Indiana tops the list of states with the most dirty waterways, according to a new report that found nearly 25,000 miles of Hoosier rivers and streams are too polluted for recreation and swimming.
That’s more miles of polluted waterways than in any other state.
The report comes 50 years after the Clean Water Act, established in 1972, set the goal of making all waters across the US “fishable” and “swimmable” within 10 years.
But now, five decades later, the country is still very far from achieving that goal — including here in Indiana, the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit focused on enforcement of environmental laws, revealed today in its report.
“It was a breakthrough environmental law, it was the first big play at the national level to protect a natural resource,” said Eric Schaeffer, the EIP’s executive director. “No matter what, people want clean water to swim in, to fish in and to drink.”
Schaeffer, along with Hoosier environmentalists, acknowledge the many strides that have been made as a result of the Clean Water Act. It was inspired by flames on Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River, fish kills in Florida and sewage in New York’s Hudson River. Such disasters are no longer commonplace.
Still, Schaeffer said he feels like progress has stalled: “Nowadays we are more so running in place,” he said, “and we need to do better than that.”
The group analyzed the latest reports that states submitted to the US Environmental Protection Agency.
Based on those reports, it found that roughly half of the river and stream miles and lake acres that have been studied across the US are so polluted they are classified as “impaired.” That means they are too polluted to meet standards for recreation, fish consumption, aquatic life and drinking water.
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The main thing impairing Indiana’s waterways is bacteria and nutrients, said Indra Frank, the health and water policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council. The main source: Agriculture.
“Our top impairment, by far, is e. Coli, which is a bacteria that we use to test for fecal contamination of our waterways,” she said.
In its infancy, the Clean Water Act helped build wastewater treatment plants and address sewer overflows. So that helped address the human sewage problems, Frank said.
But runoff from farms and fields—both manure and fertilizers—is making it into Indiana’s waterways. The issue stems from a loophole in the Clean Water Act that essentially lets agricultural runoff go unregulated under the law.
It’s easy to regulate pollutants that come out of a pipe, the source is obvious. It’s not as easy, however, to nail down when pollution is coming from a spread-out area. That’s called nonpoint source pollution, which the Clean Water Act has weak to nonexistent controls for regulating.
Such sources are a major threat to water quality, the report said: They can lead to high concentrations of bacteria as well as the growth of harmful algae. Those issues extend beyond Indiana, as 90% of Indiana’s waterways drain to the Mississippi River and down to the Gulf of Mexico, where algal blooms have choked out aquatic life.
Schaeffer thinks agricultural runoff is the biggest barrier to being able to realize the Act’s goals of clean water.
While various incentives are in place to encourage farmers to implement practices known to reduce runoff, participation is minimal, Frank said. Less than 10% of Indiana farmers plant cover crops and roughly 38% do not till their fields, according to state data.
The Indiana Farm Bureau as well as the Indiana Farmers Union did not respond to IndyStar requests for comment regarding the role of agriculture in polluting waterways.
Though agriculture is a big problem, that doesn’t mean industry doesn’t share in the blame.
Industrial facilities are called point sources of pollution and are regulated by permits that are approved by the state and EPA. Still, many companies have regularly and repeatedly violated their permit and sent pollution into nearby waterways.
Take the steel mill operated by Cleveland Cliffs along Lake Michigan or the Petersburg coal power plant owned by AES Indiana in the southern part of the state. Both of these facilities were repeat violators and were not held accountable until after years of issues, Frank said.
The state is also allowing coal ash to pollute Indiana’s waters in the permits it approves, Frank said. IndyStar reporting also has shown the connection.
“Part of this is just getting full implementation and enforcement of existing laws and regulations,” she said.
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management, which oversees the state’s waterways and polluters, did not respond to IndyStar’s requests for comment.
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Beyond problems with Indiana’s streams and rivers, nearly all — 99% — of the lakes and reservoirs designated for drinking water that the state recently tested are also impaired, according to the report. E.coli and nutrients again are the main culprits.
Toxins released by algal blooms are a factor forcing Indiana communities to spend additional funds on treating public water supplies, according to IDEM. A 2015 report from the Indiana Finance Authority also found that 80% of surveyed drinking water utilities said they experienced limitations of water yields due to poor water quality, partly due to excess nutrient runoff.
Those waters go through an extensive process to be cleaned before consumption. But the dirtier the initial water is, the more difficult and the more it costs for water utilities to remove those pollutants.
“Having these levels of impairments in our waterways definitely affects our drinking water,” Frank said. “Someone has to pay for that, and often it’s the ratepayers.”
While Indiana does have a lot of pollution problems, Schaeffer said, it does do something well: It tests more of its waters than many other states.
States don’t all use the same standards for testing, such as differences in the number of river miles or lake acres tested. More testing likely leads to finding more polluted areas, he said. Indiana also is fairly water-rich compared to some other states.
That’s why Frank prefers to look at where Indiana falls percentage wise: Roughly 73% of the river and stream miles that the state assessed are impaired. By that metric, Indiana is not the worst, but is still near the top: 11th worst in the US
“We still have challenges: Nearly three-quarters of our stream and river miles are not okay for swimming,” Frank said. “We are still far from the objective of the Clean Water Act of 100%.”
That’s still an admirable goal, both Frank and Schaeffer said, and one that states and the federal government should never stop trying to achieve. The report includes recommendations to take steps in that direction.
Some of the recommendations include improving implementation of the existing Act, such as following the requirement to update pollution standards more regularly. Some standards in the Clean Water Act have not been updated in more than three decades, though they are meant to do so every five years.
Schaeffer said he would also like to see Congress take steps to close the loophole for agricultural runoff and other sources of nonpoint pollution. Doing that and making some other changes will add teeth to the Act and help clean up the country’s waterways.
“A law can make a big difference,” Frank said. Prior to the Clean Water Act, nothing would have happened after a chemical spill killed millions of fish in Indiana two decades ago. Raw sewage would also still be going directly into rivers, she added.
“So the law definitely can make a positive difference,” Frank said, “but another main takeaway is that the Clean Water Act hasn’t solved all the issues.”
Call IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman at 317-444-6129 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook: @IndyStarSarah. Connect with IndyStar’s environmental reporters: Join The Scrub on Facebook.
IndyStar’s environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.