Climate change, water quality and wetlands among key topics at Indiana’s 2023 Water Summit

Scientists, lawmakers and business leaders joined together to talk about how to better manage Indiana’s water.

By: - August 15, 2023 6:30 am

Indiana’s White River was the topic of numerous discussions at the 2023 Indiana Water Summit, hosted in downtown Indianapolis. (Photo from the Central Indiana Land Trust)

How are new developments, aging infrastructure and climate change affecting Hoosier water resources? Those were some of the key questions discussed at Indiana’s 2023 Water Summit, hosted last week by the White River Alliance in Indianapolis.

Environmental and water experts, along with business leaders and policymakers, joined together at the annual symposium to talk about issues impacting Indiana’s water supply — and what steps local and state leaders should take next. 

The two-day event included specific dialogue around threats to Indiana’s water quality and supply, the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent wetlands decision, and a plan to divert billions of gallons of water per year from the Lafayette region down to Boone County for a controversial high-tech park.

Check out the other highlights from this year’s summit — and a glimpse at what water-related actions could be taken by state lawmakers in future legislative sessions:

How climate change is affecting Indiana — and what experts say needs to be done

Indiana’s climate is changing — and more changes are on the way.

Heavier rainfall and hotter, drier summers are likely in Indiana’s future, said Keith Cherkauer, a Purdue University professor of agricultural and biological engineering and the director of the Indiana Water Resources Research Center.

Purdue professor Keith Cherkauer (Photo by Tom Campbell, courtesy Purdue University Agricultural Communications)

Pointing to data published in the Indiana Climate Change Impacts Assessment, Cherkauer noted the Hoosier state will see 6 to 8% more rainfall by 2050 than it averaged in the recent past. The increasing precipitation will not fall evenly across the entire year, however.

Most of that increased precipitation is expected to come in the spring, while summers and falls are likely to become slightly drier than they are now. 

That’s because temperatures across Indiana are continuing to go up, too, causing evaporation to increase and making summers drier. Cherkauer said Hoosiers witnessed a little bit of that this summer with the early season drought.

As the climate warms, rain is additionally predicted to take the place of much of the snow in the cold season from November through March. In southern Indiana, there will be little snowfall at all by late in the century. In the north, snowfall will be greatly reduced compared to the past, Cherkauer said.

“On average, we’re looking at a little hotter, potentially drier summers that are not necessarily long, multi-year droughts like in the 1930s, but actually more flash droughts — so very rapid changes, increased temperatures and very rapidly drier conditions,” he said. “It means that moving forward, we need to think about how we manage water.”

Gabe Filippelli, who works at Indiana University’s Environmental Resilience Institute, emphasized that climate change is already challenging Indiana’s water infrastructure “significantly,” especially due to “a lot more extreme precipitation events” than in the past.

Gabriel Filippelli, a professor of Earth sciences and executive director of the Indiana University Environmental Resilience Institute (Photo courtesy Indiana University)

“We’re already seeing some of these impacts. We will be getting probably a little bit more precipitation, but it’ll come in much, much larger, extreme precipitation events, and it will get substantially warmer,” he said.

More rain is expected to lead to increased surface runoff, he continued. That can cause higher concentrations of pollutants, like E. coli, to move through streams and waterways, in addition to increasing occurrences of harmful algal blooms.

More “super warm” and dry summers can also have agricultural implications in the long-term, moving the corn and bean belts away from Indiana, Filippelli added. In more urban areas, cities will also face challenges with extreme, even deadly heat.

Sarah Beth Aubrey with IN-Climate said farmers want to be part of the solution. Improved communication with growers is key, she said, as long as “they aren’t made to feel like their backs are against the wall.”

“Two years ago, I would have said to you how to talk to farmers about climate, don’t use the word climate. They don’t want to feel vilified,” she said. “Some growers are very comfortable in the conservation space with the practices that they do today. Others feel like they’re not sure what practices they can do. They’re not sure how to pay for those, what they might cost, how they might change their labor and equipment needs, and so they may be more reticent to engage around that.” 

Filippelli further emphasized that while Hoosiers “need to stop putting carbon in the atmosphere … this crazy weather that we’re having is not going to go back to what it was 20 years ago” just addressing carbon alone. 

“We’re locked into whatever the climate is — we’re locked in for hundreds of years,” he said. 

Policymakers should be looking farther in the future when enacting new laws, he said, and be “much, much, much more intelligent with how we build flood maps and flood hazard zones. He also suggested that state and local leaders need to explore more ways to introduce green infrastructure — like planting trees and restoring wetlands.

Floodplains and wetlands

Cherkauer said Indiana policymakers should focus more on wetlands and existing drainage channels that can store excess water in the winter and springs so it’s available in the later, drier seasons. 

Antonio Arenas Amado, a professor at Iowa State University, doubled down, saying there is an “urgent demand from municipalities for updated data to update their infrastructure design” to reflect the impact of climate change.

But in recent years, Indiana’s Republican-dominated legislature has refused more “restrictive” water regulations. Instead, GOP-led efforts have resulted in rollbacks and removals of protections for certain wetlands.

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling from earlier this year will also effectively remove federal protections for most of Indiana’s wetlands — and enable Hoosier lawmakers to repeal already-weakened state protections for those areas.

Rachele Baker, chief ecologist and president of Little River Consultants (Photo courtesy Little River Consultants’ website)

Rachele Baker, chief ecologist and president of central Indiana-based Little River Consultants, emphasized that wetlands provide flood management, rainfall storage and water quality protection. 

Baker said well-managed wetlands can replace “expensive” expenditures for regional water detention facilities, combined sewer overflow projects, water treatment and flood relief plants, as well as costs associated with endangered species protections, farming tile drains, buffer strips, and other infrastructure maintenance and repair.

“This is certainly not a solution to all of our climate change problems with respect to water supply, but certainly isolated wetlands exist as a partial solution, and we’re not protecting them,” Baker said. “Instead we’re looking at, can we build massive infrastructure and save on all this water and then build infrastructure to send it out to everyone? I think that we need to be thinking more about protecting these isolated wetlands as a way of protecting our water supply.”

Threats to Indiana’s water resources

PFAS and coal ash were additionally of high concern for environmental advocates who spoke at the summit.

Matt Prater with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management’s (IDEM)  Drinking Water Branch outlined the agency’s recent efforts to monitor and test for PFAS throughout the state’s water supply.

PFAS are a group of human-made chemicals found in all kinds of non-stick and stain-resistant products — from pans, to carpets to fast-food wrappers. Among other things, exposure to them has been linked to kidney cancer, problems with the immune system and developmental issues in children.

IDEM’s ongoing PFAS sampling project has already shown that 19 drinking water utilities in Indiana have levels of PFAS above federal health guidelines. More test results on the way later this year, Prater said.

A bill authored in the 2023 session by Rep. Maureen Bauer, D-South Bend, establishes a pilot program to monitor PFAS exposure in Hoosier firefighters. Bauer said at the summit that she hopes to pass more legislation tackling PFAS in the 2024 session.

Indra Frank, the Hoosier Environmental Council’s (HEC) director of environmental health and water policy, additionally pointed to Indiana’s continued need to address coal ash.

Indra Frank, of the Hoosier Environmental Council. (Courtesy HEC website)

Despite pushback from environmental advocates, Indiana lawmakers adopted new legislation earlier this year to prevent state environmental regulators from making stricter coal ash rules than federal ones. 

“We have our standards we want to maintain (in Indiana),” Rep. David Abbott, R-Rome City, said about the new state law. “I think the over-restriction of the federal government is probably the biggest thing I get concerned about …. I like to be less restrictive and focus on our state without having an overreaching authority over us.”

Frank said the policy decision was a step back for Indiana.

“As we see more precipitation and more of our precipitation falling in extreme storms — that puts coal ash sites at increased risk for flooding like it does everything else,” Frank said.

“Yeah, it does cost money,” she continued, talking about the proper disposal of coal ash. “But we’ve been building appropriately engineered landfills for our municipal waste since the 1990s, and probably before in this state, and so it’s just a matter of having the coal ash disposed of at least as carefully as we dispose of our municipal waste.” 

Draft federal regulations for toxic coal byproducts could cover nearly 50 exempted dumps spread across 14 locations in Indiana. The rule has not yet been finalized, though.

Action at the state level and the Statehouse

State lawmakers at the summit also discussed a yearslong effort to create an option for Indiana counties to join together to form watershed development commissions. A bill, authored by Rep. Mike Aylesworth, R-Hebron, passed in the most recent legislative session. 

The commissions can now work on both water quantity and water quality issues in their watershed by using small assessments on the properties within the watershed. 

Watersheds are the natural boundaries for water movement in the landscape. The HEC has hailed the effort as a positive move for water resource management in Indiana.

“We want to provide that option for the local governments to come together, create some body that gets people talking and coordinating efforts, and then provide you with a way to raise fees to implement that strategy,” said Matt Meersman with the St. Joseph River Basin Commission.

Sen. Sue Glick, R-LaGrange (Senate Republican website)

Sen. Sue Glick, R-LaGrange, who sponsored Aylesworth’s bill, said major development projects around Indiana warrants more attention to water resources — which local and regional stakeholders should have a hand in.

“If you’re going to do major projects, such as the LEAP project, you better figure out early in development where the water com going to come from, or that’s going to be a real sad place when they turn on the faucet and they don’t have enough water,” Glick said.

“We have to know where the water is. We have to know the strain, we have to know what kind of quality it is,” she continued. “And that’s where the watershed development commissions can be very effective and very important.”

Rep. Carey Hamilton, D-Indianapolis, additionally said Indiana should do more to adopt green energy policies and practices.

“We’re hearing from the Indiana Economic Development Corporation that virtually every company that wants to come to our state is looking for green energy,” she said. “That is a priority for where they start their new businesses. We’re going to start to hear about more failures of business attraction if we don’t pivot to more green energy more quickly.”

Hamilton said she will continue to push for a statewide climate change commission. Her bill to do just that got a hearing in 2020, but no vote.


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Casey Smith
Casey Smith

A lifelong Hoosier, Casey Smith previously reported on the Indiana Legislature for The Associated Press. Internationally, she has reported on water quality across South America. She holds a master’s degree in investigative reporting and narrative science writing from the University of California/Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She previously earned degrees in journalism, anthropology and Spanish from Ball State University, where she now serves as an instructor of journalism.