Who Owns the White River?
With its recent, quiet and unilateral decision to build a rock ramp dam across the White River in 2021, Citizens Energy Group, which now runs the Indianapolis water system, may have opened up a battle royale over the future of the river. I hope that there will be a vigorous public discussion of these plans, and one that will consider the White River not simply as a drinking water and sewer system, but as an integral part of the social, political, economic and environmental fabric of our city.
Citizens Energy’s decision to build the rock ramp dam is the result of a cascading series of causes and effects. As part of its “Flood Damage Reduction Project” in Indianapolis, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer built a gate across the canal, just upstream from Butler University, that could be closed in the event of a flood.
Because the Canal is crucial in providing water to the City, Citizens Energy abruptly closed the Canal Towpath for several months in 2018 in order to build a water intake station north of 30th St. This intake station would allow Citizens Energy to pump water from the White River into the canal in the event that the canal were closed upstream.
But these plans to keep water flowing in the city were disrupted by the breach of the Emerichsville Dam, south of 16th St., in October of 2018. The Emerichsville Dam, a low-head dam that allows water to flower over its top, was built in 1899, and made the portion of the river upstream from it deeper, slower and wider. Most notably, a wide stretch of the river, known a Lake Indy, at around 25th St., between Riverside Park and Coffin Golf Course, was the direct result of Emerichsville Dam.
With the breach in the dam, the White River become much lower, and flowed more sporadically through the Rieverside area than it had for the previous century. Some began to refer to the White River as a creek. Lake Indy virtually disappeared. And there was insufficient flow to the intake station that Citizens Energy had built.
Initially, Citizens Energy tried to repair the dam. It’s not clear how extensive these efforts were, or why they abandoned them, but sometime in 2019, Citizens Energy decided instead to construct a new “rock ramp dam” across the river Unlike the previous low head dam, this rock ramp dam not form a solid wall, but would be a system of rocks that would allow water and fish to flow through it.
According to Dan Considine, the manager of corporate communications for Citizens Energy, the company’s original plan was to construct the dam just north of 30th St., near the new intake station. In response to neighborhood concerns, though, the company is also considering a site nearer to 25th St., which would cost slightly more but would restore part of Lake Indy. In a private conversation with me, Mr. Consodine stated that the company is not considering placing the new dam near the Emerichsville Dam because that would be too expensive.
As I write this article, on Feb. 12, 2020, Citizens Energy has not made any public announcement of its plans. Instead, it has met representatives of neighborhood organizations in the area.
Circulation of these plans has inspired a movement within the Riverside community either to restore the Emerichsville Dam or to construct the new dam near that site in order to increase the flow of the river through the Riverside area. Two residents of the area, Derek Tow and Ronald Rice, spoke of their concerns on a show on WRTV channel 6 on Feb. 11. They also created a Facebook page entitled “Keep the River in Riverside” to rally support for their position.
As part of their argument for restoring Lake Indy, or something like it, Tow and Rice point to the recently completed masterplan for Riverside Park (https://www.riversideparkplan.com/). In one of his FB postings, Tow says that this ambitious plan depends on having a “usable river,” with the implication that the Citizens Energy plans would render the river unusable.
I have three distinct and contradictory responses to these developments. At the risk of trying the patience of my readers, I want to lay out all three.
On the one hand, I do not want us to allow anything to interfere with the progress of the Master Plan for Riverside Park. This plan takes in more than 800 acres along the river, and could make the park a treasure for the entire community.
Moreover, I think we must restore Riverside Park as a step towards social and racial justice in our city. I say this not simply because the Riverside Park area is largely African American, but also because the former private Riverside Amusement Park, north of 30th Street, was a notoriously racist institution, and the public park itself was off-limits to black citizens until the 1960s. We can make a modest step toward a more justice community by improving Riverside Park and making it more accessible to all citizens.
On the other hand, however, many of the claims of Keep the River in Riverside are exaggerated, and, quite possibly shortsighted. The standing headline of the FB group states, “The River Will Be Gone Forever Unless DPW & Citizens Rebuild the Emrichsville Dam.”
While it is perhaps possible to bury an urban stream, as the history of Pogues Run suggests, no one is talking about eliminating the White River. It might be different in the future, and it might not be as wide and deep as it once was through Riverside Park, but it will still exist.
And it will be “usable,” perhaps in better and more sustainable ways. I have occasionally seen speedboats navigate Lake Indy, and it is not a pretty sight. I could imagine that, even under Citizens’ current plans, canoeing and kayaking might be better, and fishing too.
On my third hand, I wish that we were considering the possibility of removing dams altogether from the White River. I understand that this is not consistent with Citizens Energy plans, and would probably be equally unpalatable to the champions of Riverside Park. And perhaps it is impractical.
But I do think we should consider un-damming the White River. Flooding on the Mississippi and elsewhere has shown us that dams can, in the long run, do more harm than good. And if our aim is to restore the White River to something like its original form, removing all dams would be a good place to start.
Beyond the question of where and how to dam the White River, I am astonished that we, as a City, have ceded authority to decide these questions to Citizens Energy. My strongest sense about this is that this is a political question, and should taken up by all citizens of the city, including their elected mayor and city counselors. While Citizens Energy is, in theory, a “public charitable trust,” they tend to act more as the Corporation that is now part of their title—which is to say that they do what is in their own best interest, and not necessarily the best interest of citizens of the city. Moreover, I just don’t think they are in a good position to consider the complex political, social and environmental issues at stake here.
In short, Citizens Energy Corporation does not own the White River, and should not be allowed to make decisions that might determine its shape for the next century. This is a profoundly public matter.
And, while I do not agree with all of the claims of Keep the River in Riverside, I do agree with their assertion that this decision should not be considered in economic terms alone. Apparently, Citizens Energy is unwilling to consider placing its new dam at 16th St. because it would cost more to do so.
That decision is surely short-sighted.
Ratepayers in the city are paying more than $2 billion for sewer infrastructure that should make the river cleaner. If the Riverside Master Plan is realized in any responsible way, it will cost tens of millions of dollars. In that context, it seems to me, we, as citizens, should consider paying more for a better system of managing the river.
At the same time, though, I wish we would also reconsider our relationship to the river, and what goes into our efforts to make it “usable.” Partly, I think that this means accepting the fact that the White River is seasonal, and it rises and falls with the rain and snow. Even when the Emrichsville Dam was intact, portions of the White River could be impassable by canoe during dry periods.
In order to restore balance with our natural world, I sometimes think that we need a reformulation of Kant’s categorical imperative, which calls on us to treat people not as the means to some end, but as ends in themselves. I think that we should think of elements of our natural world, including our rivers, not in strictly utilitarian terms, but as entities that deserve our respect, admiration and stewardship, regardless of how we might use them.
Thus, as we begin this public discussion, I hope that we confine our deliberations to how the White River can serve us. We need also to ask how we can serve our River.