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Lack Of Comprehensive Data On Water Usage Could Have Environmental Consequences

Daniel X. O'Neil

Purdue research showing that during some months, residents along the Wabash River use an amount of water equal to the river’s entire volume has raised questions about a new problem – tracking all that h2o. A study from the university’s school of civil engineering shows a huge lack of cooperation among county, state and federal agencies when it comes to reporting water usage.

If engineers had their way, nature would be a lot more orderly. Unfortunately for them, nature doesn’t respond well to rules. Purdue graduate student Julia Weiner says that makes studying a river, such as the Wabash, difficult.

Weiner says the first big question is knowing who keeps the data in the first place. “What are the agencies that collect the data?” she asks. “And when you have that information, you realize it might not be collected in the same way.”

Weiner studies water use in the Wabash -- who’s taking it out and putting it back in. Finding the amount of water flowing into the river isn’t hard -- the Environmental Protection Agency requires outflow be recorded. And in Indiana, intake is recorded by the DNR.

But rivers don’t care about state lines. To study the whole river, Weiner needed data from Illinois, a state that requires intake to be reported to the state, but doesn’t require it to be publicly available.

Conor Healy, water inventory program coordinator at the Illinois State Water Survey, which tracks usage data, says Illinois state statute requires anyone taking in more than 70 gallons per minute to report to the ISWS. However, “We’re not a regulatory agency, so we can’t enforce anything or enact fines” if certain users duck out of the reporting requirements. And unless the user is a public entity, there’s no guarantee anyone studying usage will be able to get the data at all.

In Indiana, intake data is cataloged by county, and the way it’s collected in Carroll County could be different than in Cass County. The researchers needed to go to many different agencies to get all the information they needed, and it took years for Weiner and her team to compile all the data for the Wabash study.

These kinds of discrepancies mean it can be next to impossible for researchers to get comprehensive data on who’s using water, and how.

Purdue Professor Larry Nies says that all indicates more cooperation, preferably an all-encompassing database across an entire river, is vital to better understand how water is being used.

“As water is becoming more and more scarce, the water resources are more stressed,” Nies says. “We need to have a good understanding of the availability of water.”

Valparaiso State Senator Ed Charbonneau, who leads the Environmental Affairs Committee, has authored water-management legislation in the past, including a bill last year that used volunteers to report surface and ground water levels.

“Water is a huge issue for economic development purposes, if nothing else.” Charbonneau says. “But there’s not a lot of good data on water in Indiana. The Department of Health, US Geological Survey, IDEM, the IURC…all of them deal with one figment of water but there’s no place where all that data is collected.”

He agrees with the need for more centralized reporting and supports the idea of a statewide “hub” for usage data, but admits no current legislation that would regulate water intake data is currently in the works. 

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