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Task force begins working to understand Indiana's water infrastructure needs

The Indiana Water Infrastructure Task Force, charged by the General Assembly with identifying the challenges and costs of improving the state's aging water infrastructure, held its first meeting Wednesday at the Statehouse. State Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparaiso, third from left, is co-chairman of the 11-member panel.

INDIANAPOLIS — The same strategy Indiana used over a five-year period to identify and fund its long-term transportation needs is being applied to understand the challenges and costs of improving the state's aging water infrastructure.

State Rep. Ed Soliday, R-Valparasio, on Wednesday convened the first of four Water Infrastructure Task Force meetings set for this year.

The 11-member panel, composed of four legislators, six water industry experts and the governor's budget chief, was established by the General Assembly to analyze the condition of the state's water and wastewater systems, develop a process for improving them and devise a plan to pay for it.

The task force immediately learned that the potential costs are eye-popping for a state whose annual General Fund spending totals about $16 billion.

According to the Indiana Finance Authority, there is an "immediate" need for $2.3 billion in water system repairs, and another $815 million a year is required for additional maintenance to protect human health and stem the loss of some 50 billion gallons of water a year that never make it to a customer.

"The gap between the money we have and the money needed is a very large number, and unless somebody has a friend that's a leprechaun we're going to have to find a way to set priorities, and do that in a constructive way so we can make progress," Soliday said.

He explained that, as with road funding, it's important to first understand the state's needs, which vary greatly among the more than 500 local water systems, and then figure out a system to rank those needs and determine who is responsible for meeting them.

"It's very easy to say, 'OK, well how much money can we get, and we'll set priorities based on the money,'" Soliday said. "But then you get nowhere because the number is so big."

"So we need to just stay focused on what needs to be done and what's the right order."

Soliday said he hopes that when all is said and done the bipartisan task force will be able to recommend some initial strategies for the Legislature to consider adopting during its 2019 session that begins in January.

Michael Simpson, the CEO of a Valparaiso water systems efficiency company, agreed. Simpson told his fellow task force members that doing nothing no longer is an option.

"It's time to fish and not just cut bait," Simpson said. "Clean drinking water systems, effective sanitation systems are the backbone, or the linchpin, of public health in this country."

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Statehouse Bureau Chief

Dan is Statehouse Bureau Chief for The Times. Since 2009, he's reported on Indiana government and politics — and how both impact the Region — from the state capital in Indianapolis. He originally is from Orland Park, Ill.