Pull the plug on ‘water resource shell-game’ on LEAP, consumer group’s report recommends
New report from Citizens Action Coalition on IEDC’s LEAP district and pipeline plan: ‘Public does not like to be presented with a fait accompli with respect to decisions about their water.’
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PULL THE PLUG ON ‘WATER RESOURCE SHELL-GAME’ ON LEAP, CONSUMER GROUP’S NEW REPORT RECOMMENDS
The Indiana Economic Development Corp. put the cart before the horse, secretly committing hundreds of millions of dollars to “near term, speculative opportunities” at the vast LEAP district near Lebanon and needlessly starting a water war between Indiana communities to feed those goals, a new report from a state consumer and environmental advocacy organization contends.
A Citizens Action Coalition report, released Monday, calls on the state to reel in the IEDC, rethink its approach to recruiting huge, water-intensive manufacturers to water-starved Boone County and to pull the plug on a plan to build a $2 billion water pipeline that would pump and ship tens of millions of gallons each day from western Tippecanoe County aquifers to the 9,000-acre LEAP district 35 miles away.
The report said that “water policy has become a subset of economic policy, not treated as an essential resource,” as the IEDC lines up untested ways to make development happen in parts of the state far from sufficient water supplies, ignoring past studies into statewide water studies.
“The IEDC has embarked on a purely supply-side approach,” the Citizens Action Coalition report concludes.
“This has created a water resource shell-game that will ultimately diminish water resources, increase costs to ratepayers, and foment water wars between communities and regions,” the organization’s authors wrote. “Ultimately, with the IEDC driving the water policy ship, water management policy is being discussed and formulated in secret with no public input. There is no forum or mechanism to allow for a detailed, systematic, rational discussion open to the public about water policy, which is critical for many applications – not just near-term, speculative opportunities for economic development.”
The 19-page report, outlining how water fits with IEDC’s strategy on LEAP and water, lands on a day when IEDC’s Texas-based consultant is expected to start testing wells at a second site along the Wabash River, near Granville Bridge and about seven miles downstream from Lafayette.
At stake: A state report, expected in January 2024, could further confirm IEDC assumptions that the aquifer in western Tippecanoe County is rich enough to supply upwards of 100 million gallons a day for use in other parts of central Indiana, including the LEAP district. The IEDC released preliminary test results in September, based on pumping done in early July on a 70-acre site just southeast of Granville Bridge, contending that 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.”
Kerwin Olson, Citizens Action Coalition executive director, said the report has been in the works since August. He said the nonprofit’s interest in LEAP was piqued first by Citizens Water’s filing with the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission to build at 50-mile pipeline to supply some of LEAP’s needs and what that could do to utility rate payers – a question in Citizen Action Coalition’s wheelhouse. Citizens Water pulled out of that in October.
“We quickly ascertained that there was a whole lot to unpack with LEAP, and most of those issues were not being discussed or questioned because of the necessary and important focus on the potential pipeline and water withdrawals from the West Lafayette area to the LEAP district,” Olson said.
The report echoes some of the themes that have crept into the mounting mobilization in Greater Lafayette and surrounding communities to push back on what has been referred to locally as a “water steal.” Among them are:
The public-private nature of the IEDC’s setup, created in 2005 under then Gov. Mitch Daniels, that allowed it to work under the radar and without enough public input and scrutiny on LEAP and other development projects across the state.
The questionable wisdom of recruiting semiconductor plants that would require giant amounts of water unavailable near the site being pitched by the state. The IEDC revealed in June that it was one of two states in the running for a yet-named $50 billion semiconductor facility. Based on other chip fabrication plants, the Citizens Action Coalition estimated that a $50 billion facility would need between 41 million and 51 million gallons of water a day.
How the water is “the Achilles heel of the LEAP project,” planted in a community where Lebanon Mayor Matt Gentry, a devoted LEAP cheerleader, admitted that his initial question to IEDC officials was about Boone County’s well-known lack of water. The report questions why the “IEDC committed to the LEAP district and water-intensive industries prior to doing any water study on the impacts locally in and around Lafayette – including on individual wells, on crop irrigation, and downstream cities and towns.”
How the plan has fomented backlash and potential beefs between communities in a burgeoning water war, while buying up land and building infrastructure for a $3.8 billion Eli Lilly campus along with other prospective projects. “While the LEAP project is almost wholly speculative in nature, IEDC has committed nearly $1 billion in taxpayer funds already, tossing taxpayer money around like Wall Street speculators,” the report suggests. And most of that has come behind closed doors, the report contends.
How the IEDC intends to pay for pipelines and other improvements, where treated water from Wabash River watershed will go once it’s used and how much of that cost could be passed along to ratepayers and Indiana taxpayers.
And whether a recent order by Gov. Eric Holcomb, moving oversight of the Wabash River aquifer study from the IEDC to the Indiana Finance Authority, will bring any long-term thinking to what Citizens Action Coalition framed as a drive for short-term economic gains.
“The IFA emphasizes educating the public about the importance of ‘water resources and infrastructure,’ which the response in Lafayette to the LEAP project indicates the public already understands,” the report concludes. “The public does not like to be presented with a fait accompli with respect to decisions about their water. The public expects the state to consider their concerns, a more than reasonable expectation. The public wants to and should be involved upfront in water resource and policy decisions.”
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IEDC officials have argued that a pipeline is not a done deal, deeming protest, questions and a Tippecanoe County moratorium on large transfers of water away from the county as “premature.” Holcomb has insisted that the state is “not going to rob Peter to pay Paul, if the water is not there.” David Rosenberg, Indiana’s secretary of commerce and head of the IEDC, said in November that “only if Indiana is selected by a company with a large water need would a pipeline be considered. (See: “Secretary of Commerce on LEAP pipeline: Let me address a few things.”)
But in a column published Dec. 8 in the Indianapolis Business Journal (“Water should be distributed to benefit all”), Rosenberg argued: “With our state’s abundance of water, this resource can be the differentiator for Indiana as we compete against other states to create our future economy. … Water is the lifeblood of all communities, so Indiana must ensure we distribute this valuable resource in a way that supports all Hoosier communities.”
Olson said it’s been more than evident that the scope of the LEAP district project could have big impacts and risks for Hoosier utility rate payers and taxpayers “due to the financial commitments already made by IEDC and the likely need that IEDC would have come back to the well for more.”
The Citizens Action Coalition report made a series of recommendations, including:
Putting the LEAP project on hold indefinitely.
Getting the General Assembly to adopt the regulations on large water transfers being contemplated in a proposed bill being crafted by Greater Lafayette area legislators “to impose a modicum of structure to large water withdrawals.”
Returning groundwater resources to local control “to foster cooperation between neighboring utilities (regionalization) and stem water wars between communities and regions.”
Replacing the IEDC “with a transparent department of commerce or significantly reform the IEDC to inject transparency and public participation upfront, without compromising sensitive negotiations.” The report suggested the state should engage with the public early about economic development and water usage.”
Read the full Citizens Action Coalition report here:
For other recent coverage of the LEAP pipeline:
Commissioners: Moratorium ‘keeps some pressure’ up on LEAP pipeline fight. Tippecanoe Co. commissioners put finishing touches on moratorium on water transfers, high-volume wells as IEDC’s tap-and-take aquifer study continues. Community members: ‘Keep this
LEAP pipeline funding decisions on hold until 2025, local lawmakers assured. Indiana House and Senate leadership say a bill to regulate large water transfers has the green light for 2024 General Assembly session, but no guarantee of passing
Q&A: Lebanon mayor, ‘behind enemy lines’ on LEAP pipeline. Lebanon Mayor Matt Gentry isn’t shy about touting a controversial water pipeline plan and calling out what he thinks is politically motivated opposition in Tippecanoe County. A Q&A.
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
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
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