Indiana's Water Infrastructure Being Overhauled At A Drip

Feb 8, 2017

 

From the facilities that sanitize sewage to the pipes that deliver drinking water, Indiana needs billions of dollars in urgent water infrastructure repairs. Some of that infrastructure is more than a century old.

According to Sen. Ed Charbonneau (R-Valparaiso), Indiana was wooden pipes, lead pipes, pipes that have been in the ground for 140 years.

“The best of the best utilities are on a replacement cycle of something like 140 years,” he says.

Charbonneau has authored two bills addressing water infrastructure for this year’s legislative session. He has been working on the issue since 2012, writing legislation and chairing study committees.

“Everybody thinks we have all the water we need, everybody thinks we don’t have any problems, and you don’t see the problems,” Charbonneau says. “But ultimately we have a bigger problem below the surface of the ground, that you don’t see, than the one that we’re addressing now with the road funding.”

But neither of his bills allocate money to those updates.

The legislature is considering a massive infrastructure spending package this year — to fix the roads. None of that money would go towards improving water infrastructure.

Instead, Charbonneau’s bills address the problem incrementally.

“I didn’t want us, as we started drafting legislation, to make it sound like this was Indianapolis telling the rest of the state what they’re going to do with their water. If that was the approach, it was doomed to failure,” says Charbonneau.

One of Charbonneau’s bills would establish a fund to help communities finance water infrastructure projects — although it doesn’t actually appropriate any money for that fund. Think of it as a pot for money that will hopefully come in the future.

The other bill makes the Indiana Finance Authority the lead agency on water infrastructure issues. That might seem strange — there’s more than a dozen state agencies that deal with water — but the IFA already uses state and federal money to provide low interest loans to communities. So the idea is to let it manage that “pot for money,” once there’s a plan to put money in it.

Director of environmental programs at IFA, Jim McGoff, says the agency has been studying the state’s water infrastructure since 2014. It found as much as 75 percent of Indiana’s population is using water utilities in urgent need of replacement or repair. The estimated cost is more than $2 billion, immediately. And then an additional $815 million needed long term.

If or when state money is allocated for updates, McGoff says the state also identified two starting priorities.

“One of those being lead line replacement. And a second being very old service lines, you know some in excess of 100 years old,” McGoff says.

There’ve been a lot of other reports that underline urgency. One says every single county in the state has “significant needs” and projects a $7 billion funding gap over the next 20 years.

Another, this one conducted by an economic consultancy group in Michigan, found that nearly a quarter of Indiana businesses are dependent on water—more than any other state in the nation.

Charbonneau says “incremental” was the way to start addressing the water infrastructure issue, but he says the state will need to allocate some money at some point. He says he’d like the legislature to consider a spending package on water infrastructure like the one currently being considered for roads by 2019, if not sooner.

“We’re at the point where we’re looking at a $2.3 billion immediate need, and you can’t address $2.3 billion incrementally or you’ll be ‘incremental-ing’ from now until 2090 or something like that,” Charbonneau says. “So the rubber’s gonna have to meet the road here.”