The quest to dam White River


Whether it brings economic recovery or environmental chaos, a plan to dam the White River is still far from a done deal. Still, $600,000 of taxpayer money in the form of an Indiana Finance Authority grant is now in play to explore the feasibility of damming the river at Anderson.

The so-called Mounds Lake project takes its name from the prehistoric earthworks at Mounds State Park. Built by the Adena and Hopewell peoples around 160 B.C., the mounds are the oldest of their kind in the state. Though the initial reservoir plan states that the mounds will not be damaged by the project, opponents of the dam argue that altering the setting in which the mounds sit will undermine the site's archeological integrity.

Many details of the plan remain unknown at this point. That is what the $600,000 is for, to fund the geo-engineering assessments, environmental overview and archeological surveys necessary to determine whether the paper plans for Mounds Lake would work out on a real-life scale.

Opponents have so many concerns about the reservoir proposal so far that, at a recent meeting of the Heart of the River Coalition, they struggled to fit them all on one informational brochure.

There are, of course, property owners whose homes will fall within the inundation area. The lower-to-moderate income communities of Irondale and Hollywood Estates, for example, would be flooded.

The toxic legacy associated with some of Anderson's former industrial sites also factors into opponents' concerns. Memories are still fresh of the now-defunct Guide Corporation's 1999 illegal toxic discharge, which resulted in the death of an estimated 4.3 million fish. So learning that the reservoir would cover the town mall, which was built on top of a garbage dump, did not ease opponents' concerns.

Another bit of history to be drowned: the longest remaining section of towpath from Indiana's 1880s canal system.

"Boy, that was a boondoggle," said local naturalist and Heart of the River member Sheryl Myers, referring to the never-finished effort to engineer a statewide canal transportation network. "I wonder if this will be, too."

The great unknowns

Many other important details about regional and state (not to mention national and global) water demand are also unknown at this point, but the Indiana Chamber of Commerce recently commissioned a study to help local stakeholders get a more holistic understanding of the state's water supply and demand.

"For sometime, we at the Indiana Chamber have been saying we need a water plan for Indiana," Vince Griffin, the Chamber's vice president for energy and environmental policy, said in a recent interview. "Where you have water, you have economic development and where you have economic development, you have water."

Griffin's view is echoed by state lawmakers, who considered the issue in a study committee last summer. Several other local hydrological experts have also urged Indiana to address its lack of a centralized plan on water use.

The state has more than 800 water utilities and 500 sewer wastewater treatment facilities, only 15 percent are under Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission oversight, the other 600 opted out, Griffin said.

"Having no centralized plan is leaving a lot of little utilities trying to figure out how to meet future demand," Griffin said.

The making of a dam

The preliminary Mounds Lake plan proposed a dam 2,500-feet long constructed just north of Anderson across the White River. The site is about 35 miles north of White River's intersection with I-465 on Indy's northeast side. Water released from the dam would flow to the city within 1.5 days.

Engineers figure an 870-foot high dam would release 48 million of gallons of water per day downstream; increasing the height 15 feet would increase the flow capacity to 57 million gallons. The resulting reservoir would reside in Madison and Delaware counties, spread across approximately 2,000 acres in a long band stretching about seven miles upriver. The water would be an estimated 50 feet deep at the dam and 30 feet deep at its midpoint.

In an overview presentation of the project, DLZ, the engineering firm contracted to evaluate the site, deemed the site location "well suited for this endeavor" because of its deep valleys. Rather than cut off the flow to those down stream, DLZ said, dam operators will be able increase the flow when drought-like conditions are present. Still, dramatic changes in the river corridor would result.

The initial idea for the reservoir sprang from a 2010 leadership academy class "looking for ways to re-invent the economy and community at large," said Rob Sparks, executive director of the Anderson/Madison County Corporation for Economic Development. The city has never fully recovered from the effects of losing General Motors: 27,000 jobs and $2 billion in associated payroll, he said.

Sheryl Myers has been leading hikes through Mounds State Park for years — and helping to organize river cleanups with the White River Watchers since 1997.

"We quit counting at 7,000 tires [pulled from the river]," she said.

Her local Friends of White River group is not taking a formal stand against the dam, underscoring how conflicted the community already feels on the issue.

"People who've worked together for years have entirely different viewpoints on the matter," Myers said, adding her feeling that plan proponents are "enticing us with promises I don't think they can keep about the economic turnaround. I think [the river corridor] is our crown jewel; I don't want to cast it away to the higher bidder. For a lot of us, this is our sanity, our escape."

Proponents are considering several possible revenue streams from the dammed river — including hydropower, bottled water sales and recreational opportunities. But they are quick to emphasize the reservoir's potential as an additional water resource for utilities as they prepare to meet growing residential and commercial demand.

"Water demands continue to grow, while the potential sites for new surface water sources dwindle in the U.S. Simultaneously, potential sites face ever-increasing environmental scrutiny with greater costs and environmental mitigation needed," according to the DLZ presentation.

This question of how much water Central Indiana has versus how much it needs will likely be at the heart of decision on whether to move forward on the plan.

The question of maximum capacity

While water conservation techniques — such as the recycling of wastewater into drinking water — are nothing new for Western municipalities such as Las Vegas, Indiana has — aside from isolated rashes of drought — been blessed with enough water for whatever people needed at home, in industry and for agriculture.

But, as illustrated by the Great Lakes Compact, which is beginning to regulate water use in the Great Lakes Basin through a combination of voluntary reporting and permitted use, the region — which is home to 20 percent of the world's fresh water supply — is already wary of the potential effects of growing demand for its resources. The compact's core goal is "effective consistent water resource management."

The Indiana Department of Natural Resources conducts, on average, about 100 water rights investigations each year, according to a recent PowerPoint from the department. Most well failures believed to be caused by high-capacity ground water pumping are resolved voluntarily without invoking the state law and "timely and reasonable compensation" is provided to owners of affected domestic wells, the presentation said.

IDNR logged multiple well failures in Benton and Warren Counties last summer due to new irrigation withdrawals. Irrigation State officials also noted that irrigation of a new cricket facility in Marion County last August had some effects on nearby domestic wells.

Of the state's 2,500-odd registered irrigation facilities, more than 400 have been added since 2007. Between 1985 and 2007, irrigation's groundwater withdrawals were on an upward trend, ending around 40 billion gallons per year. Since then, the rate of increase has skyrocketed two times, hitting almost 80 billion gallons in 2012.

The pitch

Sparks describes the process of pitching the possibility of a dam "as a marathon with hurdles." The height of those hurtles depends on what these ongoing studies reveal — and the tenor of the public reaction to the information it receives.

"We are in the early stage," Sparks said. "There are a lot of things that can trip [the project] up. We have a series of discovery we're going to do as region now. It's a process ... I try to bring deals together. I don't possess all the answers, but from a strategic standpoint for our region, it's important for lots of reasons — from regional water needs to redevelopment purposes. We understand the impacts to the environment need to be taken into consideration and we don't take that lightly."

Among many other consequences of reservoir creation, Sparks said a mountain biking park that he helped to create in Anderson will be partially inundated. But he sees its loss as a possible opportunity.

"Can part of the mitigation strategy be to have a mountain biking path and park settings all the way around it?" he asked. "Maybe to make a national type venue? How do you enhance trails, not how do you eliminate them?"

Still, if the dam goes in, trails will be eliminated. Trail Five, for instance, runs between the White River and the park's Mounds Fen State Nature Preserve.

The Fen

In 2011, a group of biologists published in the Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science a study further cataloging the flora of a 16.6-hectare preservation area to the south end of Mounds State Park encompassing an area known as the fen. The work built on the findings of an earlier study by one of the study's authors, Paul Rothrock, a professor of biology, earth and environmental science at Taylor University's Randall Environmental Center in Upland, Ind., who began a foundational inventory of the park's flora in 1993.

Of the 584 total species researchers cataloged between the two studies, 478, or 82 percent, were native. The two measures by which the study's authors ranked these native populations, the floristic quality index and the mean coefficient of conservatism, "indicate that the conservation and richness of Mounds State Park and Preserve are of paramount importance from a regional perspective."

Pawpaw, hemlock, birthwort, Nodding Rattlesnake-Root, Virginia Snakeroot, Brown-Eyed Susan and Brown Widelip Orchid are just a tasting of over 60 plants researchers classified as rare. Team members included Kevin Tungesvick of Spence Restoration Nursery in Muncie, Ball State biology professors Donald Ruch, Kemuel Badger and Byron Torke, and Taylor University's Rothrock.

In an effort to forecast the amount of forestland that would be lost beneath the waters of Mounds Lake, Sensible Ecology recently estimated that 978 acres of forested land would be lost.

"Mitigation is well defined under federal rules. ...Typically it's an assignment of 2:1, 4:1, 6:1 [acres replanted for each sacrificed] depending on the value of the resource," Sparks said. "You can't replace an 80-year old tree. You know that and I know that. I can't minimize that. But what can we do if that tree is impacted by a project that has a far greater resource? How can we then take the value of that tree and transplant it into a different area and bring additional value?"

Proponents also suggest that, as far as environmental issues go, the reservoir may act as the most energy efficient method to deliver more water with less pumping than other as-of-yet-untapped sources positioned to supply the hungry suburban areas north of Indy.

What if Carmel enacted watering bans?

Citizens Water, the largest drinking water system in the state, forecasts demand from the vast suburban region emanating from the White River corridor will drive existing supplies to their capacity during periods of peak demand over the next decade.

The utility has not taken a formal position on the Mounds Lake proposal. But in its most recent conservation strategy, approved by the Indiana Utility Regulatory Authority in May of 2013, Citizens noted: "A significant component of water resources planning is the development and implementation of a plan that IDs the strategies and measures to support the protection and conservation of natural resources. ...Among the benefits of conservation, the costs of implementing capital improvement projects can be delayed, reduced or avoided."

Citizens owns Morse and Geist Reservoirs, and also draws water directly from White River and Fall Creek. About 75 percent of its supply comes from surface water, a quarter comes from ground wells. The utility serves more than 305,000 customers through 4,400 miles of water main pipe. Citizens has no trouble meeting its existing demand with its current water supply, estimated to be just over 300 million gallons per day. But drought can pressure supply to a point where targeted rationing — such as lawn watering bans — are necessary to ensure the system's essential needs are met.

Of more than a dozen possible conservation measures Citizens is currently pondering, from leak detection to enhanced water recovery in wastewater treatment, customer education remained among the most effective — and cost-effective — strategies, capable of saving just under 1 million gallons on an average day and 12.3 million on a peak demand day by 2015.

When Mayor Ballard asked residents to implement conservation practices in response to a city-wide water warning in July 2012, Citizens reported demand on its system dropped by 40 million gallons per day.

Negotiating on the front page

Sparks said he wishes he could have collected all the project data and lined up partners before going public with the Mounds Lake plan so that people could be presented with the complete picture before passing judgment.

It's hard to negotiate business on the front page of the newspaper, he explained.

"There's always politics by the building of a dam," Joe Davis, Society of Environmental Journalists' TipSheet and WatchDog editor, said at the 25th annual National Institute of Computer-Assisted Reporting conference held last week in Baltimore. "There's a constituency that benefits; there is a constituency that is harmed. Lots of politics and economics. ...Build a dam, make a lake and sell lakefront properties."

As the exploratory process unfolds, proponents plan to host a series of public meetings, tentatively planned for sometime in May.

"We think we should have enough legitimate data at the end summer to know whether we should we turn away or should we proceed," Sparks said. "This is radical. We are changing the landscape. I don't take that lightly. We have to have public will to move that forward."

Public officials are also tuning in. Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, and other representatives of the constituents in the Mounds Lake region have set up a March 17 listening session in Anderson as a first order of business following the conclusion of the 2014 Indiana General Assembly.

"That it affects a dedicated state nature preserve is what makes this a state issue," a Heart of the River Coalition member said at a recent protest-organizing meeting. "If they can take our smallest state park by eminent domain what happens to the other parks?"

Coalition member Clarke Kahlo said: "Just because we can engineer it, doesn't mean that we should engineer it. Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell."

Dam Nation

The debate of Mounds Lake is taking place within a much larger national conversation about the legacy of dams, the potential of dams, and the access to public information about the safety of dams that would easily imperil life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness should they fail.

Up until 2002, the Corps released to the public data on dam safety — such as maps of the areas that would be at risk if the dam failed. But after 9/11, the Corps began declining to release the data for "national security reasons," though the data is searchable on the USACE website behind a login that must be assigned to users.

The feds regulate 84,000 dams, but seven out of 10 dams are privately owned, which are overseen by states and face fewer regulations. It will be telling for the Central Indiana public to determine will be how easily the can access the state's dam emergency action plans. Nationwide, reporters are finding challenges in accessing information on stats such as the possible number of fatalities a dam failure could cause.

"We have to push back on this; the fact we're not getting [the data] is ridiculous," Liz Lucas, director of the NICAR database library, said at last week's journalism conference.

According to the National Inventory of Dams kept by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. is home to 1.25 million dams. Indiana has 279 high-hazard dams, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers.

In its 2010 Report Card for American Infrastructure, the ASCE gave Indiana a D- on dams. It reported that Indiana's dam safety program has five full-time employees who each oversee an average of 216.8 state-regulated dams on an annual budget of $392,000. Only 16 percent of state-regulated dams had emergency action plans.

At the Rivers of the Anthropocene two-day symposium held at IUPUI Jan 23-24, James Syvitski, executive director of the University of Colorado's Community Surface Dynamics Modeling System and chair of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, discussed the legacy of dams throughout time.

Natural rivers want to transform their shapes all the time, he said, noting that at one point in history, China spent 10-15 percent of its gross domestic product trying to keep a river in place. Humans, he said, have constructed "a dam a day for 130 years," mostly built for "very good reasons" such as hydropower, irrigation and water supply.

"They're built "to solve problems, but not deal with the problems they create," Syuitski said. "Humans have transformed many aquatic systems into unnatural conduits of water, sediment, carbon, nitrates and pollutants. ...Animal and plant worlds and humans will be adapting to something new. We won't be going back to where we were."

Editor's note: Sensible Ecology is an independent entity. An earlier version of this article stated the company was affiliated with Ball State University. We regret the error.