GUEST COMMENTARY: Conservancy district offers local solutions

2011-06-01T00:00:00Z GUEST COMMENTARY: Conservancy district offers local solutionsBy Thomas McDermott Jr. nwitimes.com
June 01, 2011 12:00 am  • 

Anyone who is familiar with the news in Lake County knows full well the devastating impact the floods of 2008 had on the region. Since then, millions of dollars of state and federal money have been pumped into the Little Calumet River Basin Authority to finish a job that should have been done 20 years ago.

To the LCRBA's credit, construction of the levee is basically completed. Now, our attention is being focused upon the issue of how to maintain the levee. Who will be in charge? Who will pay for this maintenance and how much? We need to provide answers and solutions to these questions quickly, so we never have a repeat of the 2008 disaster.

At this point, there are two approaches being considered. One is to keep the LCRBA intact and in charge of assessing the required fees. The other is a proposal being offered by Lake County Surveyor George Van Til. Recently, Van Til introduced an ordinance to the Hammond City Council to create the Calumet Burns Conservancy District, which will consist of the entire Little Calumet River watershed. It covers most of Lake County and parts of Porter County. Van Til plans to introduce identical ordinances to the city and town councils in all of the affected communities.

If the Hammond City Council passes this ordinance, a petition will be filed in the Lake County Circuit Court to begin creating the CBCD. If the petition is successful in the Circuit Court, and the conservancy district is created, the responsibilities and costs associated with maintaining the newly constructed levee will fall to the leaders of the newly created district.

The leadership will be elected from the landowners within the watershed. Since all communities that send water to the Little Calumet River will be assessed a fee, all communities should be represented.

Currently, four out of the five members of the LCRBA reside in Munster. This is unfair to residents of the watershed, when 80 percent of the board is from one community. The conservancy district plan calls for nine elected members, eight of whom reside in different districts inside the watershed. This system is not only more fair, it is also more representative of the entire watershed. The levee system and its maintenance is a regional problem, and each community affected by this problem should have a say in the solution.

The conservancy district proposal is less expensive than the proposal offered from the LCRBA as well. Because landowners from both sides of I-65 will be assessed a fee under this proposal, the pool of funds available will be larger, which means everyone will pay their fair share.

Under the initial proposal brought in statehouse this year, landowners from east of I-65 weren't assessed a fee at all, even though their water contributes to the river level just as much as landowners from west of I-65. That imaginary boundary was wisely removed from the CBCD, and the entire watershed is included in the proposal. Outside of political considerations, there was never any rationalization for the exclusion of the landowners east of I-65. Their water contributes to the problem just as much as water from west of I-65.

Overall, I feel that the CBCD approach is a wiser course than the current format. in Indiana, there are more than 120 Conservancy Districts, with a few of them right here in Lake County. What is unusual is the composition of the LCRBA, with 100 percent of the appointments appointed by the governor, 100 percent of the appointments coming from a single political party (Republican) and 80 percent of the appointments coming from a single community.

The operating and maintenance costs of the Little Calumet River is a local issue that should be handled locally. I ask the communities along the river to educate themselves on this issue and consider Van Til's proposal. In my opinion, it is a fair and local solution to this pressing local problem.

Thomas McDermott Jr. is mayor of Hammond. The opinion expressed in this column is the writer's and not necessarily that of The Times.

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