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Great Lakes Article:

The Great Divide: Battle line drawn in water wars
Region growth crossing into areas where Lake Michigan water forbidden
By Brendan O'Shaughnessy
NW Indiana Times
Published December 12th, 2004

INDIANAPOLIS | There is a line, an invisible divider, that cuts through the heart of the Calumet region.

On one side sits the area's greatest natural asset, which provides almost unlimited access to about 90 percent of the country's fresh surface water supply.

On the other side, in some spots in view of Lake Michigan, are those who can't touch the region's "blue gold."

As with the Greek mythic figure Tantalus, the water may always be out of reach for some.

In an increasingly thirsty world, the line can mean more than just clean, cheap public drinking water. It can determine economic development and sprawl, as the region's population shifts year by year to the wrong side of the great divide.

"It's not going to be easy to get water if you're below the line," said Jeff Edstrom, a Chicago environmental consultant who is working on a new region water study.

"A place like Lowell can see the water -- but never get it."

Like oil before it, fresh water is expected to become a hot commodity this century. Outlandish plans to divert lake water to arid regions -- such as a pipeline to the Southwest or ship tankers headed for Asia -- have some government officials and environmentalists on edge and have prompted a new international agreement that will have far-reaching effects, including in Indiana.

Governors from the Great Lakes states took public comments this fall on a draft framework for managing the lakes, including conservation and clear guidelines for withdrawals.

The controversial plan, known as Annex 2001, could be signed by the governors in spring 2005 and sent to Congress and state legislatures after that.

Annex 2001 would set in stone practices for limiting use of Great Lakes water to those inside its watershed basin, which is the boundary separating the direction water flows.

In the Calumet region, the basin line runs a jagged path that can shift over time. Like a minicontinental divide, rain falling on the northern side of this line eventually drains into Lake Michigan.

On the southern side, rain drains into the Kankakee River Basin to the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico. This water is lost to the vast underground aquifers that provide up to 40 percent of the lake's annual resupply.

Growing communities in the south end of Lake and Porter counties draw from abundant but not infinite supplies of groundwater, which can be more costly, unreliable and unhealthy than lake water.

Ironically, projections show Northwest Indiana expects to use less of its abundant lake water supply; the need for groundwater will grow in the region's south-county areas.

"I'm not sure if it's the holy grail, but Lake Michigan is the top choice for water here," said Randy Moore, manager of Indiana American Water's Northwest operations, which provide most of the region's public supply.

"It's by far the cleanest in this area, so it doesn't require the same level of treatment as groundwater."

By 2030, regional planners project a 21 percent surge in population for the south Lake Michigan area that includes southeast Wisconsin, northeast Illinois and northwest Indiana. Most growth will occur in areas least able to support withdrawal of more water from the ground.

Suburban Chicago has been sucking from its aquifer, a deep layer of sandstone saturated with water, at a rate exceeding resupply for the last 40 years.

Around Lake Michigan's southern edge, communities without access to its water have endured increased boring and pumping costs and decreased water quality.

How key is water supply?

Mark Reshkin, a retired geology and environment professor from Indiana University Northwest, said water's value can't be calculated. It's not exaggerating to call the Great Lakes the reason for the region's existence.

"The water is our blue gold the way oil was black gold," Reshkin said. "If you take away our water, you take away our reason for living here."

The heavy industry that birthed the Rust Belt's population located on the lakes precisely for the abundance of water to cool down its machinery. The concentrated segment of Indiana industry and power generation that's nestled on just 45 miles of shoreline pumped nearly 2.6 billion gallons of lake water every day in 2000.

The three-county stretch, which includes part of LaPorte County, accounts for a third of the state's entire water use. Recent trends forecast a continued fall in that use as heavy manufacturing shrinks in the region.

The Great Lakes hold enough water to blanket the entire North American continent from Alaska to Panama in a pool three feet deep. But it only replenishes 1 percent of itself every year, and slight changes in water level can play havoc with its fragile ecosystem.

Reshkin said the region must participate in the Annex 2001 plan the governors are creating for water use. There has to be a compromise between protecting a natural resource and allowing for development and growth, he said.

Gov.-elect Mitch Daniels said it's important that governors succeed in working out the details.

"It sounds like progress," he said. "I definitely plan to follow through on it."

The Annex 2001 plan's foundation is that water taken out eventually must return to the lakes.

The reality is far more complex, due partly to historical water use law and human tinkering with natural geology that has altered the invisible basin line. Also, there is a limited understanding of how water flows underground and how groundwater supplies are connected to surface waters such as Lake Michigan.

Edstrom, the Chicago consultant working with the Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission to develop a watershed plan for local officials, said Northwest Indiana has the best groundwater supply in the three-state area. Still, even a region so flush with water must plan its use, he and others say.

Past developments have connected to sewers that drain water into rivers running away from the basin rather than spread it out over the land to allow supplies to rebuild. Other new subdivisions have installed septic systems that could leak hazardous waste into groundwater aquifers.

Water quantity and quality problems and high utility bills have constrained development in towns farther from the lake. Water supply that once was taken for granted is becoming a growing source of contention.

Local interests eye water plan

Designed more to protect the resource from far-away regions, the Annex 2001 plan being developed still will affect everyone near the dividing line.

Places such as Valparaiso and Crown Point lie just inside the line but may not be able to provide lake water to expansions. Communities south of Chicago that buy lake water from Hammond could face new regulations if they want to increase their water use.

For communities such as Winfield that straddle the line, it gives the whole town access to Lake Michigan as long as storm water is returned to the basin. The town of St. John, so close to Dyer and Illinois neighbors that use lake water, is planning new wells under the belief it will be shut out from the lake.

Cities such as South Bend and Fort Wayne also straddle the dividing line, giving Indiana officials more reason to pay attention.

Tom Hoffman, clerk-treasuer in Dyer, said his town's connection in 1995 to Lake Michigan was crucial for sustaining its rapid growth, especially for attracting industry and commercial interests.

"The water was fine except for the supply," Hoffman said. "We knew we would have to sink well after well to keep up. Now, water is an asset that's an almost unlimited supply."

Annex 2001 would allow communities within 12 miles of the basin to withdraw a small amount -- up to 250,000 gallons per day -- if it is for public water supply in areas where adequate water is not available.

Because people often follow the jobs, limitations like these scare economic-development planners. Industrial interests have said the plan goes too far and could hamper economic development in the region and along its borders.

Develop or conserve?

George Kuper, president of the Council of Great Lakes Industries, said Annex 2001 is a "fatally flawed document" that should be scrapped and redrawn from scratch.

"What we're doing here is locking up the resource we're trying to protect," Kuper said.

He said grandiose water diversion schemes will never work because the cost simply is too high. But conservationists argue that economic conditions can change, so a water-use plan must be created now.

The question boils down to this: Is lake water a common-good resource or another commodity?

Environmentalists support the concept of managing the lakes but think the plan needs to demand further conservation efforts. The fear is that allowing lake water to go to a community such as Lowell, which sits just outside the basin and was denied lake water in 1992, would set a precedent making it impossible to deny anyone else who wants it.

Cameron Davis, executive director of the Lake Michigan Federation environmental group, said small diversions would not harm Great Lakes water levels by themselves.

"But take Lowell and multiply many times over the people looking to stick straws into the Great Lakes -- it's death by a thousand cuts," Davis said.

Jim Hebenstreit, assistant director of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources Water Division, said he's more worried about water quality than quantity.

"Indiana has a good supply, but once it's contaminated, then it's a major problem," he said.

Residents of Lowell and The Pines don't need to be told about water problems. Groundwater chemicals in these communities drove some people to depend on bottled water that can cost more per gallon than oil.

"Water is one of those fundamental connections to the environment," said David Solzman, a retired geography professor from the University of Illinois Chicago who has written a book on the region's rivers.

"People survive without oil, but no one has figured out how to live long without water."




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