IEDC defends tapping Tippecanoe Co. water, but says pipeline not a done deal
As critics mount, IEDC official and hydrologist say Lafayette area is ‘sitting on a very large asset’ that Indiana needs as it develops the LEAP district near Lebanon, other communities along the way
An Indiana Economic Development Corp. official said Monday that a plan to pump tens of millions of gallons of water a day from Tippecanoe County to feed development across central Indiana is nowhere near a done deal.
Then again – in the face of growing pushback locally and buoyed by initial results of an IEDC-funded study that indicate a Wabash River aquifer is well stocked to supply more than Tippecanoe County – IEDC vice president Kurt Fullbeck said he hoped Greater Lafayette saw itself as part of something bigger for Indiana in the controversial pipeline proposal.
“Indiana has an abundance of water,” Fullbeck, IEDC’s vice president of development strategies, said. “The Lafayette region, in particular, is sitting on a very large asset.”
Days after IEDC released initial test well results that the state agency called promising, Fullbeck and Jack Wittman – a hydrologist and vice president of INTERA, the Texas-based firm doing the study – defended the project, saying Greater Lafayette had little reason to worry.
A preliminary report the IEDC released last week contended that test wells about six miles downstream from Lafayette showed that the Wabash alluvial aquifer would be sufficient to feed millions of gallons of water to the massive LEAP District development 35 miles away near Lebanon.
Here’s more on that, including Greater Lafayette officials calling for a third-party review of any findings the IEDC study delivers and local well owners looking for assurances they won’t be left dry: IEDC study: Tippecanoe Co. water more than enough for LEAP, other state projects. Local officials skeptical of initial study, ponder independent review, as Indiana Economic Development Corp. leans closer to pipeline plan to pull from Wabash River aquifer
And here are takeaways from Fullbeck and Wittman’s conversation Monday with Based in Lafayette.
On IEDC’s initial report and whether it reads like the pipeline out of Tippecanoe County is a done deal. Is that a fair assessment?
Wittman said that wasn’t the case.
“This just began,” Wittman said. “The fact is, we’ve looked at one parcel of land and drawn some conclusions about that parcel. And if those same conditions exist up and down the river – basically along the river – similar to the site that we drilled, then, yes, it would be.”
Wittman said the site – a 70-acre piece of land just southeast of Granville Bridge, heading from Division Road to West Point – confirmed information already mapped by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, based on earlier well data that showed where the aquifer is. Wittman said the DNR data show an aquifer “that is extensive.”
“It turns out,” Wittman said, “it is, in fact, extensive. … A test on this parcel confirmed what was understood.”
Using 12-inch diameter test wells pumping at a constant rate for 72 hours, INTERA pumped a couple of millions of gallons a day, measured the drawdown and extrapolated the potential with modeled results.
“We didn’t really discover something that was never seen,” Wittman said. “What we really found out was how much can be withdrawn sustainably at that one location. … We got the results that we kind of imagined, based on the geology in that area.”
Based on those tests, according to an IEDC executive summary released last week, two wells on that site could produce a combined 30 million gallons a day, with model scenarios that “suggest much higher pumping rates can be sustained” with “the upper bound … not yet defined.”
On IEDC plans to install test wells at a second site.
The IEDC report last week said more testing was coming, as it looked for a second site in Tippecanoe County to confirm initial tests near Granville Bridge.
Fullbeck said that second site hadn’t been secured, as of Monday, but that the IEDC was “in conversations with a number of landowners in that area.”
The study already included flying a helicopter carrying a hoop-like sensor this summer to measure electromagnetic signals to help map water sources below the surface and to help determine the size and scope of the aquifer in the area. That helicopter was spotted by residents across a large section of western Tippecanoe County, from near West Point in the south to near Indiana 26 to the north.
Fullbeck said negotiations for a second site didn’t stretch that far. He said the project isn’t necessarily limited to the south side of the Wabash, though “all our conversations with landowners have been on the south side of the river.”
“We’d say it’s within a couple of miles of the Granville Bridge,” Fullbeck said.
Fullbeck said conversations with landowners have been “relatively good” and not what he’d characterize as “being negative or standoffish now.”
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On why LEAP was being planned near Lebanon, where there are questions about adequate water supply. And on why the IEDC has marketed the 9,000-acre mega-site as having ample water.
The LEAP project has been touted as the centerpiece midway in a “hard tech corridor,” stretching along Interstate 65 from Purdue’s Discovery Park District in West Lafayette to Indianapolis.
The LEAP District, set up to recruit and be shovel-ready for companies looking for mega-sites, already has a commitment from Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly for a $3.7 billion expansion of its operations in Indiana. This summer, news came that Indiana was one of two states in the running for a $50 billion semiconductor facility at the LEAP District.
“Site selection is an art form in the location of where companies want to be,” Fullbeck said.
Fullbeck said factors such as population, proximity to the interstate, access to the airport, among others, made Boone County attractive with site selectors and companies being recruited. Fullbeck said water in Boone County is available for initial projects coming to LEAP.
“What we are looking to do is solve a longer term need for Central Indiana through the economic development activity at the LEAP district,” Fullbeck said. “I think Indiana has an abundance of water. And what the test we have done has proven is that there is a large aquifer in Tippecanoe County. What we are discussing is how to move it. How do we move water throughout the state?”
On how Tippecanoe County was targeted for drilling and the water pipeline.
“I think it’s been known that Tippecanoe County had abundant water for a long time,” Fullbeck said.
Wittman said there are possible good locations in other parts of the state.
“But this is, by far, the most important one that I’ve seen,” Wittman said.
According to Indiana law, ownership of underground water goes with ownership of the land above it. Local officials note often that if IEDC buys the ground, there could be little recourse to stop the drilling if the IEDC study goes IEDC’s way.
On whether there’s anything anticipated that would make a water pipeline out of Tippecanoe County a no-go for the IEDC and the state.
Recently, Gov. Eric Holcomb said, “We're not going to rob Peter to pay Paul, if the water is not there.” (He also expressed confidence, based on early results, that the plan likely was solid.)
What, if anything, could INTERA and the IEDC see on the ongoing study that would make the state step back and rethink?
Wittman said he didn’t see that happening on an aquifer near the largest river in the state.
“The dimensions, I think, are underappreciated by most people – the dimensions of how much water we're talking about,” Wittman said. “It's a huge amount. The aquifer is extensive, it's wide, it's thick, and it is coarse. … There’s no real way that you could make that not work. The problem really is not about limits. It’s really that the state needs to appreciate how much water it has and how can this water be used for the good of the people.”
Again, does that amount to a done deal?
“We have said that this is still early in the process – that there is additional testing that needs to occur,” Fullbeck said. “And that is what we’re trying to do.”
On how many other communities, beyond the LEAP project, could the pipeline serve.
IEDC is touting the pipeline concept as a way to supply water for developments along the pipeline’s route from Tippecanoe County to Lebanon, and not merely for the LEAP district.
“I think it would be as many as would approach us,” Fullbeck said. “We haven’t had any specific conversations thus far.”
On an engineering study in the works for the pipeline and whether that should be taken as a sign that this pipeline is a done deal.
Earlier this summer, WTHR reported that IEDC already had a $10.2 million engineering contract with Black & Veatch Corp., approved in May 2023, to design the 35-mile pipeline. (The IEDC later posted the contract to its website.)
“It’s getting our ducks in a row to be able to answer the questions, and that is what we’re attempting to do here,” Fullbeck said. “Starting with, is there available water? And the answer is: It appears yes. There’s more testing that needs to be done. And now it’s, what would it take for us to move that water? That is a separate question.”
Local officials floated a $2 billion cost for a pipeline during a community forum in June. Fullbeck said it’s too early to know that price tag.
On the risk to residential wells nearby and possibility of damage or lost water if the state starts moving tens of millions of gallons of water a day.
INTERA’s initial results show that the plan would have “minimal impacts” on homeowners’ wells in the area, any of which “can be mitigated with a pre-construction survey of homeowner wells near the site.”
Wittman said current law says that any high-capacity water user has to make any domestic well owner whole if they affect access to water. He said residential well owners could have their wells deepened if they’re affected by pumping for the state’s pipeline. He said well owners could prepare for that by measuring levels and keeping a record so they have the documentation.
On IEDC assertions that the pipeline and taking water from Tippecanoe County will benefit the Lafayette region, too.
That was the comment from David Rosenberg, Indiana’s secretary of commerce, sent with the release of the initial water test results last week: “… the work being done is expected to benefit Lafayette, central Indiana, LEAP, and cities and towns along the proposed water pipeline.”
How would Lafayette benefit from have the state take water to feed central Indiana?
Fullbeck said Lafayette and Tippecanoe County would be able to draw from that supply, too.
“What we are trying to do is unlock additional water access for them,” Fullbeck said. “For economic development purpose, everything from building a home to manufacturing requires additional water capacity. This should, hopefully, be viewed as a boon for them. … How they would choose to run that water is not really a question that I can answer.”
On possible limits to the size of the pipeline and the water it could draw.
Lafayette Mayor Tony Roswarski said last week that he was looking for ways to get the state to commit to taking only so much water, designing a pipeline that could carry only so much a day, so the draw on the Wabash River aquifer wouldn’t be an open-ended arrangement. His concern was that Greater Lafayette had economic development hopes to feed, too. And the local water supply is often seen as a key calling card. (Roswarski already has the city testing additional well sites for future use from the Teays River aquifer.)
“I think what we’re trying to understand now is what is the potential,” Fullbeck said. “We would not ever want to adversely affect Tippecanoe County or Lafayette or West Lafayette. What we have to figure out first is what is possible.”
On the promise – and the skepticism – of third-party reviews of INTERA’s study.
The IEDC promised a third-party review of data from test wells and other results from the INTERA study. Water experts from Purdue, Indiana and Ohio State universities are lined up for that, Wittman and Fullbeck said.
Last week, Tom Murtaugh, a Tippecanoe County commissioner, said there were concerns that the initial results didn’t come with hard data local officials could share with experts to get their take. Wittman said those data would come once the follow-up testing is done.
“We do want to have the other information at the same time, so that we're not just parsing out little packages of information, one by one,” Wittman said. “It’s better to just bundle it. And it will be done fairly soon.”
Murtaugh said last week there was a consensus locally that Lafayette, West Lafayette, the county and others likely will look for a third-party consultant of their own to be comfortable with an IEDC-funded study. West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis echoed that.
“If the region would like to pay for a fourth expert to review this, then by all means,” Fullbeck said. “We are doing our due diligence. We are finding experts to check our results.”
On timelines from here on the pipeline plan.
Wittman said he expected results from a second test would go to the university experts for a review in a couple of months, with the study still aimed to finish by the end of 2023.
“If we get access to (the next test) sites, then, yes, it should be manageable by the end of the year,” Wittman said.
Fullbeck said a firm deadline for a pipeline design isn’t set.
“It’s too early to opine on that right now,” Fullbeck said. “We don’t know where the water’s coming from, exactly. So, there’s so many design questions that might go into that.”
On whether the IEDC, in hindsight, would have rolled out the pipeline idea in a more open fashion early on if it had to do it again.
The IEDC, a public-private arm of the state focused on recruiting and keeping major business in Indiana, has been criticized for the hushed way it developed LEAP. Greater Lafayette officials have grumbled that they’ve been kept in the dark about the pipeline project – including concerns that last week’s initial results came with no hard data.
“I would say we are early in the process still,” Fullbeck said. “We have been talking to (local officials). And we’re sharing the information as it comes available.”
Wittman said that the story really is that Indiana has “an abundant resource” in its water, and the Lafayette region happens to be sitting on it.
“That’s what’s, to me, the most important finding here, that this resource is very large,” Wittman said. “Not only is it certainly able to satisfy the needs that have been outlined here, but more than that.”
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