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January 29, 2013

Legislation calls for new state water management agency

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana’s polluted streams, chronically flooded areas, and rising demand for water in fast-growing parts of the state are among the reasons cited for the need for a state “water czar.”

Legislation that has support from both conservationists and the Indiana Chamber of Commerce calls for the first-ever statewide water management plan and a gubernatorial-appointed administrator to execute it.  

The bill is authored by state Rep. Mike Karickhoff, R-Kokomo, whose legislation reflects concerns of a task force that spent 18 months studying the threats to Indiana’s natural resources.

The task force found that Indiana has “extraordinary” water resources that give the state an economic advantage. But it also found the resources are vulnerable, in part because of the lack of a coordinated effort to protect and manage the state’s water supplies.

“Water is abundant here,” said Karickhoff. “But just because a resource is abundant doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take care of it.”

Last year’s intense drought, which triggered water-usage bans around the state, highlighted how critical water is as a resource.

But concerns about how to manage both water quality and water quantity pre-date the drought.

In its report to the Legislature, the Sustainable Natural Resources Task Force noted that Indiana’s waters are “overwhelmingly classified as impaired” — meaning they don’t meet federal water quality standards.

The report also noted that the demand for water in fast-growing communities in central Indiana may soon outpace the supply.

And some parts of southwest Indiana are chronically flooded. Or, as state Sen. Jim Tomes, R-Wadesville, told his colleagues earlier this week: “We’ve been up to our eyeballs in water every spring for years.”

Karickhoff’s legislation mirrors a bill in the state Senate, carried by Sen. Richard Young Jr., D-Milltown. The companion bills borrow from similar legislation adopted by other states that faced expensive lawsuits for failing to manage their water resources.

Karickhoff’s bill calls for the creation of a new state agency, the Water Management Authority, which would have broad powers to develop and implement a statewide water management plan. It would address issues like flood control, water storage and water pollution.

Some decisions now made at the local level or by other state agencies — ranging from ditch construction standards to flood control plans — would be assumed by the state Water Management Authority.

It creates regional water management councils that would identify the water needs of their region and work to better coordinate the management of water resources.

And it creates a kind “water czar” whose job it would be to protect and manage the state’s water resources.

Bill Weeks, head of the Indiana Land Protection Alliance, chaired the task force that called for the state to elevate its role in water management.

At a joint hearing of the House and Senate natural resources committees Monday, Weeks said water had the greatest impact on the state’s other natural resources, including its 4 million acres of forestland.

“If I could make a plea,” Weeks said, “it would be to say that it’s time for us to look at water governance in this state.”  

The legislation hasn’t gotten a hearing yet, but the idea of elevating the state’s role in water management was part of the “Roadmap for Indiana” proposal that Gov. Mike Pence laid out in his campaign last fall. It called for directing state agencies to establish a plan for managing the state’s water resources and for accelerating the effort to clean the state’s waterways.

Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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