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 for projects near Lebanon
Preliminary results released Thursday from a pair of test wells drilled this summer on 70 acres near Granville Bridge have an Indiana Economic Development Corp. consultant confident that the Wabash River alluvial aquifer in Tippecanoe County will be sufficient to feed millions of gallons of water to the massive LEAP District development 35 miles away near Lebanon.
Echoing some of the hints this summer that IEDC was set on its pipeline concept, a hydrologist with the Austin, Texas-based INTERA – the consulting group studying the water supply in Tippecanoe County – said Thursday that early sampling shows what he called an abundance of water in the Greater Lafayette region to support LEAP and other parts of water-poor central Indiana, as well.
And Jack Wittman, INTERA vice president and principal water resources hydrologist, also said initial results show that the plan would have “minimal impacts” on homeowners’ wells in the area, about six miles downstream from downtown Lafayette.
“With the rising demand for water in central Indiana, we are confident that this is a viable water solution that will give cities and towns the needed access to a new water supply source while protecting those already connected to it and ensuring long-term viability,” Wittman said in an IEDC release Wednesday. “While there is more work ahead with our phased approach of testing prioritized sites, current mapping indicates we will likely see similar results as we go forward.”
Taking it a step further, David Rosenberg, Indiana’s new secretary of commerce, called the work an investment “to support the growth of Indiana as a whole” that “will have a transformational return for generations to come.”
IEDC officials held a call Wednesday with Greater Lafayette leaders, Purdue experts and others to give them a one-day jump on the information released Thursday.
On Thursday, some of those in the room said they were still hoping for more of the raw data of the study that didn’t come this week in a series of fact sheets from the IEDC, a public-private arm of the state focused on recruiting and keeping major business in Indiana.
And while the IEDC promised to have INTERA’s study reviewed by experts at Purdue, IU and Ohio State before a final report comes at the end of 2023, Tom Murtaugh, a Tippecanoe County commissioner, said there was a consensus locally that Lafayette, West Lafayette, the county and others likely will look for a third-party consultant to make sure.
“We did stress the fact that, as they had promised before, we need to have access to the data, not only to make us feel comfortable that this project moves forward, but also for the community to feel comfortable,” Murtaugh said. “So far, we don’t have the actual data to show someone at Purdue or wherever and ask, ‘Is this right?’”
West Lafayette Mayor John Dennis added: “We need someone that’s going to have no bias – we’re not paying them to give us an answer. We want to know what water we have, how long we’ll have it, how it replenishes, all of that. Just the basics of being good managers of a resource, right?”
Conversations about connecting water from southwestern Tippecanoe County to Boone County surfaced in fall 2022. But the state has been light with the details about it as IEDC studied the potential to feed the kind of manufacturers who had huge water needs. IEDC officials have insisted that no decisions have been made on a pipeline that Greater Lafayette officials have been told would cost an estimated $2 billion to build to the 9,000-acre LEAP development.
But Indiana law essentially says that ownership of underground water goes with ownership of the land above. If IEDC buys the ground, there could be little recourse to stop the drilling if the IEDC study goes IEDC’s way.
FROM THE ARCHIVES:
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. (In sheer dollars, that’s more than 25 times bigger than the $1.8 billion SkyWater Technology facility announced for Purdue’s Discovery Park District in West Lafayette.)
This summer, Indianapolis station WTHR reported that IEDC already has a $10.2 million engineering contract to design a 35-mile pipeline.
“It all seems to be lining up, that’s for certain,” Murtaugh said. “The aquifer is – I think the word they used was – ‘thick’ in this area.”
IEDC officials were not available to answer questions Thursday, a spokeswoman said.
But according to IEDC’s release Thursday, the aquifer tapped along the southern bank of the Wabash River was “deeper and wider than previous studies indicated” and revealing “significantly more water available in the aquifer than originally known.”
According to IEDC’s report, INTERA drilled two, 12-inch test wells on a 70-acre property along the Wabash, six miles from West Lafayette. (Not specified in Thursday’s report, the property was just southeast of Granville Bridge.) The test found that each well delivered 15 million gallons a day.
“Some of the model scenarios suggest much higher pumping rates can be sustained,” the IEDC reported, “but until more detailed design modeling is performed, the upper bound is not yet defined.”
INTERA is expected to test two more sites, according to IEDC. The study already included flying a helicopter carrying a hoop-like sensor to measure electromagnetic signals to help map water sources below the surface to help determine the size and scope of the aquifer in the area.
“Current mapping indicates other sites will show similar results,” the IEDC reported.
Murtaugh said he took it as a good sign that at least the IEDC was double checking with other test wells. Murtaugh said IEDC officials told the group from Greater Lafayette on Wednesday that they were still negotiating with property owners to drill. Murtaugh said it was unclear whether the IEDC study would stick close to the Granville Bridge area or even to the south side of the Wabash. (The helicopter was spotted scouting a wide area this summer.)
The IEDC said that “any impacts on residents in direct proximity to the aquifer would be minimal and would be mitigated at no cost to any resident.”
That caught Tim Gennett’s eye. He and his family live two miles north of the Granville area in a house served by a residential well.
“In the 40 years that I’ve lived here, water has never been an issue – not once,” Gennett said. “Our well has met 100% of our demand 100% of the time. So, that’s the baseline standard for me. I would like assurances that this pipeline will not change that. And I’m not interested in 95% assurance that it’s not going to change.”
Gennett said he was concerned about the ability of Purdue researchers, despite their expertise, to objectively review the INTERA study, given that IEDC identifies Purdue as a partner in development of what’s called Indiana’s Hard Tech Corridor. He said he’s concerned that it seems impact on residential wells is possible, “perhaps even expected.” He said he wants to know more about that, including a more precise definition of what the IEDC means by “direct proximity” and what mitigation might include.
“Water from the Wabash aquifer is currently being marketed to potential LEAP tenants, and the IEDC has contracted for design of a pipeline to move the water south,” Gennett said. “Having taken these steps before the study of the aquifer is complete, we must be skeptical of study results that support decisions already made.”
State Sen. Spencer Deery, a West Lafayette Republican whose district includes the area IEDC is studying, said the initial results shared this week weren’t surprising, given the trickle of information coming out in recent months. He said the questions about whether there’s enough water is just part of a package that eventually will have to include how a pipeline is financed. He said those likely will come before the General Assembly, where bills are being crafted to regulate water rights when it’s being transported.
“It's important that we put in the time now to make sure that we know just how much water can be transferred without harming anybody in our community, and that we make sure that the laws are in place that if anybody is harmed, that they're going to be compensated,” Deery said.
The IEDC messaging continues to include the Lafayette area as a beneficiary, not simply a supplier, of the pipeline project and the water transfer.
Lafayette Mayor Tony Roswarski said he didn’t read that as a question about getting water for uses close to home. (Lafayette’s well fields pull from the Teays River aquifer, which is separate from what the IEDC is looking at.) He said that if the IEDC follows through, local officials want to make sure whatever pipeline is built is laid out with certain capacities in mind, rather than on unlimited supplies.
But Roswarski said he understood the state’s point to be that if the LEAP District does well, opportunities to bring in other business up and down the Hard Tech Corridor – roughly along Interstate 65, from Purdue’s Discovery Park District to Indianapolis – would fall to Lafayette, too.
“I believe everybody here is trying to be reasonable,” Roswarski said. “We want to be good partners, where we can be in at the level that we can be, but also understanding that SkyWater is a chip plant, also, and it's going to need a lot of water. That will be supplied by American Water, which supplies water for West Lafayette. I think everybody just is looking for those assurances to make sure that it's a level playing field and that we can all win in the long run.”
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