True North Tilted Again – Because We’re Piping Water

In June, scientists released findings that the axis of the earth has tilted recently, which it does from time to time, but this time for surprising new reasons that are all about water. For decades now, we’ve observed that melting ice caps have redistributed the mass of our planet, which tips the axis. But humans have measured another tilt, and this one from “water transfer.”

Water transfer, for those who need an explanatory comma, is when one community faces a lack of water and works out a deal to pipe its water in from another county, city, state or region, something akin to piping gas or moving electrical energy from one area with an abundance to another with a shortage. This hit close to home this past year with Boone County’s LEAP initiative, where the county asked its neighbor, Tippecanoe County, for the right to pipe 100 million gallons of water daily to Boone County’s booming industrial corridor. Tippecanoe County residents started saying, “Hey, wait a minute here. What are the ramifications?”

Recently the Tippecanoe County League of Women Voters hosted a forum to inform residents there, allowing citizens to learn how this might impact them. The League’s forum intended to prevent kneejerk, polarizing responses for their county residents and promote thoughtful decision-making. Considering that water transfer is the stuff of geopolitical tension, it’s worth informing everyone about the topic.

Water rights have fueled ambient tension between Israel, Jordan and Syria for the past century with the three countries competing for the limited resources of the Jordan River. Closer to home, the federal government had to break a stalemate between the states of California, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico over shortages in rivers, lakes and underground aquifers out west. The population explosion in some western states has meant transplants come with an expectation that they can cultivate perfect East Coast lawns and have backyard pools. Ranchers who make a living on steak and hamburger cravings need millions of gallons of water to sustain their herds. And almond milk is big business.

Let’s unpack this. Every pound of edible beef requires just under 2,000 gallons of water. A 1,400-pound steer requires about 1,100,000 gallons of water to produce about 550 pounds of saleable meat. A Fourth of July cookout of steaks and burgers for 15 people requires 3,000 gallons of water just for the meat. That doesn’t count the sides, the drinks and the washing up of dishes afterward. It’s not just ranchers competing, as noted. Folks baking in Arizona and the southwest, where the lows this last week were 100 degrees, want their pools filled. There are 1,343,000 residential pools in California and more than half a million in Arizona. Then there’s everyone’s go-to plant-based milk. An eight-ounce glass of almond milk requires more than 16 gallons of water to produce. Almond yogurt and creamer require more because they are concentrated. Side note: soy milk requires significantly less water, and has the equivalent protein of dairy milk sans lactose, but falls close to but under dairy milk in emissions because of how soy is cultivated.

Water in some regions is a competitive sport. While the bread basket of the U.S. seems to be swimming in moisture, the concerns of Tippecanoe County residents about transferring water from one of their two aquifers, without the water being returned, is significant. Piping water out of one area, where even the drainage will not return, without the long-term study of the impact, is worth raising questions and concerns. The global study that indicates redistribution of the earth’s mass from water transfer may suggest macro-evidence for a micro-local experiment.

Why is Boone County asking for water from Tippecanoe? The LEAP zone, which stands for Limitless Expansion/Advanced Pace, is an economic growth zone for the state. (Note: even Boone County residents filed a lawsuit against the initiative, calling for a pause on that limitless, advanced effort, saying it would create water challenges and gobble up farmland.) Lilly has a huge manufacturing facility under construction in the LEAP zone as does a huge superconductor manufacturer. Big industry has the backing of many state officials and Gov. Eric Holcomb. But at what cost?

Here’s where water rights come in. First, there are several types of water rights. In the eastern U.S., those rights have typically followed what’s called the “riparian doctrine,” meaning water rights are limited to those who have property access to a creek, river, lake or aquifer, but that may not mean they can use that water for their lawns or drinking. That can still be regulated by localities. By contrast, the western U.S. tends toward a “littoral” doctrine where landowners whose land borders large navigable lakes and oceans have unrestricted access to the waters but own the land only to a high water mark. Because of the riparian doctrine, localities need further regulation regarding who has rights to water.

Many Tippecanoe County residents with wells on their land are tapping into the aquifer that may source Boone County, if the water transfer is approved. If Tippecanoe gives Boone the go-ahead, they are regulating the wells of individuals even though those wells may have existed long before the transfer. Their needs and rights will now be subject to the legal agreement between the counties. If the wells start running low and there’s water competition, business will trump citizens.

Presently, the aquifer replenishes naturally because the water citizens use returns as treated wastewater. If it’s piped to another county, that water won’t contribute to replenishment, and there’s a lack of data about what might happen. Locals will have little legal recourse. Already they are small fry compared to the moneyed lobbying voice of corporations.

State Rep. Michael Aylesworth (R-Hebron) and Rep. Sharon Negele (R-Attica) introduced legislation to protect residents but it has yet to pass, leaving farmers and residents vulnerable. All kinds of true north have changed with water transfer, or so it seems. Limitless expansion at an advanced pace shortchanges the average jo. It betrays prudence and valuable data. If we have evidence on a macro level, that we are fundamentally altering the shape of our land, we should ask what’s happening on the micro-local level before we discover unexpected, painful consequences.

-The League of Women Vot¬ers is a nonpartisan, multi-is¬sue political organization which encourages informed and active participation in government. For information about the League, visit the website; or, visit the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, Indiana Facebook page.