(This piece was originally published on November 11, 2018 by the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette.)

Indiana has been blessed with an abundance of water. That’s particularly true in northern Indiana, with its proximity to the Great Lakes as well as hundreds of smaller lakes, rivers and streams.

The water has always been there, for drinking, for our homes, for recreation – and more than enough to meet the massive needs of our region’s biggest enterprises, manufacturing and agriculture.

Hoosiers are coming to realize that clean, plentiful water is a blessing we can’t take for granted. A 2017 poll by the nonprofit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust found 90 percent of Hoosier respondents “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about pollution in rivers, lakes and reservoirs.

In August, the White River Alliance organized a two-day, statewide Indiana Water Summit in Indianapolis. Last month, the legislature-created Water Infrastructure Task Force concluded its first round of hearings with plans to forward recommendations to lawmakers; one of its conclusions may be that there are so many pressing issues the state needs a separate task force on water-quality-related questions.

Water quality will be the main event next Saturday when the Hoosier Environmental Council takes its annual “Greening the Statehouse” meeting to Wabash. Having the gathering at a site near the Wabash River was meant to underscore the growing interest in “the health of our rivers and lakes,” Executive Director Jesse Kharbanda said last week. “We see this issue as a place where we can achieve true bipartisan progress through legislation.”

Though Hoosiers weren’t directly threatened by September’s Hurricane Florence, Kharbanda said, the storm’s destructiveness underscored the council’s concerns about the vulnerability of coal-ash dumps and factory-farm manure lagoons.

Florence’s flooding swept thousands of cubic feet of the toxic ash and millions of gallons of manure from hog lagoons into North Carolina waterways.

As the conference’s keynote speaker, Jeff Reutter will talk about northeast Indiana’s role in the battle to save Lake Erie from phosphorus pollution. The Maumee River is the lake’s largest watershed and the biggest source of that contamination, said Reutter, who recently retired after three decades as head of a Great Lakes protection program at Ohio State University.

“The Maumee is in a class by itself,” Reutter said in an interview last week. Primarily from agricultural runoff, phosphorus travels from this area, through northwest Ohio to the river’s mouth in Toledo. It can cause toxic algae blooms such as the one that poisoned the water supply in Toledo for two days in 2014.

“To solve this problem, we really need to work with the agricultural community,” Reutter said. There are steps farmers can take to improve soil quality and reduce erosion that could be “good for the farmer, good for the crop and (reduce) the amount of water that runs off and carries away phosphorus.” Such efforts also help preserve northeast Indiana’s precious network of recreational and fishing lakes, Reutter said, because phosphorus and other types of nutrients also cause other types of excessive plant growth that degrade bodies of water.

The Hoosier Environmental Council conference is part of a growing statewide focus on the future of Indiana water. You have a stake in that conversation.

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