Charbonneau: Water Supplies and Infrastructure

Charbonneau: Water Supplies and Infrastructure
By: Ed Charbonneau Last Updated: May 17, 2017

Since the drought in 2012 Indiana has been developing water policy that insures clean, safe and affordable drinking water for all Hoosiers while protecting our manufacturing and agricultural economy.

Over the last 4 years we have taken careful steps to assure that policy on water supplies and infrastructure is backed by valid data and information. In 2012-14 the general assembly directed the State to collect data on how utilities planned for changes in water supply, to study state agency oversight of water use, to study water resource management, and to deal with expired utility contracts and the continuation of services. A 2015 survey of 20 water utilities found near unanimous interest in planning for the future and knowing more about the growing withdrawals of neighboring water users.

After the catastrophe in Flint, Michigan the State conducted another survey that included almost every community water system in the State. The purpose was to understand how each invested in replacement of aging infrastructure and how well each system understood water losses due to leaking, aging infrastructure.

The results were staggering.

The 2016 survey found that the need for infrastructure vastly outpaces investments. Collectively, we need more than $2.3 billion to begin replacing aging pipes, treatment plants and fire hydrants that treat and deliver water in our communities. Further, after that initial replacement, using basic assumptions about how fast pipelines and plants depreciate, the utilities across the state need more than $800 million/year of new money. This same survey showed us that small systems are more expensive to operate and less resilient to changes affecting health and safety. Interestingly, this needed investment almost equals that of our State’s transportation system. However, since most of our water utility infrastructure is out of sight, it is unfortunately not on our mind as well. That is until it breaks and without immediate attention, it is likely to break in such regularity that repairs may struggle to keep pace.

This year, while no funding was dedicated to water infrastructure the legislature was active in addressing water policy. Legislation was passed in anticipation of a federal infrastructure bill and sets up an infrastructure assistance fund for utilities. In addition, the Indiana Finance Authority has been directed to investigate the future needs of utilities and determine their ability to provide water for growing populations. Another Bill directs the State to set up a transboundary groundwater authority to avoid interstate conflict that has become a problem for other states. Finally, legislation was passed to allow utilities to look further ahead when developing new supplies and, if needed, make it affordable to replace lead service lines.

All of these bills move the State in the right direction but eventually we need to actively manage Indiana’s state-wide water resources; a task that is complicated by the fact that the general assembly has allowed certain water and wastewater utilities to opt out of operational oversight by the State.

Under Indiana law users can withdraw all the water they need, within reason. On the other hand, it makes sense that the State should provide information about growth rates in use and even how that use affects the various watersheds existing in Indiana. This will allow water users to adapt their behavior to circumstances. Protecting the economy means making sure that utilities manage our water resources together. Protecting agricultural production means helping farmers see how often they can pump and how closely they can install new irrigation wells. We need experience tracking water use in watersheds to insure Indiana can thrive.

We have plenty of water today, but we need to become better stewards of this valuable resource as we seek to maximize the benefits of our regionally abundant water supplies.