Polanski's Chinatown. Could there be a greater classic in the annals of real-estate-grifting cum pulp fiction? I don't think so.

A grand conspiracy, involving corrupt government, mendacious land speculators and a municipal waterworks in the service of both. A giant growth machine, buying arid land at rock-bottom-prices and, after the waterworks ran their pipes where they'd been told to run them, flipping it for a fantastic premium.

A premium so rich that nobody hesitated to whack a guy or two if they posed the slightest threat to the machine. Ahh, only in the movies could such a fantastic plot be found.

Monroe Reservoir

Located in Monroe County's southeastern quadrant is an artificial reservoir, 11,000 acres of water that inundated the Salt Creek valley four decades ago, built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a can-do command-and-control bureaucracy of engineers, in an age of boundless enthusiasm for both government and the future.

In the halcyon decades pre-Katrina, Monroe was about the same thing that all the other large-scale government projects of the time were about: showing nature who was boss. And Monroe would do that by controlling flooding. Nevermore would the hamlet of Oolitic need fear the deluge. Nature would be forever bottled up and capped to the north.

But, like a late-night Ronco commercial, that wasn't the only thing we got. For one low price, would you believe the Corps was not only going to give us all this great flood control but, if we just acted then, we'd get drinking water and boating too!

And act we did, asking some of the county's residents to make the supreme sacrifice in the name of progress, in the name of putting nature in her place. Within just a couple of years whole valley towns with names like Elkinsville and Chapel Hill were bulldozed, burned and buried by the waves and their residents relocated by the Corps as government invoked eminent domain on thousands upon thousands of low-lying croplands, paying their owners just half of the going market rate for the land.

Stewards of this place

The dam was built, blocking the outflow of the Salt Creek from the valley that bore its name, and the waters began to rise. As time passed, those who were displaced converted their bitterness to resignation while the rest of us drank and boated and said, "This is freaking great!"

But we worked to protect that for which we had sacrificed. We Monroe County residents worked to make sure those who had lost had not lost in vain. We enacted controls over land use around the reservoir, we protected its shoreline, and we prosecuted those who would defile the reservoir.

For 40 years, the residents of Monroe County, Ind., have been the husbands of that to which the Army Corps of Engineers wed us. And our husbandry has not been without a struggle.


Some 50 miles to our north a great totem of civilization in sunset exists. Indianapolis, following the pattern of every other tragic Midwestern automotive slum, expands relentlessly outward. And, as each suburban ring yields to a subsequent exurban ring, the McMansions and their lawns voraciously consume acre upon acre of land.

And they consume something else. They consume water.

Indianapolis' suburban lawns are out of water. Plain and simple. They've tapped out. And Indianapolis' developers know that, without water, the land just outside the last exurb will remain that way. Undevelopable. Unflippable.And that's unacceptable.

Somebody's got to get whacked. And that somebody is us.

A private company, Aquavisions, comes as the hit man. Aquavisions has proposed to the Indianapolis Department of Waterworks that government pay it to build a 60-mile pipeline from Indianapolis to Lake Monroe. The pipeline would be capable of transporting 90 million gallons of water a day to Indy's radiating exurbs.

Ninety million happens to be all of the excess capacity of Lake Monroe. When Indy's at full steam, there won't be anything left for the county that gave the lake its name.

The county that, unlike Indy's suburban lawns, has been taking care of the lake, for all of these years.

Water is the oil of the 21st century

Aquavisions is owned by an interesting character named Beurt SerVaas, a kind of Midwestern Gordon Gekko. Before ensconcing himself in the Indianapolis business and political world (he was president of the Indianapolis City County Council for some 30-odd years), SerVaas cut his teeth in the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA.

Among his non-water ventures, in 1996 The Nation reported that a SerVaas company helped build a brass ammunition casing recycling plant in Iraq (SerVaas later testified that he had no idea it would be used for ammunition) and that he had ties to the likes of Pat Robertson and the Quayle publishing business, and was active, through his publication The Saturday Evening Post, in supporting pre-Mandela South Africa.

He's also been involved in the oil pipeline business, so the transition should be a natural. Luckily for SerVaas and Indianapolis, the Indianapolis Department of Waterworks' Board (which is appointed by the Indianapolis City County Council) has authorized Aquavisions to go forward with the project to tap Lake Monroe.

Oh, on the waterworks' board is another oilman, Dr. Marvin Scott, with ties to both oil and Africa as well.

Like I said, the transition should be a natural.

Gregory Travis can be reached at greg@littlebear.com.