LAKE FREEMAN, Ind. (NewsNation Now) — A small lakefront community in Indiana is angry and perplexed that a nearby lake is shrinking before their eyes, saying property values and livelihoods are at stake. But the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it’s all to save endangered species.
Brenda Buehler’s family has owned property on Lake Freeman since the 1940’s.
“This was water all the way up to the island, all the way up to the property there,” said Buehler while looking at the lake. “We now have a beach.”
The appeal of the property was always the lake but now it seems to be vanishing before resdients’ eyes.
“The boats are stuck up there, which is a big problem this time of year. Within the next 60 days we need to winterize these boats,” said Buehler.
An inlet with normally flowing water where homeowners get their boats out of the lake is now filled with sludge. Buehler and her neighbors are worried about their property values, their boats, their sea walls, and the backbone of their community’s economy— tourism.
“We’re one big community, one big local community, and one thing hurts one business, it hurts all of us,” said Susan Wagner.
Wagner owns a gas station on the lake which was already struggling to survive during the pandemic. Now she says it’s not just the lake drying up, but also her revenue.
“They don’t want to stay on the lake if this is going to be happening,” said Wagner. “For me, my whole life has been summer on Lake Freeman, so imagining summer without the lake, I can’t do it.”
Scott Pruitt of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it all comes down to one thing: mussels.
“Congress passed the Endangered Species Act, and those animals that are listed are very important to the environment … for fish and wildlife, and for people. And in so doing, there are prohibitions for killing them or harming them,” said Pruitt.
Pruitt is tasked with protecting four species of endangered mussels who live near the lake. The agency got involved in 2012 when there was a severe drought. At the time, he says the lakes were always maintained full, no matter how much water came in. But in order to keep the lakes full, they had to shut the river off which killed mussels and other species.
They called in the Northern Indiana Public Service Company, the operator of the dams, and worked together to mimic the natural flow of water below the dams. Now that the region is experiencing another drought, the lake levels are going down again.
“It’s unfortunate, and I’m not very happy the lake owners being impacted by this, that certainly was not our goal,” said Pruitt. “Our goal was to protect the environment, for them and for everyone else in the United States, but during a drought, water levels go down. There’s nothing I can do about that, but do a rain dance.”
But some residents are demanding more than a rain dance.
“You’re messing up one habitat to try to help protect another. It doesn’t make a lot of sense,” said John Koppelmann.
Koppelmann is the chairman of the Lake Levels Task Force for the Shafer Freeman Lakes Environmental Conservation Corporation. Last year, they filed suit, using information from their own hydrologists.
“The problem is, the science is flawed, and thus, when you get into another drought-like situation, which we did in 2014 when the water went down two feet, we’re now in that same scenario, and the water is down four feet now,” said Koppelmann.
Pruitt said the government is using the best data available and that as soon as the rain comes, the lakes will fill up again.
“There’s two sides to this story, and there’s two sides to the dam,” said Pruitt. “There’s the lake on the upside of the dam, and there’s the other side of the river, downstream of the dam. There’s also a lot of people down there that live and recreate on the river, and having constant flows as mother nature typically provides, is really a big change for them too, and the health of the river is far improved because of it.”
Both sides told NewsNation they understand the other side and are open to ideas and willing to compromise but so far no agreement.