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Fouled waterway list in Indiana soars to 485
Sunday, March 17, 2002

Fouled-waterway list in Indiana soars to 485: new survey, which finds problems statewide, shows better tracking and may spur U.S. cleanup funding

March 17, 2002

By George Stuteville


From Lake Michigan to the Ohio River, a state survey of Indiana's waterways has found pollution problems in almost every one -- problems so prevalent that a top environmental official says people should think twice before they swim in, drink from or eat fish caught in the waters.

The Indiana Department of Environmental Management intends to add 277 Hoosier streams, rivers, creeks, ditches and lakes to its inventory of environmentally impaired bodies of water later this year as a result of the survey.

The additions will bring to 485 the number of troubled waterways in the state. The first survey, in 1998, included 208 bodies of water fouled by fertilizers, industrial chemicals, animal wastes, human sewage and pesticides.

"This does not mean that the waters in the state have gotten worse," said Cyndi Wagner, who heads the Indiana Department of Environmental Management's impaired water systems program. "It means our ability is significantly better to find pollutants that have been out there all along."

The list, which includes the pollutants found in the waters, will be forwarded to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in October. In addition to helping state and federal enforcement agencies identify potential polluters, the list, once approved by the EPA, will make Indiana eligible for federal cleanup grants.

But cleanup is anything but fast, Wagner said. The list is so extensive that some sites with less pollution wouldn't be scheduled for cleanup until 2016.

Of the sites identified four years ago, just two have begun or are ready to begin cleanups:

At Kokomo Creek in Howard County, a $50,000 project to restore water life in an urban ditch choked by industrial runoff is under way.

This month, the state environmental agency and the Army Corps of Engineers are expected to start a $1 million dredging project on the Grand Calumet river, a fetid 16-mile waterway that drains into Lake Michigan after coursing through the steel yards and oil refineries of Gary, Hammond and East Chicago.

Wagner could not estimate the cost of a total statewide waterways cleanup or even predict when the major bodies of water would reach a sufficient quality to allow people to routinely eat fish or swim without concern.

"It is overwhelming to look at this list," she said. "You look at it one water body at a time."

That is the approach of Ed Kassig, a Broad Ripple High School biology teacher. Each month for the past two years, he has taken his students to the Broad Ripple boat ramp to collect vials of water for analysis. Their tests have led to the inclusion of that segment of White River on the state list.

An avid fisherman and canoeist, Kassig said he won't eat the bass and perch he pulls from the river. He avoids any body contact beyond barefoot wading.

Yet he says the waterway, a haven for heron, ducks and osprey, is improving.

"I have lived here all my life," he said. "The river is much cleaner now than it was 25 or 30 years ago."

E. coli a common contaminant

While urban sections of streams and the Great Lakes watershed see such industrial pollutants as heavy metals, greases, detergents and cyanide, the most prevalent contaminant in Indiana waters is E. coli bacteria.

The bacteria appear in varying amounts in every waterway in the state's eight major river systems; its sources are often overflowing septic systems and sewers or barnyard drainage.

Pesticides and fertilizers from residential lawns and agricultural fields are other common pollutants.

Those problems aren't easily dealt with because the sources of pollution are so widespread, said William Beranek, who heads the Indiana Environmental Institute, a science and conservation policy think tank.

"Our whole Clean Water Act was directed at sewage treatment plants and industry, so our regulatory biggest guns were aimed at those," said Beranek, who advises the state's impaired water program.

"The rest of the problem is caused by you and me and how we live in our communities."

Though environmentalists say it's important to identify troubled waters, Garry Hill, a leader with the Wildcat Creek Guardians, a group organized to support the 82-mile stream that runs from Kokomo to Lafayette, said he is concerned that labeling so many streams as polluted could cause people to regard them as lost causes.

"They might think a creek is so filthy they have to stay away," Hill said.

"My feeling is that the people who can experience the beauty and necessity of a waterway become the people willing to protect it."


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