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Indiana spends millions on proposed pipeline plan as state agency remains silent and hides details

A massive new industrial project in Boone County will require much more water than what’s currently available.

LEBANON, Ind. — When you think of water shortages, you might imagine parched landscapes in California, Arizona and other western states that struggle with growing population and dwindling water supplies.

But central Indiana is now facing its own water shortage.

A massive new industrial project in Boone County will require much more water than what’s currently available.

The state of Indiana is developing a plan to fix that, but 13News has discovered much of the plan is shrouded in secrecy, and the lack of transparency is fueling widespread concerns.

Municipal leaders, environmental experts and local residents worry that the state’s goal — to divert billions of gallons of water annually to Boone County from Indiana’s most famous water source — will result in unintended and unknown consequences that could last for generations.

Massive project missing critical component

State economic development leaders want to transform thousands of acres of Boone County farmland into a high-tech business district to attract huge industries to central Indiana.

Planned and coordinated by the Indiana Economic Development Corporation (IEDC), the LEAP Innovation and Research District near Lebanon is easily one of the largest and most expensive economic development projects the state has ever created.

The state agency touts the development as “9,000+ available acres strategically situated on Indiana’s I-65 Innovation Corridor.” IEDC said the project appeals to expanding companies by promising that “LEAP Lebanon offers diverse settings — megasite, advanced manufacturing, mixed-use and corporate campus — all on an SSI-certified (Strategic Site Inventory) site.”

The project has already landed a big catch.

IEDC leaders attended an April groundbreaking ceremony for Eli Lilly after the pharmaceutical giant confirmed plans to build a $3.7 billion manufacturing campus within the LEAP District.

The pharmaceutical manufacturing facility is now being built just north of Lebanon, and it’s the first of what state and local leaders hope will be a series of economic development victories for a small, rural community just 30 minutes northwest of Indianapolis. A few weeks ago, IEDC announced a semiconductor manufacturer has identified the LEAP District as a finalist for a proposed $50 billion plant.

The sheer size of the planned LEAP development will nearly double the size of Lebanon, according to the city’s mayor, and it’s expected to bring thousands of new jobs, thousands of new homes and thousands of new people to work and live in and around Boone County.

Local and state leaders say the LEAP project has unlimited potential.

What it does not have is unlimited water.

“There’s just not enough water in the Indianapolis area to support this," Lebanon Mayor Matt Gentry told 13News in late March, just a few weeks before the Eli Lilly groundbreaking. “Water here in Boone County is a challenge. We have to find some solution to bring additional water to central Indiana.”

That solution is already being developed, and it has caught many Hoosiers by surprise.

Contract outlines pipeline plan

IEDC is now developing an ambitious plan that would pipe in billions of gallons of water to Boone County each year, and that water would come from the Wabash River.

The 500-mile long river stretches across the entire state, but the Wabash does not run through Boone County. If state officials have anything to say about it, that won’t matter.

13 Investigates has learned IEDC has signed a $10.2 million state contract to plan a 35-mile pipeline from Lafayette to Lebanon. 13News obtained a copy of the contract after submitting a request through Indiana’s Access to Public Records Act, and the agency has now also posted the contract on its transparency portal.

The 57-page document details the state’s intention to build a pipeline that would carry water from an aquifer under the Wabash River to the LEAP project in Boone County.

How much water?

That amount is not detailed in the state’s contract, and IEDC officials have declined repeated requests from 13News to discuss the project. But community leaders say they have heard numbers discussed in their meetings with IEDC staff.

The proposed pipeline would initially pump between 10 million and 20 million gallons of water daily to Boone County, Lebanon’s mayor told 13News. Once more industries move in, Gentry said that number could jump to 100 million gallons each day.

Those numbers concern community leaders in Tippecanoe County, where Lafayette, West Lafayette and other nearby towns rely on Wabash River aquifers for their drinking water.

“That sounds to us like a significant amount of water, and we need to determine if that would be potentially harmful,” Lafayette Mayor Tomy Roswarski said. “The city of Lafayette, at its peak, pumps about 17 million gallons a day. We all know water is an important commodity so we have questions … I know Purdue is very concerned. We have business and industries that are significant water users that are concerned also, and we have a right to be concerned.”

Credit: WTHR
Lafayette Mayor Tony Roswarski says he has concerns about diverting billions of gallons of water each year from the Wabash River watershed.

Tippecanoe County Commissioner Tom Murtaugh also has some apprehension about the state’s pipeline plan.

“We want to make sure that we have the water we need for our growing community and the needs for generations to come in this area, so to draw a significant amount of water from the aquifer here is concerning,” Murtaugh said. “We want to have great assurances that it’s not going to have a negative impact on this region.”

An overreaction?

But fears about the state’s pipeline plan are being overblown, according to Lebanon’s mayor, who said his city has just as much right to access the Wabash River as any other community.  

“It’s not their water. I understand that they may be upset about it but, again, that water doesn’t belong to them. It’s a public water source,” Gentry told 13News. “I do think that there is a bit of an overreaction on their part because it’s one of the most prolific water sources in the entire U.S., not just Indiana. There is plenty enough to share.”

Whether there really is enough water flowing through and under the Wabash River to meet the needs of growing communities in both Tippecanoe and Boone counties is a flashpoint in the controversy.

Connie Brown is skeptical.

She and her husband have lived near West Lafayette, right along the Wabash, for almost 40 years, and they rely on the river every day.

Credit: WTHR
Connie and Jerry Brown have lived along the banks of the Wabash River for nearly 40 years and rely on it daily for their water.

“Our concern is we’re on a well, and we need those waters,” Connie said from her backyard patio overlooking the river. “We have seen the river go very low. In the past few years, it’s been extremely low in the summer, lower than we’ve ever seen it, actually.”

Keith Cherkauer understands residents’ concerns.

He is a professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Purdue and director of the Indiana Water Resource Research Center. Cherkauer said there are no studies to show the actual impact of pumping billions of gallons of water annually away from the Wabash River watershed. The longtime researcher said while the Wabash usually has plenty of water, that’s not always the case.

“If we look at that historically, something like the summer of 2012 when we were in drought conditions, pulling out 100 million gallons of water a day is over 20% of the flow that was in the river at that point in time in the summer, so that’s a substantial removal of water,” Cherkauer explained.

“We really don’t know the impact of what the state is proposing, so to draw those kind of resources without knowing the impact is very scary,” Murtaugh said.

Supporters of the pipeline project point out the state’s plan would not divert water directly from the Wabash River, but rather from an aquifer — a body of underground rock and sediment that holds groundwater — that runs under it. And they say the diverted water for Boone County would come from the Wabash Alluvial aquifer, which is separate from the Wabash Teays aquifer that provides drinking water to many residents in Tippecanoe County. 

But statements suggesting the river and its aquifers are all separate and not interconnected are misleading, according to water experts who spoke with 13News.

“Indiana’s aquifers are complex. We don’t have a lot of information on what the aquifers actually look like and how they interact,” Cherkauer said.

Credit: WTHR
Purdue professor Keith Cherkauer says more studies are needed to help determine the impact of diverting water from Wabash River aquifers.

“There’s actually a constant connection between the aquifers and the river,” explained Jack Wittman, a water resource hydrologist at engineering firm Intera who oversees strategic planning and groundwater analysis for water resource planning projects. The state of Indiana has hired Intera and Wittman to conduct aquifer testing along the Wabash.

“Indiana has big rivers, but asking questions like ‘How much can we pump from the system?’ is important,” Wittman told 13News. “It’s the reason we’re doing the work and why we’re doing the investigation.”

Tests now underway

As part of the investigation, Wittman said the state is drilling test wells and installing monitoring stations along the river to provide scientists with valuable data. That hydraulic data will help them understand the potential effects of pumping large amounts of water from under the river and viable spots to build a pump station to send water to Boone County.

The wells will extend approximately 100 feet below the ground to the bottom of the aquifer, and scientists are hoping for multiple test sites to collect data. Sources tell 13News that the state has had difficulty finding landowners who are willing to sign contracts to allow the drilling.

Earlier this month, the state also conducted a geological and aquifer mapping study along the Wabash. The study required the use of a low-flying helicopter that towed an electromagnetic sensor resembling a giant hula hoop to map features below the ground.

“We’ll get to look in areas where we don’t have to drill holes to see the subsurface characteristics to help us connect the dots,” Wittman said, explaining that hydrologists prefer to locate wells and pumps in areas that do not have dense clay layers that make it more difficult to efficiently pump water.

Credit: WTHR
The Wabash River stretches for 500 miles across Indiana, but it does not run through Boone County.

Tippecanoe County leaders are eagerly awaiting the results of the state studies. They say state officials assured them the data will be reviewed independently and that the state will not proceed with a Wabash River pipeline until testing is complete and test results show the project is viable.

But the state contract and related documents obtained by 13News show the state is already moving forward with pipeline design and development plans well before testing is finished, and the state has committed millions of dollars to develop the project.

Pipeline planning expanded and moving quickly

IEDC’s $10.2 million contract with Black & Veatch outlines detailed plans for the LEAP District water program and its Wabash River pipeline. The 57-page contract says:

“The [p]rogram will convey raw water from a series of collector wells and pump stations located adjacent to the Wabash River for conveyance, treatment and storage at the LEAP District. The [p]rogram will also include a proposed wastewater treatment plant to accept flow from the LEAP District. Wastewater will be treated and the effluent will be conveyed to the Eagle Creek Reservoir through a pipeline and series of pump stations. The [p]rogram area generally extends along the I-65 corridor northwest of Indianapolis.”

The contract identifies dozens of specific tasks and deliverables related to the pipeline project, including development of: 

  • A program management plan
  • A risk management plan
  • Internal and external communications plans
  • Technical memorandums for design, testing and evaluation
  • Plans for data collection, review and analysis
  • Dozens of program meetings and workshops
  • Preliminary engineering plans for the pipeline, pump stations, collector wells, a water treatment plant and a wastewater treatment plant

Among many other specifics detailed in the state plan, contractors were required this spring and summer to determine the size and composition of pipes, create pipeline maps, drill 20 monitoring wells and identify four sites for aquifer testing, and develop a land acquisition plan identifying parcels that are anticipated to be impacted by the pipeline, pump station, collector wells and treatment plants (including the names of property owners).

RELATED: Eli Lilly ups investment in 2 new Lebanon manufacturing sites to $3.7 billion

Another IEDC document obtained by 13 Investigates shows the preliminary program schedules and pipeline cost estimates are due this month with conceptual drawings and engineering memoranda due in August. A collector well exploration report and the much-anticipated aquifer testing and analysis report are due in December. IEDC recently expanded the project to include analysis and design of am additional pipeline to carry wastewater effluent from the Lebanon LEAP project to the Eagle Creek Reservoir in northwest Marion County.

Black & Veach is also required to submit monthly progress reports. The most recent progress report obtained by 13 Investigates shows more than a 150 tasks related to the pipeline development project have already been completed.

“Things are moving much quicker than we were originally told,” Murtaugh told 13News.

Despite the progress, some families who live along the river haven’t heard a word about a Wabash River pipeline.

“We’ve heard nothing,” Connie Brown and her husband said this spring when 13News visited their home to ask about the proposed pipeline. “We knew nothing of that until you came here. I hope that somebody from the state level, I presume, would send us info on it.”

That presumption is not correct, and 13 Investigates has discovered getting information from the state about its proposed Wabash River pipeline is anything but easy.

State chooses to hide pipeline details

For more than four months, 13 Investigates has asked IEDC leaders to meet to discuss the pipeline. The agency declined each of the requests. The agency originally declined “due to travel schedules.” When 13 News continued asking for a meeting, the agency stopped providing a reason for its denials.

“I will let you know as soon as we are able to offer an interview with more information,” wrote Erin Sweitzer on April 6.

More than 100 days later, and despite several more requests, IEDC still has not agreed to an interview or a meeting to talk about the pipeline with 13News.

Wittman, the nationally renowned water resource expert who IEDC hired to lead its aquifer studies along the Wabash, told 13News he is willing to meet for an interview, but IEDC would not give him permission to do so.

When asked for invoices and monthly progress reports that its engineering firms have submitted for the pipeline project, IEDC did not want to provide the records.

“Vendor invoices and reports are not something the IEDC typically shares publicly,” the agency responded. After 13News pointed out that Indiana’s Access to Public Records Act requires state agencies to release documents involving taxpayer spending and publicly funded reports, IEDC began providing the documents — but some contain significant redactions.

The state agency placed black boxes over nearly half of all entries listed on its updated pipeline project schedule, withholding information about key elements and important target dates of the plan.

Credit: WTHR
The IEDC chose to heavily redact some information about the proposed pipeline in this document provided to 13News.

Among the items IEDC is hiding from the public: at least 15 key project milestones, future project workshops, information about collector well design work and groundwater testing, entries about utility coordination and water resource evaluation, pipeline environmental impacts and site security, and a large section involving details about land access and acquisition.  

An attorney at the state agency told 13 Investigates the items were redacted because “certain fields contained deliberative information received from our contractor that is speculative in nature and used for purposes of decision making.” But some of the deleted fields appear to be project tasks and target completion dates, and it is unclear how those items would be considered deliberative and speculative.

The agency also declined to provide 13News the pipeline communications plans and risk management plan, claiming IEDC “currently is not in possession of the requested” documents even though Black & Veatch progress reports show they were completed months ago.

And it’s not just the media having trouble getting information about the Wabash pipeline from IEDC.

Late last month, the League of Women Voters of Greater Lafayette invited IEDC to attend a community meeting to help educate the public about its pipeline plan. More than 250 people attended the event, including state lawmakers, business leaders and concerned residents.

But no one from IEDC showed up. Murtaugh said the state agency claimed no one from IEDC was available because of staff vacations and other conflicts.

Little info, big price tag 

Many of the community leaders and public officials who spoke to 13News for this story — both on and off the record — chose their words carefully, not wanting to anger the state’s powerful economic development agency. But nearly all of them expressed a sense of disappointment about the limited information IEDC is sharing about its proposed pipeline.

“It’s been trickling out quite slowly. They could definitely improve on transparency,” said Rep. Sharon Negele, R-Attica, whose district includes part of Tippecanoe County. “I’m not against the project. I’m just guarded and have concerns. The most important thing is that it does not impact Tippecanoe County in a negative way, and we need information to better understand this.”

Negele shared her concerns at the recent community meeting hosted by the League of Women Voters, and she also read a statement she received from IEDC. That statement says, in part:

“We are cognizant of the concerns within the community and are working with a number of partners to evaluate the feasibility of the identified aquifer (Wabash Alluvial, which is not the aquifer that supports the Greater Lafayette Community) to meet the needs the of the LEAP District, and Central Indiana more broadly. This analysis should be completed this summer, at which point we’ll be proactive in sharing its results with the community and answer questions they have.”

So far, the agency’s public comments on the Wabash pipeline have been very limited.

At the Eli Lilly groundbreaking ceremony in April, IEDC secretary Brad Chambers said, “Being able to put this significant economic development infrastructure in this area and at the same time solve a water problem for the region, that’s a double bottom line, and we’re excited to be able to do it … This is a good investment for the state’s future.”

Asked about the actual cost of that infrastructure investment, Chambers replied, “It’s hundreds of millions going into the billions, but the return on that is more than that, obviously.”

“We’re hearing estimates of up to $2 billion for this project, but we are not getting anything specific,” Murtaugh told 13 Investigates.

Credit: WTHR
State officials want to tap into an aquifer to supply an industrial project in Boone County with up to 100 million gallons of water each day.

IEDC justifies the enormous investment by claiming it will solve a problem not only for Boone County, but also for Marion County, which currently relies on water from the White River. Studies suggest the Indianapolis metropolitan area will outgrow that water supply within the next few decades.

“Hamilton County, Marion County, that whole area is predicted to be out of water by 2050,” said Roswarski, the mayor of Lafayette. “I’ve looked at the reports. There is a problem looming on the horizon. It’s accurate.”

IEDC sent 13News a short statement about the pipeline. It focuses on the regional benefits of building a Lafayette-to-Lebanon pipeline:

“One of the many driving factors to the LEAP Lebanon strategy was the opportunity to address an inevitable central Indiana water deficiency which has been identified in numerous water studies dating as far back as the 1960s. While this is a central Indiana challenge, the Boone County area is acutely impacted. Further, the future-focused industries Indiana is working to attract have elevated the importance of addressing our state’s resource needs. As a result, the IEDC is working with state and local leaders and is currently undergoing the design and engineering phase of a regional solution. Our approach is to utilize the available aquifers as identified as the most reasonable place for a new water source by a 2019 Indiana Finance Authority study and that are not likely to inhibit water available to the Greater Lafayette region. The IEDC is leveraging the economic benefits of the LEAP Innovation District to address future costs necessary to address and establish a much-needed solution to the previously identified regional water challenge."

RELATED: Lebanon City Council votes to annex 5,000 acres for innovation park

The mayor and other community leaders in Tippecanoe County insist they are not opposed to the LEAP project and economic development in other parts of the state; they just want their concerns addressed before a pipeline is built.

But with billions of dollars already committed to turning the state’s economic development dreams into a reality, a Lafayette-to-Lebanon pipeline might already be inevitable. Lebanon’s mayor told 13News the LEAP District and the state’s economic development plans in Boone County cannot happen without tapping into water from the Wabash River.

“No, they can’t (happen without a pipeline from the Wabash River),” Gentry said. “This is a big problem we have to solve, and I think we found a really creative solution.”

Credit: WTHR
Lebanon Mayor Matt Gentry says a water pipeline from the Wabash River is crucial for the success of economic development plans in Boone County.

Concerning “defect” in Indiana law

While the state continues its aquifer testing and pipeline designing, scientists, water experts, community leaders and elected officials are now focusing their attention on a what they say is perhaps a bigger concern exposed by the state’s pipeline project.

“We don’t have any law or regulation that limits anybody who wants to take away water from a public water source for any purpose – surface water or ground water. There is no permit required to do it,” said Jane Frankenberger, a Purdue professor who specializes in water quality issues. “We have nothing to deal with that at all, and I think that’s an area we have to deal with.”

Frankenberger’s concern is shared by some state lawmakers.

Hearing of the state’s proposal to divert billions of gallons of water annually from the Wabash River, Rep. Mike Aylesworth (R–Hebron) introduced a bill earlier this year in the Indiana House of Representatives. It would allow the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to issue a permit to someone wishing to withdrawal 10 million gallons of groundwater per day and require a study to determine the impact of the withdrawal on the watershed. 

The bill never even got a hearing in the House Natural Resources Committee, where Republican leaders are reluctant to give the DNR expanded power to issue regulatory permits.

“Mike and I really pushed hard to get a hearing on that because right now, we don’t really have a regulatory framework unless there’s an emergency, and by then, it’s too late,” said Negele, who supported the bill. “We really need to look at this because this is a defect in our state code.”

State lawmakers were warned about the defect a decade ago.

In 2013, the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission (IURC) presented a report to the Indiana General Assembly with eight recommendations to better manage the state’s water supply. The top recommendation: “Indiana needs to develop rules or laws to establish procedures for additional significant withdrawals from aquifers, surface waters, or inter-basin transfers,” the report said.

“Is withdrawing 100 million gallons a day from a river or an aquifer a problem? We don’t know for sure, but my concern is we don’t have anything to say that someone can’t come in and then take out another 100 million and then another and then another until the point where we do cause problems,” said Cherkauer, director of the Indiana Water Resource Research Center. “That’s something to really consider.”

Negele said she is conducting further research and hopes to introduce another bill to address the state’s lack of regulation involving water diversion during the 2024 legislative session.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The spelling of Rep. Mike Aylesworth's name has been updated.

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