An emotional response was sparked on May 28, 2003 when the Noble-LaGrange County Drainage Board decided to declare a 40-milelong stretch of Indiana’s Elkhart River a regulated drain. The declaration gives Noble and LaGrange counties the power to maintain the river as a legal drainage ditch. To cover the maintenance costs, the county will collect a ditch assessment tax from local landowners estimated at $128,000 annually.
Historically speaking, drainage ditch maintenance work has proven to negatively impact the environment in Indiana. Unfortunately, these damaging practices still continue today. Although the county was awarded a 25-foot right-of-way on either side of the river (rather than the allowed 75 feet), the county’s plans may still involve the deepening, widening, or changing of the river, as well as diversion of the course of the water and removal of any obstructions. Local environmental groups, area towns, and property owners are infuriated by these plans, knowing that the spraying of herbicides and the clearing of obtrusive trees will destroy wildlife habitats and vegetation along the banks.
The general consensus is that local property owners want to have their residences on a river, not a drainage ditch. To them, there is no benefit that can be foreseen in risking environmental damage to their properties and paying an unfair and unnecessary tax on their land.
So far, the board has been heavily criticized for not examining other options before making the decision to raise taxes and change the status of the river. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) representatives were not even contacted to provide input or assistance on the issue.
The best hope for protecting the Elkhart River lies in a possible reversal of the decision. Area groups, including Acres Inc., Sylvan Lake Improvement Association, and the Izaak Walton League, have already begun the process by circulating a petition to local individuals, organizations, and other legal entities. If 10% of the property owners in the watershed sign the petition, the drainage board would have to conduct another hearing.