Billions of gallons of water could be diverted to Boone County project site via new pipeline

An IEDC official said early testing supports the agency’s plan to send water 35 miles from a Wabash River aquifer.

By: - August 14, 2023 7:00 am

A rendering of a proposed LEAP Innovation District in Boone County, the biggest capital investment secured by the state in 2022. (From the IEDC December 2022 agenda presentation)

Early testing shows a Wabash River aquifer can supply enough water for the Indiana Economic Development Corporation’s proposed pipeline project that would send up to 100 million gallons daily to a massive — and controversial — high-tech park planned in Boone County.

That’s according to an IEDC official — alongside a water expert hired by the state to oversee the testing program — who spoke last week at the 2023 Indiana Water Summit, the sixth such annual event organized by the White River Alliance.

The proposed Wabash River pipeline was the center of a panel discussion, where experts weighed the possibilities, challenges and consequences of diverting water to the 10,000-acre LEAP Innovation District in Lebanon — where Indiana plans to craft a “high-tech” corridor along I-65 in Boone County, roughly halfway between Indianapolis and Purdue University.

Under current plans, up to 100 million gallons of water per day would be piped 35 miles from the Lafayette region down to Lebanon, where the water would be treated and sent into a tributary of the White River or the Eagle Creek Reservoir.

Testing still underway

Kurt Fullbeck, IEDC’s vice president of development strategies, said the proposed pipeline is still in the “preliminary engineering phase to essentially prove out the hypothesis of the plan.” 

“The area of Boone County and the Lebanon area have continuously risen as a favored site from both companies and site selectors that have come to look at various areas of the state,” Fullbeck said at the summit. “What we are actually doing is collecting the information to be able to make a recommendation up the chain to how we would proceed forward with the project.”

Fullbeck noted that the IEDC, a quasi-public agency, has not yet reached any conclusions or offered recommendations based on the preliminary testing. There’s still no timeline for that information to be released, he said.

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Hydrologist Jack Wittman, vice president at engineering firm Intera, said the IEDC drilled about 20 wells along the banks of the Wabash River earlier this summer. Water level recorders were also installed to analyze the Wabash River’s Alluvial aquifer — an underground layer of water beneath the river in Tippecanoe County.

The IEDC has not yet released official results from the testing, however. A later report is expected to shed light on the potential yields and impact of pumping large amounts of water from the aquifer.

“There will be consequences of some dimension, but the whole idea of the regulatory structure is to manage those consequences to actually make sure they’re acceptable,” Wittman said.

Possible consequences — and pushback

Wittman maintained that he is confident about the preliminary findings and suggested that “a backup plan” likely won’t be necessary.

“The drilling that we’ve done so far confirmed what has been mapped, so I am not too concerned about Plan B,” Wittman said. “This is really about managing a resource, executing a plan and developing the supply in a way that can support a project and also not affect the local people who are also using the aquifer.”

Although the IEDC has so far committed more than $10 million on pipeline engineering and planning, agency officials said they won’t move forward with a pipeline before studies confirm that Lafayette, West Lafayette and other Tippecanoe County communities will not see their water supplies affected.

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Asked whether the Wabash River aquifer can provide the water needed in Boone County without depleting resources from the cities of Lafayette and West Lafayette, Wittman said “nothing suggests that we can’t achieve high yields,” but that additional testing is still needed.

Fullbeck said, too, that piping water from the Wabash River was “one part of a larger solution” to sustaining central Indiana’s long-term water supply.

He emphasized that the IEDC has to “go through the engineering process that we are going through currently,” and said we “can’t quantify or qualify” the potential consequences of tapping into large amounts of aquifer water “until we get to the point of getting the engineering studies back that would dictate that.”

Even so, the LEAP project has drawn criticism and pushback from some Hoosiers, as well as from local and state lawmakers, who say the IEDC hasn’t been transparent enough about its plans. 

Lawmakers share thoughts

Rep. Sue Errington, D-Muncie, who spoke on a later panel at the summit, said water concerns surrounding the IEDC project are likely to prompt action at the Statehouse in the 2024 legislative session.

Sen. Sue Errington (Photo from Indiana House Democrats)

“I think it’s of importance to all of us, now matter where we live, that we protect and enhance our water resources,” she said. “It’s important to make sure that people realize that we have an abundance of water now, but it could run out, and how we use it is very, very important.”

When asked whether he would support legislation to restrict pipelining groundwater from one watershed to another — even without scientific study — co-panelist Rep. David Abbott, R-Rome City, said lawmakers “can’t say no right out of the gate.”

“Can we afford for that aquifer to be pulled millions of gallons a day out? That, as an individual case, has to be evaluated on its own. We don’t want to drain an aquifer that can’t replenish itself — we’ll be shooting ourselves in the foot,” he said. “But if we could work together and find commonality, I think you can do that on a case by case basis.”

Greg Ellis, vice president of energy and environment for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, also on the panel, agreed, pointing to Indiana’s ongoing workforce and housing needs. He said it would be “problematic” if water diversions from one area of the state depleted resources from another, though.

Ellis said the chamber has commissioned a new study on water resources in Indiana to help aid conversations around ongoing economic development. The chamber last released a water study in 2014.

Results from the new study are expected to be released later this year, ahead of the next legislative session.

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Casey Smith
Casey Smith

A lifelong Hoosier, Casey Smith previously reported on the Indiana Legislature for The Associated Press. Internationally, she has reported on water quality across South America. She holds a master’s degree in investigative reporting and narrative science writing from the University of California/Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She previously earned degrees in journalism, anthropology and Spanish from Ball State University, where she now serves as an instructor of journalism.

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