January 25, 2022

Bills on floodplains, dams limit the Indiana DNR's ability to protect Hoosiers from flooding

A home half underwater during the 2008 flood in Johnson County. Prince's Lake dam breached during the flood, making the problem worse.  - (User:Me/Wikimedia Commons)

A home half underwater during the 2008 flood in Johnson County. Prince's Lake dam breached during the flood, making the problem worse.

(User:Me/Wikimedia Commons)

Two state Senate bills would limit the Department of Natural Resources’ authority to protect people from flooding. One could jeopardize flood insurance for people in Wayne County — and maybe the state as a whole.

SB 342 would prohibit the state from making Wayne County residents move or put their home on stilts if it's in the floodway. The bill aims to allow two Amish brothers in Wayne County to keep their homes in the floodway. The county issued permits for them based on federal floodplain maps, but they didn’t check the state’s.

Caitlin Smith is the Indiana Department of Natural Resources' legislative and public policy director. She said if Wayne County changes its rules to accommodate the two homes, the federal government could choose not to provide flood insurance for the 39 policyholders in the county — and possibly policyholders in the rest of the state.

“FEMA will come in and look at everything that we’ve done over the last few years and say 'You know, your flood protection standards do not meet what we require' and so it could potentially jeopardize the entire state," Smith said.

Wayne County officials said they were unaware they had to check the DNR’s online floodplain maps before issuing permits. Smith said while the online portal is relatively new, the maps themselves are not and county officials didn’t follow the correct procedures.

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Another bill, SB 269, would reduce the number of dams that fall under the agency's jurisdiction by about 20 percent. Lawmakers behind the bill said people who own the dams have had to pay to maintain them to the state’s standards — sometimes leading to years-long lawsuits against the DNR, costing taxpayers money.

That’s what happened to Becky Moriarty and her husband when the agency said the dam near their pond could pose a safety risk and needed to be fixed. She said water from another, public dam regularly backs up into her property.

“The state of Indiana shouldn’t be able to flood your land and nothing happen, but your dam hasn’t flooded anyone’s land and we were fined $10,000 for it," Moriarty said.

But a representative for the American Council of Engineering Companies of Indiana said the state already regulates dams less than other states and that many dams in Indiana are in danger of failing. The average age of the state's dams is 50 years old. 

The Hoosier Environmental Council said having less state oversight could put people living near the state’s aging dams at risk.

Contact reporter Rebecca at rthiele@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.

Indiana Environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.

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