The fresh water that flows through the state like blood through veins keeps Hoosiers alive, literally and through its importance in agriculture and as an economic driver for other industries.
But for decades now, Indiana’s waterways have been the dumping ground for pollutants from multiple sources, resulting in waterways too polluted to swim or play in safely.
A report by the Environmental Integrity Project found that the state of Indiana reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that 73% of rivers and streams and 23% of lakes and reservoirs have recreational use impairments, pollution that prevents those waterways from “fully supporting” recreational uses that involve bodily contact with the water, like swimming, fishing and boating.
What that means is that more than 24,000 miles of rivers and streams in Indiana have pollution, like excess E. coli bacteria and phosphorus, that make it potentially unsafe for Hoosiers to be in the water.
The percentage of impairments is so high, the state of Indiana ranks first in the nation for water recreation impairments.
Waterways like the official state river of Indiana, the Wabash River, are contaminated with E. coli and excess nutrients, as well as iron, PCBs in fish tissue and other biological integrity issues.
Eric Schaeffer, executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, said much of the problem in Indiana and the rest of the U.S. is due to the state’s large animal feedlot sector and discharges from sewage and streams.
“We have to confront the fact that agricultural runoff is really the leading cause of water pollution in the U.S. today. I don’t think that was true, so much, 50 years ago. Some of that is runoff from fertilizer from cropland, but an awful lot of it comes from the factory farms that we use to raise livestock,” Shaeffer said.
“The failure to confront agriculture is probably the biggest program failure in the Clean Water Act. The law itself says these big animal feedlots where you’ve got lots and lot of animals confined in a very small space generating mountains of manure are actually point sources that are supposed to have permits that limit their discharges. That just hasn’t happened, and that is a big problem.”
A REGULATION LOOPHOLE
According to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, anyone who wants to establish or expand a concentrated animal feeding operation or a smaller confined feeding operation must obtain one of two permits, depending on the size of the operation and whether it discharges into state waterways.
CFOs and CAFOs that discharge manure or runoff directly into waterways must obtain a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency through IDEM.
But indirect discharges from CFOs and CAFOs, known as nonpoint source pollution, currently do not require an NPDES permit. About 85% of livestock in Indiana is raised in CFOs or what the state terms “CAFO-sized CFOs,” creating a pollution loophole that depends on the voluntary efforts of farmers to prevent pollution from making its way into the state’s waterways.
“The [Clean Water Act] has mechanisms to deal with point sources like pipes that discharge pollutants, but runoff and nonpoint sources were left to mainly voluntary measures,” said Indra Frank, environmental health director for the Hoosier Environmental Council. “In Indiana, we've had decades of these voluntary measures, and it has included encouraging and even paying farmers to adopt measures that reduce runoff. There's a limit to how much can be accomplished by these voluntary programs.”
Multiple state initiatives, like the Clean Water Indiana Program, and dozens of federal and private funding programs have attempted to offset the cost of pollution prevention efforts, but have mostly failed to prevent waterway impairment.
A current federal effort to revise the definition of “waters of the United States,” a term that establishes which waterways fall under the protection of federal water laws, like the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act, could reduce the impact of CFOs and other nonpoint sources of pollution on waterways in the state.
In 2020, the Trump administration, supported by agricultural trade organizations like the American Farm Bureau Federation, narrowed the scope of WOTUS to four categories, excluding types of streams that flow only during and after rainfall, known as ephemeral streams and intermittent tributaries.
The rule ignored hundreds of scientific peer-reviewed studies proving the connectivity of streams and wetlands to waters downstream, and, thus, the possibility that pollution from nonpoint sources could make its way to waterways.
The Biden administration announced its intent to review the WOTUS definition the day President Joe Biden took office and later pressed forward with revising it.
A federal judge struck down the rule in August 2021, and the Biden administration said it would propose a new rule sometime in 2022.
The rule could reduce pollution from agriculture and other nonpoint sources of pollution, but it may not address another source of pollution affecting state waterways – sewer overflows.
SEWER OVERFLOW CONTAMINATION
IDEM said combined sewer overflows, untreated stormwater and wastewater that discharges to nearby streams, rivers and other water bodies were the largest sources of E. coli bacteria, one of the impairments cited to the EPA.
E. coli can give swimmers or people in impaired waters diarrhea, fever, abdominal cramps, nausea or cause vomiting. In extreme cases, E. coli bacteria can cause kidney failure or death.
Combined sewer overflows have increasingly become a problem for Indiana communities as climate change-altered rain fall patterns and aging infrastructure have led to more communities experiencing problems with overflows.
According to the Indiana Climate Change Impacts Assessment, climate change has made it so rainfall now falls in heavier bursts over short periods of time, increasing the chance of flooding in some parts of the state.
In late 2021, hundreds of communities, many of which experienced overflow issues, applied for a portion of $63 million in grants from the first of four rounds of 2022 State Water Infrastructure Fund program funding. Only two dozen will receive the funding.
IDEM said 107 communities around the state have completed or are implementing projects to prevent untreated wastewater from entering state waterways.
Cities like Indianapolis, Fort Wayne and South Bend have experienced overflows that have led to charges they violated the Clean Water Act. All three cities are now undertaking major water infrastructure projects, like Indianapolis’ $2 billion DigIndy combined sewer system and Fort Wayne’s Tunnel Works Program, to meet requirements of agreements with the EPA to resolve those allegations.
Despite its problems with contamination, the EIP said that the state of Indiana was doing a better job than most states in assessing the problems it faced.
The state ranked 11th in the country for miles of waterways assessed, a fact the state’s environmental agency said emphasizes its mission to improve waterways to a higher standard than most other states.
“It is important to understand that in Indiana, the water quality goal for our waterways is for all to be fishable and swimmable. Other states have set other designated uses, which allow for lower water quality expectations to achieve the goals they’ve set for those waterways. Because of these differences, it is difficult to make comparisons between states,” IDEM public information officer Barry Sneed told the Indiana Environmental Reporter. “IDEM prioritizes assessing waterways so that, if impairments are found, we know what type of impairments are present and can work on a plan to address those impairments.”
Later this year, a report is expected from the Indiana Wetlands Task Force that could encourage the state to adopt legislation to address nonpoint source pollution issues. The task force was created to assess the state’s isolated wetland protections as part of Senate Enrolled Act 389, a law that removed state protections of half of the state’s remaining wetlands.