By Jill Hoffmann, director, White River Alliance

On Aug. 14-15, the second annual Indiana Water Summit was held with a targeted goal in mind: to propose solutions for water quality and availability issues facing Indiana. Hosted by the White River Alliance, the leading organization for regional water resource protection in Indiana, the event brought together a variety of dynamic speakers and experts from across the country to build upon the important conversations that started at last year’s statewide Water Summit. The focus and determination among the more than 250 participants was palpable as strategies emerged.

In early July, prior to this year’s Water Summit, several pre-Summit forums and stakeholder meetings were held to advance the leading interests that came out of last year’s event. Participants developed a detailed roadmap outlining cooperative strategies across all water sectors that was subsequently rolled out at the Water Summit.

The Water Summit and the pre-Summit forums are a powerful first step in protecting our shared water future, as they have created a designated space for critical conversations. Below are four key actions that must be advanced to improve and protect our water now and for the future.

Continue to educate the public and build public will.
Nobody would argue that safe water isn’t needed to make our dinners or to wash our beloved pets. And it’s clear that we need enough water to keep the industries that employ us running. The essential roles that water plays in our daily lives are almost endless, and it is imperative that we work cooperatively across the state with education partners and media professionals to continue to drive home the irreplaceable value of our water supply.

One of the pre-Summit forums brought together non-traditional educators, including representatives from the Indiana State Museum, the Indianapolis Zoo, Conner Prairie, local parks departments, as well as many others to begin working together on this critical task. We must prioritize building personal connections to water that will inspire individual action and garner support for community-based conservation strategies.

Based on their contributions at the Water Summit, it was evident that our State legislative leaders are also thinking hard about how water connects our communities, drives economies and influences investment decisions.  Leaders and policy-makers represent and act upon the values expressed by their constituents. If we want to ensure a strong water future, we need to build widespread awareness and allow that awareness to permeate our collective decision-making.

Start conversations among diverse water users. 
During the second of the three pre-Summit forums, significant water users from a variety of industries came together to discuss large-scale water use and the strategies they employ to conserve water. These users included golf course superintendents, gravel mine operators, professionals from industries like Eli Lilly and Elanco, public utilities managers and others. The forum exposed these users to industry counterparts with whom they don’t normally interact, creating a shared sense of responsibility to protect the large amount of water they all use. Conversations like these are crucial to best managing our water supply and guaranteeing its long-term viability.

Switch to conservation farming practices for economic and environmental win-wins.
A panel of award-winning farmers at the Summit explained how their conservation farming strategies have increased profits for them in both the short and long run. For example, one life-long Hamilton County farmer has seen a net profit per acre of $57.76 since switching to conservation farming practices. His transition and increased profit was particularly gained through the use of cover crops, which are planted to manage soil erosion, fertility, quality, and reduce irrigation needs. The farmer showcased how these efforts have brought about a 254 percent return on investment through annual benefits, such as reduced fertilizer expenses and increased yields, and long-term benefits, such as drought tolerance, increased carbon content in the soil and erosion reduction.

With agriculture contributing an estimated $31.2 billion to Indiana’s economy, according to the Indiana State Department of Agriculture, it’s important to recognize what we can be doing to help our farmers and the overall farming environment in Indiana.

Plan and prepare for water crises now.
At the Water Summit, flooding was identified as the largest looming concern, according to climate scientists affiliated with the Indiana Climate Change Impacts Assessment. We are not properly prepared for the risks, costs and economic impacts tied to the eminent threat that stormwater presents to our communities and ecosystems. There is an urgent need for Indiana to elevate the value it places on floodplains, wetlands and more sustainable stormwater management practices, as these features alone comprise the critical infrastructure needed to address the risks we face.

Hosting regional and statewide conversations like the Water Summit and the Summit’s interim forums are critical to fostering cooperation across different water user groups. The White River Alliance plans to continue to facilitate these types of connections through additional forums and roundtable discussions, as well as with the third Water Summit event in 2020. To submit your water planning ideas, or to get involved with next year’s Summit, visit www.thewhiteriveralliance.org.