The clock is ticking for residents in an Indiana subdivision to come up with a plan to maintain six dams in their neighborhood.
After more than 20 years, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources discovered the dams and found they had critical structural issues.
The DNR told residents it was up to them to find a way to make repairs and with thousands of dollars on the line, there’s a lot of finger pointing.
This situation is likely to happen again as more non–regulated dams show up on the state’s radar.
If you could choose the most perfect spot in Indiana to live, Leon Huskey says his neighborhood north of Peru would top the list.
“Living here is like coming home to a resort every night with the lake and trees and we have so much wildlife here,” Huskey said.
For 18 years, he has lived here in his dream home in the northern part of the state.
A letter from the DNR sent in September said there was a problem with the dams in the subdivision. They hadn’t been permitted properly when they were constructed more than 20 years ago. They hadn’t been inspected since their construction and they weren’t being maintained.
“The letter implied that the residents were the dam owners and we needed to come up with some plan on inspection, repair, annual inspections. They kind of were putting it directly on us. Talk about a total surprise- that was a total surprise,” Huskey says.
According to the DNR, there are six un-permitted dams in Huskey’s subdivision and they’re all classified as high-hazard – meaning they could cause loss of life or property damage if they’re breached.
Ken Smith, Assistant Director for the Division of Water, says this is not the first time they have encountered a situation like the one in Peru.
“People unfortunately have built many where they didn’t get appropriate permits, they didn’t go through appropriate processes and there are likely dams of size to be regulated that we don’t know about yet and they aren’t in our systems. The number is likely higher than a thousand that we don’t know about.”
Smith says it’s a common misconception that the government owns most dams. In reality, about 70 percent of dams across the country and in Indiana are privately owned.
Twenty-six state owned dams are in poor or unsatisfactory condition. The number of privately owned dams in the same condition is five times that number – at more than 400. Private dams have to go through the same inspection process and maintenance procedures as government-owned dams.
The question becomes who pays for that.
To complicate matters in Peru, the county maintains roads over some of the dams, so there’s a question of ownership and whether the county has a responsibility to pay for some of the maintenance. The inspection alone will likely cost at least $20,000. The state requires that be done every two years, and that figure doesn’t take into account completing the actual repairs
Leon Huskey and many residents of his neighborhood are retired and on a fixed income, making those numbers a big concern.
“We are potentially looking at possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars to get this done and I don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars to put into this,” Huskey said.
It seems the most viable option residents are considering is the creation of a conservation district, a special taxing district that would raise money to support a water resource.
Conservancy districts are a fairly common thing. Residents around Lake Lemon, just 10 miles northeast of Bloomington, worked with the DNR to establish a conservation district in the mid-90s.
Lake Manager Bob Madden says the conservancy district at Lake Lemon, combined with revenue from public recreation fees, pays for any necessary inspections and maintenance of the dam there.
“All of these homes and the people who own them pay what we call a special benefits tax to the conservancy which is in addition to their normal county taxes – normally county taxes go to schools, highways, police protection,” Madden said. “The tax that we collect goes strictly towards the maintenance of the reservoir and to maintain it as a beautiful natural resource.”
The tax generated $250,000 last year from roughly 525 homeowners. There are fewer than 40 homes in the Peru subdivision.
Conservancy districts are not easy to establish. It took Lake Lemon residents four years to circulate a petition, get signatures, file the plan in court, and get a judge to sign the district into existence.
The residents in Peru have until the first of the year to let the DNR know what course of action they want to take.