Alternate water options for town?

Nashville has long history of depending on other providers

If you own property in or near Nashville or Bean Blossom, chances are you pay your water bill to Nashville Utilities.

To get the water it sells to you, Nashville Utilities buys it from other sources — right now, all of it from Brown County Water Utility.

The town is a water distributor. It doesn’t have a plant to treat water that would come from a local source, such as a lake, river or well, to make it safe for household use, Utility Manager Sean Cassiday said.

As a distributor, it also is subject to price increases from its water suppliers, who might also be customers of another supplier up the chain.

When monthly water rates were studied in 2014, Nashville’s was among the highest in Indiana for communities of its size.

It’s been suggested more than once in the past 60 years amid water rate hikes, water supply problems or contract disagreements that the town consider being more self-sufficient.

The most recent was in 2014, when then-Town Superintendent Roger Bush pitched building a lake or water storage lagoon. The town council OK’d a feasibility study through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but the results weren’t favorable, town council President “Buzz” King said.

The subject of building lakes also surfaced several times in the mid-1960s, when the town and the county at large were experiencing water supply problems because of population growth. Brown County Water Utility was established around that time; Nashville became one of its customers in 1978.

The town council and Brown County Water Utility are now fighting in federal court for the rights to serve one large water user, Big Woods/Quaff ON! Brewing Co.

One of the reasons BCWU board President Ben Phillips gave for the utility wanting that customer directly was a concern that someday, Nashville might seek water from a different provider and take the brewery and distillery with it.

There are no plans for the town to seek alternate water sources outside its historical suppliers, which include BCWU and East Monroe Water Corporation, town leaders said.

There’s still interest, King said. But the cost to get past that point might not be worth it.

“There’s a reason why the Native Americans basically used Brown County as a hunting ground and then moved on,” Cassiday said. “It’s because there wasn’t any good water.”

“Unless someone finds an aquifer that’s pretty deep and pretty significant, I don’t see it being something we have an ability to do,” he said.

Service history

In terms of natural water resources, Nashville and Brown County are in the same boat with much of the state.

After the drought of 1988, the Indiana General Assembly asked the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to develop a plan to respond to future water shortages. In that plan is a map of ground-water availability in every county.

Indiana as a whole “is generally considered to have adequate water resources statewide to satisfy domestic, industrial and environmental water supply needs,” the report said.

Most of Brown County, though, is shaded pink, representing the lowest flow of ground water. Neighboring Monroe County is in a similar situation.

Generally, southern Indiana lacks good groundwater supplies because of the soil, and because the aquifers — porous rocks that hold moisture from rainfall and runoff — are tapped by many cities, counties and farms, the report said.

For more than 60 years, Nashville has had to rely on other providers for adequate water access, and that history is dotted with contract concerns, rate hikes and shortages.

Prior to 1950, Nashville had been getting its water through wells and a pipe from Ogle Lake in Brown County State Park. But those sources did not provide a uniform pressure; and in the mid-1960s, the DNR decided it wanted to get out of the water business and keep Ogle water for park use, according to Brown County Democrat archives. The DNR also had doubled what it was charging the town over the past 15 years.

The Brown County Democrat weighed in on the issue with a rare, front-page opinion piece in February 1964. “We have a choice” was the headline.

“If the limited supply from the state park is stopped, as has been threatened, the town will be forced to buy from whatever source is available regardless of cost,” the editorial said.

The editorial laid out two options: the town could build its own lake and treatment plant, large enough to provide for future expansion; or private corporations could provide those facilities and sell water to the town to distribute to its customers.

“If the town does not face up to these obvious facts and take the initiative, private corporations will do the job and we will always pay a bulk rate established by the owners of the private utility,” the editorial said.

In the mid part of last century, Monroe County turned to lakes to meet its water needs. Two of them are partially in Brown County.

Lake Lemon was built in 1953 to provide drinking water for Bloomington; it’s now the city’s backup supply, the conservancy district reports.

Lake Lemon used to be called Bean Blossom Lake; Bean Blossom Creek was dammed to fill it, and Brown County homes, farmsteads and a cemetery were moved to make way.

“The new lake saved Bloomington’s life as a first-rate city,” said an August 1957 story in the Saturday Evening Post. It mentioned water being trucked into Bloomington multiple times in a decade and new industry not locating there because of a lack of water.

Lake Monroe was built in 1964, initially as a method of flood control for the White River. To build it, the state flooded Elkinsville and Johnson Township in southern Brown County. In 1967, Lake Monroe became a water source as well, and it’s now Bloomington’s primary water supply, the city reports on its history page.

In 1964, Brown County’s Rural Area Development committee also was looking for lake sites “that would provide Brown Countians with a greater source of water supply as well as flood control and recreational development,” a photo caption in The Democrat read.

One of those committee members, Max Loop, would later become president of a new, member-owned water provider: Brown County Water Utility.

In 1966, an Indianapolis engineering firm studied multiple options for getting more water to Nashville, including drilling more wells; buying water and running new lines from Columbus; buying water from the state from Yellowwood Lake, then running new lines and building a plant to treat that water; or buying water from Bloomington and running it through some existing lines on the west side of Nashville.

The town chose the Bloomington option, drawing out of Lake Monroe. Engineers at that time said that Brown County’s best source of future water was that reservoir.

But in 1975, the town discovered it had lost about $800 a month over the previous three years because of so much air getting into East Monroe Water Corp.’s pipes instead of water. It was enough to threaten the financial stability of the town’s water utility.

In 1977, the state board of health refused to allow the town any new water customers until it made major upgrades. Construction of the new Brown County High School and Middle School, Brown County Health & Living Community and the Brown County IGA were all put on hold, according to newspaper archives.

That’s when many of the water lines that now serve Nashville residents were installed, the town’s 2016 engineering report said.

To raise the $1.1 million to do that work in 1977, the town passed a 50-percent increase on in-town water customers and a 90-percent increase on out-of-town customers.

The next year, East Monroe objected to Nashville’s increased need for water from Lake Monroe because of the effect it was having on its own water system; and the state regulatory authority put a cap on the amount that could be pumped from Bloomington. Then, Bloomington proposed a 106-percent rate increase to all of its wholesale water customers, including Nashville, newspaper archives said.

Nashville began buying from Brown County Water Utility in 1978. One reason, besides need, was so it would not be dependent on one source, archive stories said.

The next year, BCWU underwent a major expansion project and signed a 40-year contract with Nashville. The town agreed to pay a flat monthly fee whether or not any water was used, so it became cheaper for the town to get most of its water from BCWU instead of Bloomington, stories said.

Water quality in Nashville became an issue in the early ’80s. Hotel owners complained of a film on their glassware when the water was heated in a dishwasher, and chemists found that it came from calcium and magnesium. The town mixed water from the two supplies and then began buying less water from Bloomington, according to a 1983 story. Bloomington was wanting to cut the supply to Nashville in half anyway, the story said.

In 1990, the town was warned by the Indiana Department of Environmental Management about water outages and low pressure. Without a greater supply of water, IDEM threatened a ban on new connections.

The privately owned Brown County Water Utility also ran into water supply and pressure problems in 1992. It only handed out 12 new water meters a month and people would line up the night before; it later switched to a lottery system so people wouldn’t camp out overnight in the parking lot, newspaper archive stories said.

In 1993, the town and BCWU ran into a contract dispute about the water supply. The town superintendent at the time, Roger Kelso, started talking with the state park about reopening the water link between Ogle Lake and town.

That didn’t happen; instead, the town put restrictions on how many new water users could come on board and renegotiated its contracts with BCWU and with East Monroe, newspaper archives said.

In the meantime, BCWU underwent another system expansion and the town helped pay for it for the next 10 years, according to its 1995 contract. In 1999, the town also had to help pay for upgrades to East Monroe’s water lines to Nashville.

Currently, Nashville Utilities has about 1,300 water customers within about a 5-mile radius of Nashville, including Bean Blossom.

The town is getting ready to do another update of its water system, including working on storage tanks, the East Monroe booster station near Schooner Valley, meters and possibly some valves to help regulate water pressure. That cost is estimated at $1.8 million; $1.2 million of that is a federal loan and the rest is a grant.

The town did have some water customers in the Kelley Hill/Schooner area who were receiving East Monroe water regularly, but the town switched their supply to Brown County Water a little over a year ago, Cassiday said.

Right now Brown County Water is cheaper than East Monroe’s, but quality, not price, was the reason to make the switch, he said.

In times of need, the town has the ability to switch its entire service area from using the Brown County Water supply to the East Monroe supply and vice-versa, Cassiday said. However, it tries not to mix the two supplies because the companies use different disinfectants in their water treatment, which could affect the taste, he said.

Alternate routes?

Twice in 2014, Bush, the former town superintendent, proposed ideas for helping Nashville produce some of its own water.

In 2013, the town’s water utility had been losing money. There were problems with its aging pipes and meters and planned developments — including the Blue Elk retirement and recreational village — hadn’t materialized, which could have brought down water rates, he said.

One idea was building one or two lakes in or near town. The sites that were studied were the Blue Elk land, near the intersection of Old State Road 46 and Clay Lick Road along Salt Creek, and behind Creekside Retreat, between State Road 46 East and Salt Creek Road.

The lake was planned to be as little as six feet deep. Still, Bush estimated it could hold 30 million to 60 million gallons and be a decent supplementary water supply for the town, plus aid in fire protection and maybe even become a recreational site.

King said the studies determined that a lake couldn’t be dug deep enough to hold that much water. “My answer was, if you can’t go deep enough, you make it bigger,” he said last week.

“But we never did pursue it.”

Another idea was building a 6-million-gallon water storage lagoon at Deer Run Park to catch overflow from Salt Creek. Bush proposed building a plant there to treat that water so it could serve as a backup or extra water source for the town and possibly be distributed to the county park.

That idea didn’t go forward for several reasons, including the park board having other plans for the land. Also, a water plant was projected to cost $3.5 million.

King still thinks those are good ideas, to an extent.

“It would still cost money to run it all, but the thing is, we’re at the mercy of other people now,” he said about water rates. “If we had our own plant, then we would be at the mercy of ourselves, and operating expenses, that you can control a little better than someone else.

“We’re already about the highest (water) rate in the state (among communities of this size) and I would hate to see it go up again,” he said. “But what can we do?”

One thing the town is doing is talking with East Monroe about its rates, King said. But, like Nashville Utilities, they’re also a transmission company, buying water from Bloomington, he said.

“My ideal thing would be to have some sort of contract with them that would allow us to use more water from them if, indeed, our prices went beyond reasonable for other sources,” King said.

There’s also a small water treatment plant for sale near the Brown-Bartholomew county line which King described as “interesting,” though the town hasn’t made any moves.

In past years the council had joked about dropping a line in Lake Monroe to feed Nashville since the lake is partially in Brown County. But as far as the town or county having any rights to that water, King said he hasn’t been able to find any document that says we have any.

“I’m sure there’s options out there,” Cassiday said about other water resources.

“We would love to be independent. But is it cost-effective to do that? That’s the question.”

Where your water comes from

Nashville Utilities: Buys all of its water from Brown County Water Utility. Also has a contract with East Monroe Water Corp. but is not using any water from that company currently.

Brown County Water Utility: Some comes from wells near the northern Brown County line and some is purchased from Jackson County and Citizens Water near Indianapolis (which draws from the White River, Morse Reservoir, Fall Creek, Geist Reservoir, Eagle Creek Reservoir and wells).

Cordry-Sweetwater Conservancy District: Buys from Prince’s Lakes Water Utility (which draws from the Scottsburg Lowland Aquifer).

East Monroe Water Corporation: Buys from the city of Bloomington (which draws from Monroe Reservoir/Lake Monroe).

Source: Water quality reports; Nashville Utility Manager Sean Cassiday

New legislation concerns water rights

Water resources are being discussed at the state level.

Gov. Eric Holcomb singed House Enrolled Act 1211 last week, which aims to monitor ownership rights of water resources, such as an aquifer, that are shared by Indiana and other states.

Rep. Steven Stemler, D-Jeffersonville, has been working on this issue for seven years, according to the News and Tribune. His district includes the Ohio River area, which shares a water supply with Kentucky.

Currently, the state of Mississippi is embroiled in a federal lawsuit against the city of Memphis, Tenn., and its Light, Gas and Water Division, saying the city pumped hundreds of millions of gallons of water from an aquifer that lies beneath the boundaries of Mississippi. In its last filings in 2015, Mississippi was seeking $600 million in damages.

The lawsuit is believed to be the first filed over a shared aquifer dispute, something backers say the new Indiana law could avoid.

— HSPA InfoNet

Author photo
Sara Clifford has been raising a family in Brown County since 2005 and leading the Brown County Democrat since late 2009. In addition to editor, she is the beat reporter for town government and writes columns, features and general news stories.