Lafayette area officials take steps to protect water supply as IEDC considers 35-mile pipeline

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The Wabash River in Lafayette, October 2022 (Eric Learned/IBJ photo).

Local and state officials representing the Lafayette region are taking steps to protect the area’s water supply amid growing concerns about the Indiana Economic Development Corp.’s plan to tap into a Wabash River aquifer and divert as much as 100 million gallons of water a day to a planned high-tech manufacturing district 35 miles away in Boone County.

Two state lawmakers are drafting legislation that would create a permitting process and require a deeper public review of any effort in the state to pump more than 10 million gallons per day from a community’s aquifer.

Meanwhile, the West Lafayette City Council is poised to consider a resolution Monday night opposing the IEDC’s plans.

“I’m concerned about the ecological and economic development consequences for Tippecanoe County because of the withdrawal of this large quantity of water,” said David Sanders, the West Lafayette city councilman sponsoring the resolution.

The local response has taken on new urgency since the executive summary of an IEDC-commissioned study released Sept. 21 preliminarily concluded that an aquifer connected to the Wabash River contains enough water to support the LEAP Innovation District 35 miles away in Lebanon without depriving the greater Lafayette region of an adequate water supply. (LEAP stands for Limitless Exploration/Advanced Pace.)

Amid growing skepticism in the Lafayette area, the IEDC on Thursday released the complete results of early testing of a Wabash River aquifer, which consisted of a 20-page slide deck and an accompanying video presentation that offered further details of the findings. 

The aquifer testing included exploratory drilling, a geophysical survey of the region, a geologic model of the aquifer, two aquifer pumping tests, and the creation of a groundwater flow to estimate the amount of water that could be sustainably withdrawn from new wells constructed along the river.

The initial study of a 70-acre area above the Wabash Alluvial Aquifer found that the average flow rate of the Wabash River is 2 billion gallons per day, and that the aquifer itself “is deeper and wider” than previous studies indicated, according to the report. Intera, a Texas-based environmental consultant, was contracted by the state at a cost of $2.9 million to conduct a full study, which is ongoing. 

Intera concluded that its two test wells could support a maximum pumping rate of 45 million gallons daily, well shy of the 100 million gallons per day the IEDC hopes to supply to the LEAP Innovation District in Lebanon. Further testing at a second site is needed in order to determine if the 100 million-gallon target can be reached, according to the report.

Representatives from Intera and the IEDC presented the findings to about 350 people attending a community meeting Thursday night in Lafayette.

“Our goal is not to benefit one area at the expense of the other,” the IEDC’s John Cochran told the crowd, according to a video clip of the meeting from WLFI-TV Channel 18. “That’s not what we do.”

Despite the assurances, Cochran was immediately met with questions from residents near the testing site who said it already had caused issues, including sand and gravel that clogged their water filters and a sulphur-like smell, local officials said.

Rep. Sharon Negele, R-Attica, said it’s exactly those kinds of issues and others that she hopes to avoid with legislation that would create a permitting process and a deeper review of such huge water diversions. She said she’s working with Sen. Spencer Deery, R-Lafayette, to draft the legislation and hopefully secure a committee hearing for the proposal next year. A similar measure earlier this year was denied a hearing.

Negele said she’s not necessarily opposed to the IEDC’s project but she wants to make sure safeguards are in place to protect the water supply for current residents and for the future growth of the Lafayette area.

“I’m trying to set up that regulatory permitting process so that someone is overseeing to make sure that the citizens of the area that has the water are not going to be negatively affected,” Negele said. “That has to be proven and there has to be peer review.”

Currently, she said, such a large withdrawal of water is not subject to state review in advance. She said she envisions a process in which the state’s Natural Resources Commission would become the permitting authority.

The IEDC said it is already planning to have the test results peer-reviewed by Indiana University, Purdue University and Ohio State University once all of its testing is complete.

“As we have additional data or additional wells tested, we will continue to be transparent and release the information as it’s available,” IEDC spokeswoamn Erin Sweitzer told IBJ.

Despite the lack of an adequate water supply to support a massive manufacturing park, IEDC chose Boone County as the site for the LEAP district because of its close proximity along Interstate 65 to Indianapolis and Purdue University in West Lafayette.

The site of 9,000 acres or more is viewed as Indiana’s answer to North Carolina’s Research Triangle, potentially becoming a magnet for next-generation tech and manufacturing jobs. Eli Lilly and Co. already has committed to building a $3.7 billion research and manufacturing campus at the site, creating 700 jobs.

But some Lafayette-area officials remain concerned that the IEDC started the project without alerting them early on to the possibility that the Wabash River aquifer likely would have to be tapped to support the project.

The one-page resolution to be considered Monday night by the West Lafayette City Council says the IEDC planned the pipeline “in secret” and the LEAP district “without ensuring that there were sufficient resources for the industries that they wished to recruit there.”

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5 thoughts on “Lafayette area officials take steps to protect water supply as IEDC considers 35-mile pipeline

  1. “Our goal is not to benefit one area at the expense of another. That’s not what we do.”

    Tell that nonsense to the rest of the state. It’s exactly what Holcomb, Chambers and IEDC have done. Government sucks at picking winners and losers.

    1. my heart bleeds. The rest of the state steals road funding from the places where people actually want to live.

    1. ^^^This. If LEAP becomes the catalyst for a good statewide system of groundwater management, then it’s a plus for Hoosiers.

      We don’t want to end up like California’s Central Valley or Central and Southern Arizona, pumping the aquifers (and eventually the rivers) dry to support unsustainable development. We have plenty of rain, but we do not have plenty of rain storage other than our underground aquifers.