The Great Divide: Battle line drawn
in water wars
Region growth crossing into areas where Lake Michigan
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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."