NEW BUFFALO  — Toxic chromium water spills into Lake Michigan last April and October have spurred the formation of a regional water advisory consortium to protect the water supply of communities from New Buffalo to Bridgman and Three Oaks.

The chromium spills from a U.S. Steel plant in Northwest Indiana that closed the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore led New Buffalo Township officials to look into alternatives if the either or both of the township’s water supplies from Michigan City and New Buffalo City were interrupted.

“We really didn’t anticipate how this would grow, but providing for the safety of our residents, and that includes a safe water supply, is one of our most important responsibilities in local government. It started small but we decided we all need to look at it and see how we can help each other,” said New Buffalo Township Supervisor Michelle Heit, who led a meeting of the eight consortium members on Feb. 8.

Attending the meeting were representatives from New Buffalo Township and City, Grand Beach, Michiana, Chikaming Township, Three Oaks Village and Township, Bridgman and Lake Township. Two representatives from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality also attended: Ernie Sarkipato, surface water treatment specialist, and Gary Wozniak, ground water supply district engineer.

New Buffalo Township communities receive Lake Michigan water from both Michigan City and the New Buffalo City Water Plant. Chikaming Township, Bridgman and Lake Township are supplied Lake Michigan water by the Lake Township Water Plant, with Chikaming Township having a back-up well. Three Oaks Village and Township are supplied by their ground water wells.

Calling itself a Regional Water Advisory Consortium, the group’s mission statement is to “protect the life, health and property of our communities by ensuring a safe water supply is readily accessible during a water crisis or regional emergency. Our goal is to mitigate potential threats to the public water supply and ensure our communities interact, plan and aid one another in the event of a water emergency. We are committed to enhance the public safety for all participating communities.”

The group’s mission seems to fit into the state’s DEQ goals.

“While the communities and water supplies in lower Berrien County often go above and beyond to ensure water reliability and quality, this group demonstrates the collective power of communities that come together with a common goal in mind. The Michigan DEQ prioritizes both source water protection and emergency preparedness in drinking water systems and hopes to partner in this with the consortium,” Sarkipato said after the meeting.

The township has applied to The Pokagon Fund for a $270,000 grant to determine the region’s water plant assets and implement Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping, conduct a hydraulic study and make recommendations for interconnection between communities and develop an emergency response plan. The group also is hoping to fund an $85,000 match to complete the project, as proposed by engineering consultants Wightman & Associates.

“Each of these (elements) will be integral to achieve the goal of providing safe and reliable drinking water for surrounding communities during emergency situations...As witnessed with the chromium-6 contamination scare, the loss of a water source is a real possibility and a plan for alternate water sourcing can be critical … Reliable water is vital to the prosperity of a community and providing a region wide contingency plan would offer the public and industry the confidence that area leaders have their best interest in mind,” the Wightman proposal states.

“While we may have back-up agreements between our communities, we realized that didn’t mean they will work. Some of the interconnections haven’t been tested in years so we don’t know if they could meet today’s demands,” said Judy Zabicki, New Buffalo Township Clerk and Pokagon Fund board member. She added that having the GIS mapping of hydrant locations, interconnections and capacities will be a great help to all local fire departments.

Zabicki added that the township already is addressing two water supplies at its south end, including: a $400,000 project to bore under U.S. 12 and Amtrak to supply water to Michigan Shores which now gets its water from Michiana, Mich., who buys its water from Michigan City; and a $1.8 million project to upgrade the water lines in Michigan Shores.

“I think this consortium is an excellent idea … I look forward to working with all these communities. Only good can come out of it,” Michigan DEQ’s Wozniak said.

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