The General Assembly is debating an $800 million road funding package, but Indiana’s water infrastructure needs more than $2 billion in urgent repairs.
School districts and towns all over the state are having problems with water infrastructure. Some have lead pipes, 100-year-old pipes or pipes with big holes that leak water.
One such town is Greentown, in Howard County, near Kokomo.
In October 2015, Eastern Howard Elementary School found elevated lead levels in its drinking water.
“We were in the neighborhood, in couple of areas, of 30-35 parts per billion,” says Tracy Caddell, superintendent of the Eastern Howard School Corporation. “And then, where water was coming in at the source, which was nondrinking water, we were, in a couple of cases over 100 parts per billion.”
While there’s no safe level of lead, Eastern’s situation is better now. It’s most recent test results were between 0 and 3 parts per billion.
“Every drinking fountain has a filtration system. It’s caused a little bit more work for our maintenance staff, but, obviously, it’s worth it,” says Caddell.
The legislature is debating an $800 million infrastructure package this year — but the money is for roads, not water.
There are two bills addressing water infrastructure this session, but neither free up any money. Sen. Ed Charbonneau (R-Valparaiso) proposed both — his bills would put the Indiana Finance Authority in charge of a pot for any future money allocated for water infrastructure.
Charbonneau says he’s had to take an incremental approach.
“You can talk about timing, this is maybe poor timing to be coming up and identifying a $2.3 billion issue that needs to be addressed,” Charbonneau says.
People have been waiting for road funding and roads have long been labeled the focus this session. By all accounts, Indiana’s roads and bridges need the attention. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the states infrastructure a D+.
But still, the question remains, why the tight focus on roads instead of water?
“If people can’t see it, don’t spend money on it,” says Andy Downs, a political science professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.
“People can see roads, they can’t see water pipes, they can’t see sewer pipes. And we all know, a couple, several months ago we had a small problem with a bridge over I-65, and that created a focusing event for everybody to look at and suddenly roads became incredibly important.”
Downs says while individual communities might have problems, those problems are not felt by all Hoosiers all across the state.
But Eastern Howard’s Caddell doesn’t see it that way.
“Public health should have priority over roads,” says Caddell.
He says he’d like to see the state dip into its budget surplus and start replacing dated and dangerous water infrastructure.
In the meantime, he says local efforts to reduce lead risk are working in Greentown.
“We’re confident that we’ve got plans in place,” says Caddell. “We flush our water systems now every Monday, our drinking fountains all have filtration systems, as I’ve already mentioned.”
Eastern Howard is also working with Greentown and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to continue testing its water.