Indiana gubernatorial candidate Eric Doden speaks out against IEDC’s LEAP district pipeline plan

Other GOP contenders shared similar concerns, while some defended the controversial project as a wise economic move

By: - October 3, 2023 5:00 pm

GOP candidate Eric Doden shakes hands with a voter at a Brown County event. (Photo courtesy of Doden campaign)

Republican gubernatorial candidate Eric Doden said he’s “deeply concerned” about a major plan to divert billions of gallons of water from the West Lafayette region to a massive — and controversial — high-tech park planned in Boone County.

His apprehension comes one week after the Indiana Economic Development Corp. (IEDC) released early results of tests conducted at the Wabash Alluvial Aquifer — which officials hope to tap for a massive high-tech campus 35 miles away.

Officials want to pipe 100 million gallons of water daily from the aquifer to the LEAP Lebanon Innovation District. Wabash-reliant residents are afraid the proposal could jeopardize their water supply.

The Fort Wayne businessman echoed those fears on Tuesday, emphasizing that the public has only seen preliminary data, “handpicked” by the IEDC — of which he was formerly the president from 2013 to 2015. He said the full dataset from the water study should be released to independent experts for review, as local leaders have requested.

“Any state-sponsored project demands a high level of accountability,” Doden said in a news release. “With a resource as vital as water at stake, Hoosier taxpayers deserve greater transparency than IEDC provides.”

IEDC releases full report of early Wabash aquifer testing results

The quasi-public agency made an executive summary, touting “abundant” water, available last week. Texas-based environmental consulting firm INTERA is conducting the ongoing analysis under a $2.9 million contract.

Doden argued the IEDC water study is not independent, however, and maintained that “the same organization trying to divert the water for its own project paid for it.”

Investigators drilled 17 exploratory boreholes — all finished as monitoring wells — along with two test wells to conduct two aquifer tests.

They found that the aquifer had hydraulic conductivity of 450-550 feet daily at the site. That measures how well water passes through soil or rock.

The two wells combined could support — at maximum — a pumping rate of 45 million gallons daily, according to an IEDC video presentation about the study results. The executive summary said they could “sustainably” support 30 million gallons daily.

“This is the latest example that shows Indiana desperately needs a long-term vision to grow our small towns into thriving communities,” Doden continued. “The LEAP project would divert natural resources from a smaller region to support a larger one — a decision without regard for, or belief in, our small counties and towns. We can and must be a state where all 92 counties thrive, and Indiana needs new leadership to achieve this vision.”

Chambers remains steadfast

But Brad Chambers, former Indiana Secretary of Commerce and leader of the IEDC, defended the LEAP project that largely defined his tenure. The GOP gubernatorial candidate told the Indiana Capital Chronicle on Tuesday that the IEDC hired “a preeminent and widely-respected water resource expert with national experience.”

Gubernatorial candidate Brad Chambers. (Photo from Gov. Eric Holcomb’s Flickr)

Chambers said the study concluded that “abundant resources are available to support the LEAP project, and more importantly not negatively impact other communities.”

“The LEAP Innovation District is a transformative project that will grow jobs, wages and improve the quality of life for a large region of our state, which we’ve already seen demonstrated by (ELi) Lilly’s nearly $4 billion commitment to building new facilities there,” Chambers said in a written statement. 

“There was intentionality to the project both in locating it between our largest workforce center and one of our premier research institutions, Purdue University, and also in tackling a longstanding central Indiana water need that’s been studied and not addressed for decades,” he continued.

Chambers stepped down from the cabinet-level position in August — after two years on the job — to vye for the governor’s seat.

“Creating opportunity for Hoosiers across the state requires a bold vision, and I believe we can do that while also protecting our critical resources. If the study indicated harm for any Hoosier community, we wouldn’t have moved forward with the project,” Chambers said. “Unlike the career politicians who want to pit communities against each other, as governor, I’ll lead to build the economy of the future to bring prosperity to rural, suburban, and urban Hoosiers, together.”

Hill and Crouch weigh in

Former Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill, who is also running for governor, said he has also spoken with “dozens of farmers, residents and business owners throughout Boone County, and they have major concerns that have yet to be addressed.” 

hill
Former Republican Attorney General Curtis Hill launches his bid for governor. (Photo from Hill campaign site)

“If water has to be brought in from 35 miles away to make the project work, then the project itself is not feasible,” he told the Capital Chronicle. 

“Over-ambitious growth without the infrastructure or resources necessary to keep the project from disrupting local agriculture and way of life is detrimental to the region,” Hill continued. “I echo the concerns of Boone County residents who believe this project is doing more harm than good, and the guaranteed economic consequences outweigh the potential benefits. Precautions need to be taken to ensure that the environmental and economic disruptions are mitigated, but until then, this project should not continue.”

Fellow Republican gubernatorial challenger Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch was less direct, but she pointed to concerns she raised about the project “months ago.”

In a social media statement posted Aug. 1, Crouch said she was hearing “growing concerns from farmers and other constituents” over the loss of farmland in the LEAP district and that she asked the Indiana Department of Agriculture to conduct an economic analysis of lost farmland.

Still, she said she “is not opposed to the LEAP district or others like it,” and applauded the “investment and jobs it will bring to our state.”

Crouch smiles in a photo from her campaign’s website.

“I’ve spoken with local elected officials in Boone and Tippecanoe Counties, and I understand their concerns and frustration about the lack of transparency from the IEDC,” she told the Capital Chronicle on Tuesday. 

U.S. Sen. Mike Braun — also part of the crowded group seeking the Republican nomination in Indiana’s 2024 gubernatorial race — told the Capital Chronicle that Indiana “has invested too much time and money into the LEAP project to allow it to be jeopardized by the poor communication and lack of collaboration we have seen from state officials surrounding the efforts to secure a sustainable water source to meet the needs of this fast-growing region.”

“Access to a reliable source of water is nothing new for this region of the state, and many other regions are facing similar water challenges,” Braun continued. “But for far too long, state officials have ignored the obvious need to find a solution that benefits both communities with abundant water resources and those with scarce water resources. As governor, I will focus on delivering affordable and reliable access to utilities for all Hoosiers.”

During an August campaign stop in Lafayette, Braun said he believed the state’s desire to move forward with the project without proper long-term planning has led to much of the backlash.

“Sometimes when you get so ahead of your skis, you spend all that money, you think that you would have researched, is there a local water supply,” the senator said, as reported by the Journal and Courier. “When you get the state involved in becoming a real estate investor, I would hope that whoever’s doing it was smart enough to see if you had the most basic resource we need and that you’re not going to have to pump it from maybe 40 miles away to get it where it’s supposed to be.”

This story has been updated to include a statement from U.S. Sen. Mike Braun.

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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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