State must invest in water infrastructure


Water, water, everywhere it shouldn’t be.

About 50 billion gallons of water a year flow from Indiana pipes into places water does not belong, a new study by the Indiana Finance Authority estimates.

The age of the pipes in the state ranges from 1 to 120 years old, with the average age not much younger than the pipes running through our baby boomers’ bodies. Time catches up to all of us, especially if we don’t tend to our pipes.

The state’s water infrastructure needs about $2.3 billion worth of repairs and then an estimated $815 million a year in additional maintenance, the study found.

Other states in this part of the country – Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Wisconsin and Minnesota – have bitten the bullet and contributed substantially to water and wastewater infrastructure, the study reported.

Absent from the list, you may notice, is the neighbor to the west. But does Indiana want to be in that club?

Pointing to Illinois’ myriad problems passes for economic development in these parts. The neighbor’s taxes and dysfunctional governments provide an endless supply of punch lines.

But Indiana will no longer be able to claim the high ground if it kicks this can down the road. Go ahead, move to the low ground, and good luck stopping the water or health and economic repercussions.

The costs of inaction are clear. Water main breaks. Lead contamination dangers. Lost revenue to water systems. Not to mention a sinful level of waste.

Environmental concern may not seem much in vogue these days — when we have leaders mocking scientific knowledge and hard data — but we can all agree that water is among our most precious resources, can’t we? The water systems’ loss rate is about 20 percent in Indiana.

It’s not that we are not spending any money on infrastructure; it’s just that it’s not nearly enough. And the deficits will only grow, which is what deficits do, left untended. Some of the biggest infrastructure needs are in Lake County.

But, how to foot the bill? One finding of the study that should not shock is smaller water utilities are generally less cost effective, and the state has well over 500 independent water systems. Again we find ourselves comparing the state to Illinois, which leads the nation in governmental units.

Consolidation or, at a minimum, better coordination between systems would be one starting point. A comprehensive approach at the regional level, with a point person or agency, is vitally needed for planning, managing and prioritizing infrastructure needs.

Ultimately, the biggest reservoir of funding solutions will come from, you guessed it, you. The existing rate payers will need to pay most of the freight. The study does point to some possible new revenue streams, including a bottled water fee, high-user fee, new-user fee, gasoline fees and so on. Each comes with its own hurdles, political and otherwise.

The brightest note hit by the new study? “If Indiana addresses the problem now, the cost of maintaining the system will not cause societal or economic disruption.”

Your alternative to not addressing this then would be a disrupted society or economy. Illinois, in other words.

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