Flint, Michigan, is synonymous with the story of its water contamination and a reminder of how necessary clean drinking water is — a luxury often taken for granted in American cities.
The Hoosier Environmental Council is concerned with what it sees to be a lack of state funding in the current proposed budget for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management’s clean drinking water programs, said Tim Maloney, senior policy director at the HEC.
Maloney mentioned Flint as a cautionary tale.
“Safe drinking water is just essential for both people to be healthy and for communities to be healthy,” he said.
IDEM’s Office of Water Quality performs chemical and biological tests on surface and groundwater, regulates drinking water supplies and wastewater facilities, and protects wetlands, according to its website. There are various branches, such as the drinking water branch, surface water, operations, as well as enforcement branch, wastewater compliance and permitting branches within the office.
Maloney said Indiana currently has slightly more than 4,000 public drinking water systems in Indiana. But as recommended in the governor’s budget proposal, funding for IDEM’s program remains stagnant in this year’s in-progress budget — something Maloney sees as problematic, especially because of staff cuts and a decrease in appropriations state departments such as IDEM and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources have seen in the past 10 years, he said.
The HEC’s website states general fund appropriations for IDEM have declined about $9 million per year in the last 10 years and that IDEM staffing has dipped to 800 positions from 950 in 2008. The IDNR received $18 million less in general funds than they would’ve if the DNR budget had “remained static,” according to the website.
“The state agencies have to continue to operate on a shoestring,” Maloney said. “And when you do that, you increase the risk that something that needs to get done won’t get done.”
Phil Bloom, communications director for the DNR, said the department continues to monitor the budget process and this year’s proposed budget is very similar to budgets the DNR has seen in past years.
Bloom said the Senate version of the bill contains an additional $4 million to address deferred maintenance at state parks, which Maloney called “badly needed.”
Bloom did not comment on the matter further and merely said the DNR was looking forward to seeing the budget bill’s final version.
“DNR will do what it always does,” Bloom said. “We’ll work within our budget.”
IDEM declined to comment because its policy is not to do so during pending legislation. The author of the budget bill, Rep. Timothy Brown, R-Crawfordsville, could not be reached for comment.
Indiana passes a new budget every two years. The House and the Senate have created two separate versions of the bill during the legislative process therefore they must meet in conference committee and agree on changes.
Maloney said the HEC regularly expresses concerns to the legislature regarding what they see as a lack of environmental funding in the state budgets. They’d propose a 10-percent increase in general fund appropriations for both the IDEM and DNR, he said. This general fund increase for IDEM would, “underwrite critical drinking water as well as critical clean up programs,” according to the HEC website.
When a crisis happens, like in Flint or with the lead contamination incidents in East Chicago, that’s a reflection of the state not paying enough attention or devoting enough resources to making sure everything is working as it should, Maloney said.
A local organization, Friends of Lake Monroe, exists as a watershed group to advocate for and protect the lake — Bloomington’s only source of water — for years to come. Organized by Sherry Mitchell-Bruker, Friends of Lake Monroe has been slowly growing in size since its inception last November. Mitchell-Bruker expressed concerns about maintaining the cleanliness of the lake’s water, which mentioned past increases in the level of disinfection byproducts and an uptick in the amount of toxic algal blooms in the water.
Though at the moment there are no known health risks associated with drinking water from Lake Monroe, Mitchell-Bruker’s concern is that people be made aware of the issue and the need to constantly combat and monitor potential hazards.
On a much larger scale, Maloney also worries about proposed cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency. If the cuts suggested by President Trump’s Office of Management and Budget were to go into effect, a number of programs and grants, such as the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, environmental education, lead risk reduction and nonpoint source grants, would be eliminated. Maloney described these programs in an email as “utilized by and important to Indiana.”
Maloney can’t say that if Indiana passes this proposed budget as is there will be a contaminated water crisis, but it does raise the odds.
“Indiana’s not always put the priority on environmental protection and natural resource conservation that we think it deserves,” Maloney said.