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An Indiana Community’s Fight to Save the West Fork of the White River

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In May 2014, some 60 concerned citizens in high spirits boarded canoes and kayaks to paddle the west fork of the White River between Anderson and Daleville, Indiana, for about 8 miles in what they billed as a “protest paddle.” Organized by the local grassroots group Heart of the River (HTR), they were protesting a plan originated by the Anderson Corporation for Economic Development (CED) and supported by the local Chamber of Commerce and elected officials to dam the river and construct a reservoir, a project its proponents call Mounds Lake. The dam would be 226 feet long and 50 feet tall, and the reservoir would cover 2,000 acres.

With good reason Anderson residents are fond and protective of the river. In 1999 an Anderson company, Guide Corp., in the process of going out of business, dumped barrels of a toxic organic solvent down the drain. When the solvent went though the Anderson sewage treatment plant, it killed off the beneficial bacteria and shut down the plant; the raw sewage and chemicals washed into the river. All the fish, about 5 million, in the river died between Anderson and Indianapolis. An out-of-court settlement with Guide created a $6 million fund to restore the river. The river has been restocked with fish, and the river’s quality has mostly returned to the level it was at before the incident. After conducting a semester-long water quality inventory, a local high school advanced placement science class ranked the White River a 3 on a scale of 1–4 (with 4 the best). The continuing recovery of the affected stretch of river is contingent on the migration of fish, unhindered by a dam and reservoir, from the unaffected areas.

For many years state and national natural resource agencies have recognized the beauty and recreational value of the west fork of the White River. A 1979 study by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) Division of Outdoor Recreation stated, “The White Rivers offers the greatest potential for recreational development in the Indianapolis and Anderson-Muncie areas. The significance of this riverine resource to the urban populations found along its banks, and to the people of Central Indiana in general, cannot be overstated.” The study recommended a 14-mile protected river corridor from the Mounds State Park area near Anderson to Muncie, about 19 miles east. The IDNR’s Natural Heritage Program identified the west fork as having outstanding ecological significance. In 1982 the National Park Service identified the west fork for possible inclusion in the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System. In 1993 the Indiana Natural Resources Commission placed parts of the west fork on its Outstanding Rivers List for Indiana. Currently a national organization, American Rivers, supports designation of the west fork as a Blue Trail, formally recognizing its natural beauty and the cultural resources along its banks.

Mounds State Park is the only one of Indiana’s state parks on the National Register of Historic Places in its entirety.

***

The paddlers had much to protest: the Mounds Lake project has many drawbacks. First are the environmental ones. A dam would create an entirely new ecosystem. The dam and reservoir would flood parts of Anderson and more than seven miles of riparian habitat in Madison and Delaware counties. It would inundate one-third of Mounds State Park and destroy the entire nature preserve, which includes a rare and irreplaceable fen containing numerous rare plants and animals, many of which are unique to the nature preserve’s habitat. The project would destroy almost 1,000 acres of hardwood forest along the river. According to the Hoosier Environmental Council, Indiana’s statewide environmental organization, the forests along the river provide high-quality habitat for shorebirds, songbirds, waterfowl, and bats and other mammals and protect the river from siltation and polluted runoff. The three-mile trail that runs around Mounds State Park would disappear if Mounds Lake were built.

Mounds Lake would destroy the abundant tourism and recreational attributes of the river. The west fork of the White River and its environs offer fishing for smallmouth and largemouth bass and other fish species; canoeing and kayaking; mountain biking; and hiking. Over 360,000 people visit Mounds State Park every year, and 20,000 travel the river by boat annually. Who would want to paddle around a sedate reservoir when they’re used to canoeing a wild, free-flowing river?

According to Lee Casebere, in “Dam Poor Idea” (Inpaws Journal, the periodical of the Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society):

As this reservoir drama unfolds, claims will surface that natural resources lost through flooding will be “mitigated” by replacing them elsewhere through habitat restoration. One of the great fallacies of our day is the lie that re-creating habitats through mitigation is somehow an equal and satisfactory substitute for destroying significant natural communities.

In this case, how do you replace, on a landscape scale, a glacially-created, groundwater-fed, complex system whose parts are not fully known or understood? It can’t be done. How then, can one begin to fairly mitigate and fairly compensate such a significant loss?

Mounds State Park is archaeologically significant, too, containing mounds, or earthworks, created by the Adena and Hopewell people approximately 2,000 years ago. Mounds Lake could damage this well-preserved Native American earthworks site, one of the best-preserved ones in Indiana. The mounds are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Mounds Lake would affect people, also. It would drown two working-class neighborhoods, for an estimated 400 houses and businesses, taking the land by eminent domain and forcing the displacement and relocation of hundreds of residents.

Nationally there’s a grassroots campaign to decommission dams because of their environmental destructiveness, as the film DamNation depicts. In fact, some 96 miles miles southwest of Anderson, on the east fork of the White River, a citizens’ group is striving to decommission the Williams dam. River fragmentation and thus habitat degradation and extinction of species are some of the results of damming rivers. Dams prevent the migration and propagation of local fish and mussels.

Mounds Lake would transform a high-quality public amenity, the White River’s west fork, into a private entity/commodity. Local officials hope the lake would attract wealthy homeowners, who would build luxury homes around it, bringing with them restaurants and other businesses. The project would solve a couple problems for some of the wealthy residents of Anderson. It would eliminate the two working-class communities, which some people regard as an eyesore. It would help the owner of a failing mall that sits atop a pre-EPA industrial dump, the liability for which is in question: the mall and dump would end up under the reservoir.

Mounds State Park-2

Mounds State Park. Photo: IDNR.

***

Concern about Anderson’s economic status is justified. Anderson is a city of about 55,500 residents 45 minutes northeast of Indianapolis. The population is some 78% white. At one time the city was prosperous, hosting numerous General Motors, Delco Remy and Guide Lamp factories along with a host of supporting industries. About 15 years ago the companies shut down the plants, leaving Anderson in economic peril. The jobs had been dwindling since the early 1970s, and ultimately 30,000 were lost. In the Anderson Community School District, 78% of the lunches served are free or at reduced cost.

***

The Mounds Lake plan was born in 2010, when, unknown to the public, a local business owner proposed it as an economic development project. Several local businesses and individuals secretly funded a Phase I feasibility study. The CED backed the project, still unknown to the public. In March 2013 local media first reported on the dam-reservoir project. Concerned residents formed the HTR coalition to investigate and oppose it.

HTR has received plenty of support for its opposition to Mounds Lake. Since June 2012, 11 organizations have expressed their opposition to the project—from the Hoosier chapter of the Sierra Club to the Audubon Society, Indiana Archaeology Council and Indiana Wildlife Federation.

In June 2013, Anderson’s Herald Bulletin reported that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had serious concerns about Mounds Lake; those agencies argued that the dam would be extremely destructive and should be considered only as a last option.

HTR has been actively opposing the Mounds Lake project since it became public knowledge. In May 2014 the organization sponsored a public forum and panel discussion with a hydrogeologist, economist, biologist and archaeologist, all of whom stated their opposition to the project. In a second public forum in November 2014, a panel of professionals discussed a wide range of impacts that the lake could have, including effects on drainage, transportation, wildlife, water quality and Mounds State Park. A question-and-answer session focused on the economics and groundwater issues that the dam proponents have ignored so far. Ball State University wildlife biologist Dr. Tim Carter said the river corridor might contain endangered Indiana bat populations. Archaeologist Don Cochran noted that the earthworks couldn’t be preserved with integrity if the dam were built.

The Hoosier Environmental Council, with help from the Robert Cooper Audubon Society and HTR, has formulated an alternative plan to save the river: building a greenway along it from Anderson to Muncie. A greenway would leave the river intact and build more trails, opening the area to small businesses like the canoe-rental businesses that are already present. The greenway would cost an estimated $40 million, one-tenth the projected cost of Mounds Lake.

The Mounds Greenway would encompass 2,300 acres of flood plain and would connect Mounds State Park and four other local parks in a stretch of parkland along the west fork of the river from Anderson to Muncie. In “Imagining a Mounds Greenway” (The Forest Defender, Autumn 2014), Jeff Stant, executive director of the Indiana Forest Alliance, gave several reasons for the superiority of a greenway to a reservoir: (1) A greenway is much less expensive than a reservoir and can come to fruition much more quickly. (2) Eminent domain would be unnecessary for a greenway: “The greenway [would] be a purchase area made up mostly of flood-prone ground to be acquired only from willing sellers.” (3) A greenway would protect “the greatest water supply available in central Indiana” and (4) would “preserve a free flowing river for 10 miles in a pristine setting and provide park land desperately needed in this part of Indiana.”

According to Sheryl Myers, an HTR member, “We’d like to go for the recreation angle that keeps the river wild and free, that opens up public trails for everyone and not just for people that might be wealthy enough to have a property on the reservoir. . . . Years down the line the rare thing will be a free-flowing river, not another reservoir that has to be maintained at great expense and will become a repository of invasive species. A free-flowing river virtually has no maintenance.”

***

The Mounds Lake boosters, meanwhile, have been busy. In October 2013 the State of Indiana granted the CED $600,000 from its Revolving Loan Fund to conduct a Phase I feasibility study and promote the dam to area residents. Not long after that the fund gave the CED another $50,000 to research and promote the project.

The lake boosters have cut out the public from the decision-making process involving Mounds Lake. According to Jeff Stant, writing in The Forest Defender:

Although residents have long been promised the opportunity to provide candid feedback on the CED’s plan, like the one-sided, pep rally-style meetings they sponsored last year, CED representatives made clear again that they would not entertain any alternatives nor would they consider any negative feedback to their reservoir at these sessions. Government officials and business leaders were invited to sessions from which the public was barred. No open testimonies from residents were allowed. Rather than listening, CED officials argued with individuals whose questions did not accept the reservoir. These individuals were told to write down their questions on cards, but there was no place to drop off the cards, no return address on them, and no one assigned to record their questions or respond to them.

The proposed Mounds Lake Commission would have the sole purpose to construct and operate Mounds Lake. As Stant put it:

The commission will be made up of representatives from all local units of government with any jurisdiction over the area impacted by the reservoir. To have a seat at this table, these governments must adopt a resolution obligating them to support the reservoir. Residents who are still trying to get basic questions answered, will now have to voice their opposition to the reservoir to many local officials, immediately, loudly and clearly or face the possibility that the entire gamut of local officials with any say over the reservoir will have committed to building it by this coming spring.

If local governments don’t vote to pass the commission, there will be no commission. The commission would consist of 12 members from the Madison and Delaware county councils and board of commissioners, the city of Anderson and the towns of Chesterfield, Daleville and Yorktown. The vote has to be unanimous on the part of all seven taxing units.

Quasi-governmental commissions like the Mounds Lake one are a legal way of handling large infracture projects under Indiana law. The Mounds Lake Commission would pursue the task of getting the dam and reservoir built—as Sheryl Myers puts it, “without any oversight, without having to answer to the electorate and without having to consider any alternative to building the dam and reservoir. . . . Were this commission to be formed,” Myers says, ”the dam and reservoir would be a ‘done deal’ at the local level.” The Mounds Lake Commission would have the authority to recommend tax increases to fund itself, issue bonds and use eminent domain to acquire property for the project. According to Myers, “Once the project is agreed to and people are appointed to sit on the commission, it’s going to be extremely difficult to dislodge.”

Reservoirs can’t be built for purely economic or recreational purposes. Therefore, the CED is trying hard to prove that central Indiana needs the reservoir as a water source. However, Citizen’s Water in Indianapolis said the utility wouldn’t need to begin purchasing water from Mounds Lake “for another 30 years,” if ever.

***

Mounds Lake proponents expect the preliminary design and permitting process for the dam and reservoir to be completed in the next two years, with that process costing $10 million. (Who would pay this bill is unknown.) Logging and archaeological excavations would presumably occur, and eminent domain condemnations would proceed. In 2020–2022, the dam construction would be completed, and the reservoir would begin to fill with water. Although the CED estimates the cost of the project to be $400 million, multiple independent sources expect it to be closer to $1 billion.

Even if the project gets the go-ahead from the Mounds Lake Commission, it still has to obtain permission from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Army Corps of Engineers, U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies. The earthworks are a national treasure, and the commission has to guarantee that they won’t be damaged or destroyed in the process of building the dam and reservoir. However, though the earthworks would not be underwater if Mounds Lake were constructed, the bluffs that the mounds sit atop would be subject to erosion.

***

The Mounds Lake Commission has the authority to acquire a full staff, including consultants, engineers, attorneys, accountants and secretaries. HTR has people power only. In the words of Sheryl Myers, the group is “outgunned, outmanned and outspent.” But HTR, undaunted, pushes on.

For Myers the most painful aspect of the project is the social justice issue. “The people who are being asked to give up the most won’t benefit at all. Those who are giving up the least will be raking in the profits. It’s taking one of the greatest natural, public resources in this whole part of the state and putting it in the hands of private investors, who are going to charge people for what used to be theirs to enjoy for free.”

Linda Greene is an activist and writer living near Bloomington, Indiana.

 

 

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