MONTICELLO, Ind - Federal officials are proposing a water-monitoring plan for a popular northwestern Indiana reservoir where water releases required to safeguard endangered mussels have dropped the lake's water levels significantly this summer.
The operator of Lake Freeman's dam, Northern Indiana Public Service Co., is under a federal agency's order to release water to protect riverbeds with several water-starved mussel species.
Lake Freeman's water levels dropped up to 2 feet earlier this month following the water discharges into the Tippecanoe River to sustain the mussels, angering boaters, residents and local businesses in the White County community that relies on tourism and recreation.
Several businesses tied to the lake's recreational uses have idled staff after the ebbing lake reduced boating by stranding boats and exposing submerged logs and other safety hazards.
The lake was 15 inches down Thursday when members from the three congressmen's offices and two state lawmakers joined U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NIPSCO representatives to outline the water mitigation plan, which is intended to reduce the economic impact of the water releases.
Their proposal, which must be approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, calls for more gauges to monitor the lake's level. It also would revise procedures for monitoring water flow and add earlier notice to residents when the lake must be lowered to protect the mussels.
Resident Mark Sloan said the biggest concern homeowners like him have is how the lower lake level will affect local property values.
"It's going to really affect property values, since you don't have any way to get your boat out of the lake. That's one of the biggest concerns," Sloan told the Journal & Courier.
A similar situation arose on Lake Freeman in 2012 during that year's severe and prolonged drought.
Although there's no drought now in the area, low water levels in the Tippecanoe River due to a recent dry spell still threaten endangered mussels, prompting NIPSCO to release water under instructions from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Hours after the mitigation plan was discussed, more than 150 residents voiced their concerns about the water releases at a town hall meeting with U.S. Rep. Todd Rokita, an Indiana Republican.
Rokita told the gathering the plan will help once it's phased in, although it's unclear when that will happen.
"That doesn't mean we'll never have to deal with this again, but it shouldn't be as severe, as quick. This is long term. This is not going to put water in Lake Freeman by next week," he said.