Sep. 16—ANDERSON — The largest economic development project in Indiana's history is generating questions on a host of topics around the state — from what a transformed economy would look like to the role of state and local governments in aiding industrial development.
But environmental advocates — especially those who have spent time studying the Wabash River — have questions of their own about a proposed pipeline that would carry hundreds of millions of gallons of water from the river near Lafayette to the proposed LEAP Innovation District in Boone County.
They point to a lack of specific information that would shed light on what such a project would mean for the river's ecosystem.
"We strongly support regional economic development and collaboration throughout the state, but there's a general lack of studies and information and data that can tell us what those impacts would be," said Stanton Lambert, executive director of the Wabash River Enhancement Corp., a Lafayette-based non-profit group that focuses on improving environmental conditions along the river.
LEAP, an acronym for limitless exploration, advanced pace, is the name given to a proposed 10,000-acre development in northwest Boone County that supporters say would usher the state's economy toward new heights by attracting companies to populate a 70-mile high-tech corridor along Interstate 65 between Lafayette and Indianapolis.
To provide water infrastructure for the massive high-tech park, officials with the Indiana Economic Development Corporation are planning a pipeline that would transport water from one of the Wabash's two major aquifers in Tippecanoe County along a 35-mile route to the LEAP Innovation District.
There, state officials envision, millions of gallons of water a day would supply the needs of hundreds of companies, which would be engaged in "boundary-breaking projects in life sciences, microelectronics, ag-tech, clean tech, electrification and EV innovation," according to the IEDC website.
The state recently completed initial testing to examine the makeup and density of an alluvial aquifer beneath the river, with results indicating the river could support the project. Officials said more testing is planned this fall, with further results expected to be released before the end of the year.
The idea of siphoning 36.5 billion gallons of water a year from the river — roughly half the volume of Lake Monroe, the largest lake entirely within the state's borders — concerns many environmental experts. If withdrawal rates reach 100 million gallons a day — a figure some local leaders have projected once the LEAP district is fully occupied — there could be unforeseen repercussions, they said.
"We're concerned that this could potentially dry up wetlands and floodplain wetlands associated with the Wabash River," said Dr. Indra Frank, environmental health and water policy director for the Hoosier Environmental Council.
In June, Frank attended a forum in Tippecanoe County where current withdrawals from the river were spelled out. The largest, she said, was about 10 million gallons per day for the municipal water supply to Lafayette.
The total of all the significant withdrawals is about 20 million gallons a day, most of which is returned to the river after use and treatment. A key difference with the pipeline, Frank noted, is that water wouldn't be returned to the location of origin.
"The scale of this project raises questions for the whole state," she said, "about development, about water use and about water transfer. For example, water is heavy stuff. Pumping it and moving it that far will have a huge energy cost, which means a large carbon footprint."
MORE RESEARCH NEEDED
For Frank and her colleagues, a desire to better understand how water from sources like the Wabash River is used is nothing new.
In 2015, a study by researchers at Purdue University's Division of Environmental and Ecological Engineering showed that nearly all the water entering the Wabash in Indiana during the summer months is withdrawn and then returned to the waterway.
What that means, according to Loring Nies, a professor in Purdue's Lyles School of Engineering and one of the study's lead researchers, is that "the water in the Wabash on average has been through one human engineered system, which includes wastewater treatment plants and power utilities." The river, he added, "is already at a tipping point of fully exploiting its water resources."
Eight years later, the ecological consequences of having a water supply that would be, essentially, in a perpetual state of flux — taking water out, then putting it back in — remain largely unknown.
"One of the common themes we've heard from other experts is, there's really more research that needs to be done on what the impact of removing this amount of water would be," said Brian Daggy, a retired natural resource conservationist with the Boone County Soil and Water District.
As a retired farmer living in northwest Boone County, Daggy has been following developments in the LEAP project closely. He said that even if studies conclusively show that the river and its aquifer could support the park's water needs, questions would remain about what would happen during times when the river's flow isn't as robust.
"Droughts happen about every five, 10, 15 years on average in Indiana," he said. "When the river flow really diminishes about this time every year, late July or August, that amount of water withdrawal becomes more critical because you have less water available.
"There is some concern that during those low-flow times, during a drought event, that you may have more ecological impact than anybody really realizes."
WHOSE WATER IS IT?
The unanswered questions, according to Lambert, bring into focus another shortcoming: the state's lack of a comprehensive water policy.
"That's an important issue that I hope is addressed as we resolve this issue," Lambert said. "A river is a dynamic water resource. It's flowing constantly. Whatever you do here, it's going to have a significant impact downstream."
Other environmental advocates point to falling aquifer levels nationwide as a reminder that a cautious, measured approach is needed to better understand how the LEAP project would affect life along the Wabash River both in the short term and for decades to come.
"This process has moved so quickly, and I feel like as far as the impacts, communities feel like they don't have a lot of answers," said Sam Carpenter, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council.
"I appreciate the state's wanting to attract new business and jobs and industry — industries of the future — to Indiana. But if they push forward without considering some of the implications, then they might not have as much success as they're looking for."
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