Sam Carpenter and Indra Frank: State water investments should include wetlands

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What should Indiana do to ensure it has enough water to meet the needs of its people, communities and economic development?

How can Indiana ensure it has enough water to meet the needs of its people, communities, economic development, and its fish and wildlife?

As the question implies, water is a shared resource. It ignores property lines. If my neighbors and I both have wells, we are essentially putting two straws into the same large cup. If I put waste into a stream that crosses my property, it is carried to my downstream neighbor. Sharing the resource involves issues of both water quantity and water quality.

Having adequate water quantity is like having enough money in a household budget: We need to track how much is coming in and going out and prioritize how we use it. To do this, Indiana needs data to track our water resources and policies on how water is used.

To have enough water, we also need water storage. Wetlands can store 1 million gallons of water per acre or more, and while they are storing it, the water is soaking in and replenishing the groundwater we need for our wells.

Unfortunately, Indiana has already lost 90% of its original wetlands, and those that remain are under threat. In 2021, the Indiana General Assembly reduced state protection for wetlands, and this year, the U.S. Supreme Court significantly reduced federal protection. As the Indiana Wetlands Task Force’s 2022 report stated, “Indiana is at a point where the cumulative loss of wetlands is having a measurable negative impact.”

Indiana is currently investing in water supply, and that investment should include wetlands. Gov. Holcomb has directed water-supply studies to support economic growth, and the state is planning a significant investment to move water for the LEAP Lebanon development. If the state also invested in wetlands preservation and restoration, that would be an investment in water supply.

Even if we continue to have an adequate quantity of water, it can’t meet our needs if the water is polluted. At least 15 sites in Indiana contain coal ash that has rendered the local groundwater unfit for use; at innumerable sites, leaking fuel tanks and chemical waste have contaminated groundwater. For all practical purposes, these sites are lost water resources, since groundwater cleanup is expensive and takes many years, so it pays to prevent groundwater contamination.

Policy is an essential part of the answer to both water quantity and water quality. Tracking quantity, prioritizing use and protecting water quality cannot be accomplished by individuals alone but can be accomplished through policy.

In the 2024 legislative session, Indiana’s lawmakers will have opportunities to take significant steps on water policy. We anticipate bills on water withdrawals and on wetlands. In 2025, when the next state budget is written, there will be opportunity to provide sufficient funding to our state agencies to ensure water-resource protection and tracking.

If we are careful with our water resources and have the right water policies, Hoosiers will continue to benefit from living in a water-rich state.•

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Carpenter is executive director and Frank is a policy director at the Hoosier Environmental Council. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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