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Making the grade: First-ever report card assesses health of White River

white river report card.jpg
Posted at 6:05 AM, Jun 23, 2023
and last updated 2023-06-23 19:23:34-04

INDIANAPOLIS — The 2-year process to assess the health of the White River is complete.

The White River Report Card Partnership engaged more than 500 stakeholders, including municipalities, organizations and business owners in 16 central Indiana counties located along the White River watershed.

The report card is the first-of-its-kind for any body of water in the state of Indiana. The overall grade is derived from scores in three broad categories which include Community, Land and Water.

Overall, the White River received a moderate health score of 51 percent, earning a letter grade C.

“I would say it is pretty average,” Kelly Brown, senior environmental coordinator with the White River Alliance said. “Plenty of room for improvement, but right in the middle.”

While a 51 percent might sound like a failing grade for the average student, the grading scale for this report card is evenly distributed.

“You can see more of that incremental change,” Brown said.

According to the report card, change is exactly what’s needed when it comes to wetlands in the state.

“That is our lowest grade with an F, and like a 7-percent F, which is dismal,” Brown said. The wetland score reflects only the period of 2011-2019.

“In the state of Indiana, I think we’re down to 2 percent of all wetlands of what historically was there if you were to look at it from a longer time frame."

Brown says a number of factors have led to the loss of wetlands in the state, including land development for housing and agriculture. Policy decisions have also had an impact on wetlands.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision will effectively end federal protections for most Indiana wetlands. In 2021, the Indiana General Assembly passed a law that removed some state protections for wetlands.

While it is possible to construct new wetlands, Brown says they fall short of the real thing.

“It's never going to function quite as well as an existing wetland,” Brown said. “Protecting the little bit we have left is going to be the best way to provide that ecosystem and all those benefits of flood reduction, groundwater recharge and everything else.”

Another area of concern is bacteria, specifically E. coli.

“D is the grade we have,” Brown said. “So that means that quite frequently the water is not safe for body contact. Usually that is associated with rain events.”

Rain events often lead to sewage flowing into the White River through combined sewer overflows found in Indianapolis and Muncie. It’s a problem Citizen’s Energy is working to address in Indianapolis with its DigIndyproject.

Citizen’s is creating a tunnel storage system that will collect more than 250 million gallons of sewage during rain events, allowing the utility to treat the water before it is released.

In the meantime, Brown says the mantra "feet not face," is the safest way to interact with the White River.

“I would be comfortable kayaking,” Brown said. “As long as it has not rained within the last two days. There’s a lot of beautiful places on the White River.”

Although the White River is occasionally unsafe for humans, the creatures that call the waterway home are thriving. The White River received high marks in both Wildlife Diversity and Aquatic Life.

“You're going to see so many birds and turtles and things like that, and I think it's one of the best ways to connect to nature and just feel rejuvenated," Brown said.

And rejuvenating the White River is exactly why the report card was done and will be repeated in five years.

“We really hope to see the scores improve,” Brown said. “Hopefully, everyone will see themselves somewhere in this report card. The biggest takeaway is really using this as a way to align people and hopefully generate some action."

Click here to review the complete report card.

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