Column: Lake Monroe is our water source. How can we protect it against climate change?

Some academics have predicted that as our climate changes we will begin to see increased numbers of “water wars,” with nations and people fighting one another to gain access to drinkable water sources. It’s a scary proposition and even if you do not buy into that, there are plenty of reasons for us to take exceptional care of our primary water source in Monroe County: Lake Monroe.

With a capacity of up to over 113 billion gallons, Lake Monroe was man-made between 1960-1965 for $16.5 million by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who to this day still manages the lake itself. Monroe County government is responsible for managing the land within the county planning jurisdiction. There are 441 square miles in the Lake Monroe watershed, or land that drains into the lake. Monroe County, other surrounding communities, and individual citizens need to take creative, practical actions to ensure the continued existence, viability, and health of our primary water source before we cause too much damage.

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Friends of Lake Monroe produced a Watershed Management Plan in 2022, where they identified key points of pollution and problems within Lake Monroe and proposed plans to help address them. Harmful algal blooms, otherwise known as the reason your city water tastes like dirt once or twice in the summer, result from pollution infiltrating the lake. This “algae” is actually a bacteria that is capable of making human beings sick and killing animals who go into or drink the water, including dogs. Excess nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, have been detected in Lake Monroe and are connected to the presence of this algae. These nutrients can come from agricultural fertilizers, industrial chemical waste, and sewage/human waste. Other sources of these nutrients include sediment runoff from eroding banks of the lake.

Drier summers and hotter temperatures accompanying climate change have also led to more frequent and severe algal blooms. Combine that with evidence of human and animal waste in the tributaries which feed into the lake and excess sediment from streams and the banks of the lake itself and you have a perfect storm for throwing off the ecosystem of Lake Monroe.

So what can Monroe County, surrounding communities, citizens, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers do to protect this vital resource? Farmers who tend to cropland within the watershed (around 10,000 acres) should be given incentives to not use fertilizers that contain nitrogen/phosphorus, or at the very least take substantial measures to control run-off from their cropland into streams. Farmers could also be restricted from allowing livestock to use streams that feed into the lake for a water source.

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Monroe County government and other surrounding communities should invest in bank stabilization (through man-made and/or natural measures such as trees, when appropriate), riparian buffers for streams within the watershed, and a look at their zoning regulations on the lands they control surrounding the lake. The reason why the county was concerned about the construction/timber harvesting on the peninsula owned by the Huff family includes increased erosion and sediment into the lake, increasing pollution, and requiring future, expensive remedial measures. Meanwhile, the Corps could look into instituting more “no wake” and “no landing” zones around the lake to prevent bank erosion by boats.

In order to work cohesively and collaboratively, key stakeholders such as local governments/commissions, farmers and other major land owners, nonprofits/citizen scientist groups, academic and scientific experts, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers should form a Lake Monroe Management Working Group. We must urgently work together to protect our future.

Andrew Guenther is a former member of the Bloomington and Monroe County environmental commissions and is a student at the IU Maurer School of Law.

This article originally appeared on The Herald-Times: Columnist urges more action to protect drinking water from Lake Monroe