Water plays a role in nearly every aspect of our daily lives. From brushing teeth to spraying lawns, we are constantly draining Indianapolis' finite water supply. But as frequently as we tap the resource, many of us are unaware of the path drinking water takes before flowing from the faucet.
That journey begins with the White River replenishing Indianapolis' supply via the Canal, which Lenore Tedesco, director of IUPUI's Center for Earth and Environmental Science, labeled "an open pipe that moves water — an aquaduct."
Tedesco doesn't see a local amenity when she looks at the Canal. Instead, due to the waterway's easy accessibility, the professor believes the city's drinking water is under constant attack by pollutants ranging from fertilizer to animal waste.
"In Indiana, we thought it would be fun to leave [the Canal] open," she said. "Leave it open and let people ride their bikes along it, let the geese crap in it and let cars drive over it on bridges."
To put a stop to this barrage of pollution, the city is renovating its storm runoff systems, and striving to meet standards outlined by the Clean Water Act. Construction on a Deep Rock Tunnel Connector to properly transport sewage overflow is set to begin next month.
The CSO conundrum
Geese aren't the only culprits soiling the city's water supply. Thanks to an antiquated method of dealing with storm runoff, human contributions are also introduced into the White River and Canal.
Indianapolis uses a Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO) system, which blends sewage and storm water runoff as they filter into treatment plants.
The problem arises when Indy receives rainfall. As little as a quarter- to half-inch of precipitation is enough to overwhelm the CSO systems, overfilling holding tanks and allowing the untreated sewage to run unchecked into the river.
Data collected by the city's sector of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) over the past 30 years showed that each month brought some form of precipitation, either rain or snow, exceeding half an inch.
As of April 7, Indianapolis had already had six days this year in which the city received more than half an inch of precipitation. This total doesn't include snow-melt, another contributor to the CSO's intake burden.
Officials are aware of the problem and are taking action under orders by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to create viable solutions.
"Indy is obligated to remove a certain amount of sewage by stopping overflows from the CSOs," said Molly Deuberry, director of communications for the state's Department of Public Works. "And we're doing it in a nationally recognized, precedent-setting way."
State officials say renovations to the CSO system are progressing smoothly. "We are getting the sewage out of the water ahead of schedule," Deuberry reported.
On top of these efforts, Indy is working to fall back into compliance with the Clean Water Act with plans to build the Deep Rock Tunnel Connector, an interplant pipe that will store and transport sewage overflows. Contractors expect the pipe to be finished by May 2016.
Once completed, the 18 foot-diameter pipe will be buried 250 feet underground, stretching from the Southport Advanced Wastewater Treatment Plant to the Belmont Advanced Waste Water Treatment Plant.
Ideally, the improvements will help to diminish the prevalence of one pollutant in particular: E. coli. Today, approximately 80 percent of streams in the Upper White River Watershed are contaminated with the bacteria.
Professor Lenore Tedesco applauded the progress but warned of the CSO's legacy effects.
"Floaties don't float for long," Tedesco cautioned in reference to the raw sewage. "They sink, they settle. All that stuff gets trapped behind dams. That's not going to go away just because they stopped adding to the pile."
We all live downstream
Fixing the water quality crisis is proving to be a complicated process. It's impossible to approach it on a river-by-river basis. Instead, the state's watersheds may be at the root of the problem.
These mappable areas define the entire sphere of exposure on a supply of water. Indianapolis is part of the Eagle Creek Watershed, a hulking area that covers Henderson, Boone, Hendricks and Marion counties.
When rivers and streams from all four of these counties merge in the watershed, they combine farmland pesticides and urban pollutants accumulated along the way.
"I can tell you right now, the water quality coming into Marion County does not meet state standards," Tedesco said. "It's already polluted."
The main sources of pollution in these waterways aren't large corporations as one might suspect, but rather unregulated community members. It's the average citizen, in fact, that inflicts the most damage on our water supply.
Clear Choices, Clean Water
In order for individuals to start reining in their harmful impact, Tedesco said, education is key.
"Getting every person to understand that their little plot of land... is part of a watershed and, ultimately, part of our water quality, is important," she explained. "You have to have a community buy-in."
This concept led to the revamping of Clear Choices, Clean Water, an initiative spearheaded by Tedesco and other awareness activists. The group's current mission involves education regarding the dangers of phosphate-based fertilizers.
Liberally applied to the average residential yard, these compounds wash off of lawns and into storm drains every time it rains. From there, they flow directly into the river, significantly damaging the water's ecosystem. This type of contamination is known as "non-point source pollution," the most difficult type to remedy as it lacks one identifiable source.
Clear Choices, Clean Water's push for phosphate-free fertilizer has been successful so far. In the nine months since it began, the program has spread to eight states, including Washington and Texas. Locally, 18 businesses, neighborhoods and families have already gotten involved.
The organization's next project will educate pet owners on the importance of picking up dog waste. When left on the ground, fecal matter washes into the river, adding to the E. coli problem that plagues waterways.
Clear Choices, Clean Water is just one of several initiatives working to improve the public's awareness of Indianapolis' water system. Educational training programs, like stream monitoring through the Upper White River Watershed Alliance (UWRWA), teach participants about potential contaminants and how to accurately test for them.
Despite this progress toward cleaner water, Tedesco identified a widespread problem in the city's approach.
"My biggest concern is that the general public does not see a linkage between source water, its quality, and their health and wellbeing," she said.
To increase that community awareness from the ground up, Clear Choices, Clean Water urges Hoosiers to take a phosphorous-free pledge on its website, promoting mindfulness in how residents care for their homes and gardens.
"Water is a resource. It's not unlimited and it's something that has to be managed," she continued. "It has to be cherished. Our water resources have to be cared for."
For more on water quality and other environmental issues, check out our Green Guide in next week's issue of NUVO.