Principle I: Active Stewardship of Our Water Resources is Essential for This and Future Generations

F. Statewide Policies to Minimize Impacts of Drought and Flood

Water Shortage

Across the country water shortage issues are linked to an increased (and increasingly concentrated) population, and changing climate patterns. These changes demand new public policies. The droughts that have occasionally reminded us that even Indiana cannot take water for granted may well occur more regularly. Indeed, they may be particularly troublesome as they are predicted to occur during the agricultural growing season. The development of new irrigation wells for that use may have significant impact during the droughts of the future (Figure 6). Plans for avoiding and managing those impacts should be made in advance of likely conflicts. 

If we fail to plan in advance for water shortages, we are simply planning to allocate surface water to users who live beside lakes, rivers and streams, and (so long as their use does not unreasonably compromise the uses of other riparian owners) we are planning to allow them to use as much of the waters adjacent to their property as they can reasonably use. In times of water shortage, other users, including downstream owners, will argue that riparian owners’ water use does in fact compromise downstream rights. They will look to the courts for help. The result of failing to plan for a different outcome will be the development of critically important state water policy in the courts through a patchwork of lawsuits and legal precedents. 

Recommendation 6.  IWA should develop forecasts of future water demand for all water use sectors.

Figure 6. Registered irrigation facilities, 1985-2013. (Click to enlarge)

We are failing to act upon what we know: that groundwater and stream flow are linked. Our groundwater rules do prohibit waste, but otherwise, we are still governed by the law of capture: if you can find groundwater under property that you own or lease, you can have it. We do require the registration of water withdrawal facilities big enough to supply a population of about 500 households. And our law prescribes that if such wells dry up smaller wells, or significantly affect groundwater recharge, the DNR may take action. Nothing in Indiana law, however, would prevent a well user from drying up a nearby stream. The integral nature of surface and groundwater leads us to recommend that we gather the information we will need to make sound water policy.

The entire suite of things we value about our waters will be better protected if we assess demand on our freshwater systems and plan in advance to protect as many values as we can. Ultimately, we have to plan for trade-offs in water use. The forecast we advocate in our sixth recommendation (see previous page) should help the state avoid water crises. It will also help to identify the instream flows. Maintaining appropriate instream flows will help protect the ecology of Indiana fresh waters and keep pollution loads at safe levels. 

As we have mentioned in a previous section of this Report, Indiana updated its Water Shortage Plan almost a decade ago. The plan includes a good deal of useful information, and it is reasonably likely to help Indiana agencies that will be called on to lead drought response. We applaud the planners for stating that agencies “should attempt to preserve minimum stream flow.” Agencies, as well as RMMGs, would be significantly more likely to meet that goal if the DNR can help both of them by providing stream flow data associated with a minor adjustment in a long- existing legislative invitation to do so.  Specifically: 

Certain Indiana reservoirs are operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for statutorily defined purposes. Upon agreement with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, reservoirs such as Mississinewa and Salamonie could be operated to supplement stream flows when needed to benefit aquatic wildlife, so long as the primary purposes were not compromised.

Recommendation 7.  Ind. Code §14-25-7-14 should be amended to require DNR to establish for information and reference purposes, flow duration curves for Indiana’s third order and greater streams and rivers. The flow duration curves will inform the RWMGs decision-making regarding the minimum stream flows needed to support water quality, public water supply needs, and healthy communities of aquatic life. Previous studies commissioned by DNR indicate that if we preserve the flow needed to sustain aquatic life, we will meet the other volume-related objectives we have for our fresh waters.

Third order and greater streams comprise roughly twenty percent of stream and river miles. A third order stream is one that is fed by a stream or streams that already have two smaller tributaries.

The state Water Shortage Plan avoids one essential task for managing water in a time of shortage. It merely says that “the state can determine” what priorities ought to be in the event of drought. Setting priorities is an essential task that we believe ought to be taken up by the RWMGs. In fact, the current state Water Shortage Plan generally endorses regional water planning, but provides no specifics.   

Employing the RWMG process will provide a locally customized way for Indiana to get beyond the tentative steps that the Water Shortage Plan currently calls for in drought: our current plan relies solely on voluntary water conservation measures in water “watch”, “warning” and almost all water “emergency” conditions. Absent legislative action at local or state levels, only our Governor can respond to a specific water shortage with immediate and mandatory emergency water conservation measures. The Governor can only do so during a declared emergency. With Regional Water Plans as a foundation, the RWMGs will be able to make well-informed judgments in advance of a crisis with regard to the need to implement mandatory conservation measures, and the governing jurisdictions can use the RWMGs recommendation to develop, in advance of a water crisis, water conservation laws for use in a time of water shortage.

All of the choices we need to make regarding Indiana waters will be made easier if we pay attention to water conservation. Among the most important conservation measures that could be implemented to alleviate pressure on the streams and rivers of Indiana during water shortages, as well as minimize the need to build infrastructure to ensure peak water supply in drought years, is minimizing the leaks from water distribution systems. Municipal water suppliers, and some industrial sources report significant amounts of water lost in system leaks.  Leak remediation as part of a resource management strategy can result in significant savings. A small leak on the order of one gallon per minute equates to more than 500,000 gallons of water use per year. The capital investment required to fix those leaks is essential conservation. Indiana law described below has enabled some utilities to address infrastructure without financial penalties. We need to find ways to address the same issue for smaller water utilities, and industry.

The new utility law referred to above provides for “system integrity adjustments” that basically allow a regulated water utility (under the jurisdiction of the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission) to achieve their approved revenue over the course of the year. Prior to passage of this bill, utilities were dependent on the summer peak sales to meet their revenue targets. Given the high fixed cost of service, this perverse incentive discouraged water utility conservation programs. Since passage of this law, however, eligible utilities can provide water to their customers knowing that if they do not sell enough water in a wet year, they will be able to make up the difference in the subsequent year with a budget billing system that adds a surcharge to the water bill. This law also works in reverse. That is, in a dry year in which the utility sells more water than expected, resulting in windfall profits, it will return that money to its customers as a rebate.

While the effect of this bill has not yet been felt in the state, it should change the way that water utilities engage in water management. Going forward, water utilities can be enthusiastic conservationists and managers of customer demand as they manage necessary growth in raw water supply. 

Of nearly equal priority to planning for water supply use in dry years would be the ability to plan on sensible restrictions on water use. One Indiana water utility, for example, has produced graphics that help policy-makers understand that it could plan for significantly lower investment in sourcing water for peak daily demand if it did not need to plan on supplying water used to keep lawns bright and green in the driest years. During the 2012 drought, for example, peak demand for the water it supplies spiked from around 125 million gallons per day (a level that characterizes most of its year) to 225 million gallons per day in mid-summer, primarily due to lawn watering.  

Recommendation 8. Plan for water conservation, and create financial incentives for efficiency. One common sense measure that we recommend for every regional plan is identifying drought indicators that should trigger mandatory curtailment of lawn, landscape, and ornamental watering in regional drought warning and emergency conditions.

Lawn and landscape watering may seem like an unusually specific issue to highlight in this Report, but as the above statistics show, it is in fact an important one. In addition, we recommend that the managers of athletic fields, golf courses, commercial properties, and other outdoor water-using facilities be incentivized to develop and implement strategies to meet their water needs with re-used water.

Water Planning for Flood

On the other side of the water management spectrum is flooding. Past approaches to flood control emphasized the imposition of engineered structures on rivers at great expense both to our treasury and to the environment. We have an opportunity and the need to design a new generation of flood control projects that are designed to work with nature. For example, we don’t store the water we could in Indiana’s soil because of the extensive installation of drainage tiles. That technology, necessary as it has been to agriculture in many areas of the state, can now be more finely tuned to preserve or even enhance agricultural production while, when appropriate, storing water in the soil or in small reservoirs. See;

In addition, some frequently flooded Indiana lands now employed as our least productive farmland want to be wetland. There may be a win-win possibility of putting that land to a better use.

As climate change-related variations in precipitation patterns continue to result in fewer and larger storms with increased periods of drought during the middle to later stages of growing seasons, we recommend that IWA fund research, environmental planning, development and testing of relatively small, off-stream reservoirs. The reservoirs would be built on and partially restore former wetland areas. They would be filled primarily with flood or near-flood waters. They would be designed to fluctuate in level. If testing proves the concept, they could be built by a new utility with flood control, wetland restoration and water storage as its public purposes.

Recommendation 9. Research, develop, test, and if justified, implement new water storage that is carefully planned to be off-stream, flood-water supplied, and otherwise consistent with environmental stewardship.

The potential benefits of such a network of reservoirs suggests possible investors and customers: