Local leaders oppose plan that could pollute water

By The Associated Press

INDIANAPOLIS — Local government officials and environmentalists oppose a project proposing to burn or harvest parts of the Hoosier National Forest because they are concerned it could contaminate the only source of drinking water for more than 140,000 people.

The U.S. Forest Service approved the Houston South Vegetation Management and Restoration project last week, The Indianapolis Star reported. Federal officials point out that projects such as this are a common means of maintaining forest health. But critics say it could worsen existing water-quality issues in the Lake Monroe reservoir, which serves all of Monroe County.

Michelle Paduani is the district ranger for the Hoosier National Forest and responsible for the project.

"A central part of the (Forest Service) mission is protection of water quality," Paduani said in an emailed statement. “Protecting water quality is not a mandate to do nothing on the landscape. ... The mitigation measures we apply are highly effective in protecting water while meeting other objectives of improving wildlife habitat and forest resilience.”

The plan could take up to 20 years to complete and is the largest of its kind ever done in the southern Indiana forest.

"Lake Monroe is the surface drinking water source for not only Monroe County but also surrounding areas," said Monroe County Commissioner Julie Thomas, a vocal opponent of the project. “We’re really concerned.”

Monroe County residents' efforts to find reliable drinking water in the region date back to the mid-1800s, said Bloomington's utilities director, Vic Kelson.

It wasn't until Lake Monroe was created in the 1960s that Bloomington finally had a stable source of drinking water.

"As long as the water quality continues to be good in Lake Monroe and the lake doesn’t fill in with sediment … we’re in the best situation we’ve ever been," said Kelson, who did not say he opposed the project. “But it took about 100 years.”

The Forest Service's environmental assessment of the project, which is estimated to generate $2.6 million from timber sales for the federal government, said it would have no significant impact. A portion of sales would also go to Hoosier National Forest projects.

Some fear soil disturbances from the expansive project would increase the amount of erosion into the lake.

Sherry Mitchell-Bruker, the co-founder of Friends of Lake Monroe, an organization that advocates for the lake's recreation and water quality, said she is extremely frustrated.

"To move forward without making any changes to the project in spite of these concerns is irresponsible,” she said.

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