MONTICELLO, Ind. — The water level in Lake Freeman fell to 6 inches below normal level earlier this week.
As White County moves into mid-August, the Shafer and Freeman Lakes Environmental Conservation Corp. cautioned that dry conditions could lead to further dips in water level.
“Without rain soon, Lake Freeman water levels will drop and that causes us new concerns about human health,” SFLECC President Lee Kreul said in a written statement. Kreul added that standing pools of water left behind by the receding tide could provide breeding areas for mosquitoes.
In a press release, officers of the SFLECC said twice as much water is being pumped out of Lake Freeman as is being pumped in. This keeps river levels higher at the expense of the lake level. The policy complies with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service mandate that keeps river water levels higher to protect endangered mussels downriver from Lake Freeman. Local residents have decried the resulting negative economic impact in years past.
The SFLECC did not contest the value of protecting the endangered mussels but argued the Fish and Wildlife Service mandate is not so clear-cut.
“The SFLECC has been fighting this battle with FWS since 2010,” Kreul said in a written statement. “After spending tens of thousands of dollars, and getting the support of hydrologists with the Federal Energy Commission and the state of Indiana, we continue to have the heavy hand of the FWS and the Endangered Species Act threatening our economy, our environment and our lakes during the height of the summer season.”
A preliminary report by the Federal Energy Commission backed up SFLECC’s assertion that the Fish and Wildlife Service methodology is flawed, the statement said. The final version of the report may not be available for another year, according to SFLECC.
The controversy reached a peak in August 2014. That summer, water levels dropped by more than 2½ feet.
A false rumor spread during that time that the entertainment boat the Madam Carroll could not go out, according to owner Tom Heckard. Heckard put the word out on the Madam Carroll Facebook page that the ship still is running.
“They’ve been working on resolving this thing, but the wheels of the federal government turn slowly,” Heckard said.
The 6-inch drop this week won’t stop the Madam Carroll. Heckard said the cruise boat operated when Lake Freeman was more than 2 feet low. But if low water keeps people away from the lake, there would be less business for the entire surrounding economy, Heckard’s business included.
General Manager George Wade can watch the water level from the lakeside patio of Sportsman Inn.
“It’s not severe enough at this area to notice a severe drop,” Wade said. “We’re somewhat fortunate with the location we have.”
Sportsman Inn has a sizable parking lot, which Wade said helps keep customers visiting even when the lake gets low.
“Just because they can get here, doesn’t mean they can get their boat out,” Wade said. “We’re at the mercy of the people who control the water level.”
Northern Indiana Public Service Company operates the dams on Lake Shafer and Lake Freeman. It is NIPSCO’s job to comply with the minimum water level regulations set by the federal government. Right now, they must release water out of Lake Freeman to meet the Fish and Wildlife Service mandate and keep Lake Shafer at the minimum required level. Because of this, more water is pumped out of Lake Freeman than is pumped in from Lake Shafer.
“(We operate) two separate lakes, two separate dams with two separate licenses,” NIPSCO spokesperson Larry Graham said. “We can’t try to adjust flows between the two lakes right now.”
NIPSCO and the Federal Energy Commission are working on developing a permanent operating position to address the water levels in Lake Freeman.
“It could involve a two-lake solution, but right now it’s about how we will operate on Lake Freeman,” Graham said. “We understand the concern of all parties, but we also understand the impact reduced water levels have on residents.”
To the businesses around Lake Freeman, it seems only one short-term fix exists.
“The only thing that’s going to help us is rain,” Wade said. “We can fight and argue and spend money, but it doesn’t seem to do any good.”
Heckard expressed a similar sentiment.
“We need it to rain,” Heckard said. “One inch of rain will soak into the ground really quickly. We need a good sustained rain.”
Weather.com forecasts a chance of showers and thunderstorms starting tonight through next Tuesday. The probability peaks on Saturday with a 90 percent chance of rain.