telling us?
A: There are times where the use in counties exceeded or met the recharge back into the aquifer. What policymakers have to decide is: How do we get the people using the water to alter their uses when there isn't enough water? ... Maybe particular limits in dry years or, from now on in this area, be aware of and manage how we build new wells.
As a wet state, Indiana hasn't had to grapple with resource allocation because no one needed to. I don't think anyone didn't do his or her job. It's just that lately, things have gotten more difficult. This survey will help us take smart steps to anticipate the future and use the resources we have wisely.
Q: So what will you be able to tell us?
A: One of the things I'll be doing is making a Sustainability Index using maps of aquifers to estimate the amount of recharge back into the counties.
I can already tell you that there are counties where recharge - the volume of water flowing into the aquifers - is matched by the amount of water pumped out.
Long-term if counties are going to grow, they're going to have to figure out ways to manage their water so they can be sustainable. There are places in the middle of the state where that is going to be important.
One of my recommendations will be to have all users talking about how to avoid stepping on each others' toes. That's how it works in real life: "We're over here and we need this much." "We were thinking about a well here ... " If those people aren't even in the room, you don't know what the future need may be. Those communities are economically linked. The real question is: Where are they are located with relation to each other and when do they each need water?
Q: What's the projected outcome of all this work?
A: One important outcome is a broad estimate of how much water we may need in the future. There's a process part of what has to happen as well. There's also measurement stuff with gauging and monitoring. We have some but not nearly enough data about water levels and flows. More measurement doesn't faze a place like Saskatchewan [which has much more robust monitoring than Indiana] ... The world awakened on this topic; to compete for business and grow ourselves we need to know more about where we are limited and how to address that need.
Q: The fact that Las Vegas recycles its waste water to drink is fascinating. The fact that the farmers in Imperial Valley this year did not get a water allotment is fascinating - and terrifying.
A: The West over the next few decades is going to lose some of its appeal to some kinds of economic growth. Water has become more important in terms of locating facilities and communities. I think the Midwest has to be ready for that.
Indiana is one of the states that could take advantage of the fact that it has, at the state scale, plenty of water. We have an immature approach [to water management], but not deficient in the way we sort out how to handle these problems. So that's the next phase; getting all these folks in the same room ... I'm kind of excited about it.
There is a huge opening in the world for Eastern water policy ... it hasn't happened yet and it is going to. Up until this point, we didn't have one because we had so much water we didn't need policy. It's always been wet, so what's the worry? There weren't that many people. But when you add a half million more people to Central Indiana in the next 20 years, you've got to sort this out. There are just too many users and not enough planning.