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Your questions answered: Why the state is feuding with Tippecanoe County over water for the LEAP District
Editor’s note: This article is part of a State Affairs and Fox59/CBS4 series looking at how decisions get made at the Indiana Economic Development Corp. and how it impacts economic development in the state. The IEDC has faced increased scrutiny due to its involvement with Boone County’s LEAP Lebanon Innovation District and because two gubernatorial candidates are former IEDC leaders. Read our first story here.
The Indiana Economic Development Corp. is banking on the success of the LEAP Innovation and Research District, a tech hub in Boone County.
But, the state agency is missing a crucial resource it needs to enable more high-tech industries to call the hub home: enough water. The IEDC, the state agency tasked with driving economic development, hopes to funnel water from the aquifer that sits adjacent to the Wabash River in Tippecanoe County roughly 40 miles away, if studies go as planned.
Opposition to the plan has bubbled over among Tippecanoe County residents and their elected leaders, concerned about what siphoning water away from their community could mean for them long term.
What was once an often-ignored topic in Indiana has become one of the most contentious, bi-partisan issues ahead of the 2024 legislative session.
"I've never seen an issue like this that united everybody,” said Sen. Spencer Deery, R-West Lafayette.
Here’s what you should know about the water fight.
What is the LEAP District
The LEAP District will be a 9,000-acre “hub of global innovation” in Lebanon. The land is already ready for the IEDC’s use whenever high-tech companies show interest.
The LEAP District was created in order to allow the state to move more quickly to land deals, said Secretary of Commerce David Rosenberg. Back in 2021, the IEDC lost a bidding war against Ohio for Intel, a chip manufacturer. One reason Indiana lost, Rosenberg said, was because Indiana didn’t have readily available land for use, and wasn’t able to move as quickly as Ohio.
Indiana-based drug manufacturer Eli Lilly and Company was the first to announce it would be building two manufacturing sites in the LEAP District, investing $3.7 billion and creating up to 700 jobs. Indiana is in the running for other companies as well.
“LEAP is not in any way or shape designed to compete against what other Indiana cities are doing,” Rosenberg said. “LEAP is designed to compete against international locations that are playing for the same types of companies of the future and other places throughout the United States, like Nashville or Austin, Raleigh, Phoenix.”
Why does the IEDC say Lebanon was chosen for the LEAP District?
Location, location, location. Lebanon is located 45 minutes from Purdue University and Rosenberg said it was relatively easy to piece together enough acreage in the city. Plus, unlike other areas of the state, it’s located within a 30-minute drive to an international airport and can pull from the central Indiana population center for talent.
Why does the LEAP District need outside water?
The IEDC already has a central Indiana source in place to provide 10 million gallons of water a day to the LEAP District. That’s enough to handle the current needs of the district, including those of Eli Lilly.
But, Rosenberg said that won’t be enough water should a high-water user decide to move to the LEAP District, which is the state’s goal. In June, the IEDC announced that Indiana is a finalist for a $50 billion semiconductor plant, the type of industry that depends on large amounts of water.
Rosenberg added that should a high water user not decide to settle in the LEAP District, the IEDC will no longer be involved in water discussions. Regardless, he said water scarcity in central Indiana is an issue that will have to be addressed in the future, even if a major water user doesn’t choose Indiana to expand in.
“Even outside of anything happening at LEAP, this is a problem that is staring the state in the face over the next few decades,” Rosenberg said. “Our premise was can we use economic development to unlock the resources to not only provide additional water for potential companies coming into these areas, but really solve a regional, generational water issue that everyone has identified and known about for decades and decades.”
An Indiana Finance Authority central Indiana water study released in 2021 estimated that the daily water demand in central Indiana would increase by more than 100 million gallons by 2070.
What is Indiana’s water solution?
The IEDC is looking at the Wabash Alluvial Aquifer as a likely solution to its water woes.
IEDC signed a $9 million contract with Black & Veatch Corporation earlier this year to manage water infrastructure. The contract itself outlined a plan to “convey raw water from a series of collector wells and pump stations located adjacent to the Wabash River” for the LEAP district.
But, Rosenberg emphasized the pipeline is not a done deal. At the request of the IEDC, INTERA Inc., has started testing how much water can sustainably be withdrawn from the aquifer adjacent to the Wabash River.
How much extra water does the LEAP District need?
Rosenberg said the IEDC has not placed a number on how much water it would need to pull from the aquifer. That would depend on which companies choose to move to the LEAP District, he said.
Intel in Ohio, for example, is expected to use 5 million gallons of water per day. That’s the kind of water usage Indiana should expect to see if the IEDC lands a chip manufacturer.
Preliminary results from the INTERA study show that two collector wells at the site will sustainably produce more than 30 million gallons of water per day. That’s the equivalent of more than 40 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
The actual amount of water withdrawn could be much larger. Water from the aquifer could be used for other central Indiana uses outside of just the LEAP District, to help address the expected 100 million gallons a day increase in water needs for central Indiana over the next 50 years.
There’s not yet an estimate of the maximum amount of water that could sustainably be moved from the aquifer.
Why are Tippecanoe County residents concerned?
Elected leaders and Tippecanoe County residents are worried that if the IEDC takes water from the aquifer adjacent to the Wabash River, it could negatively impact the county’s water supply and its own ability to expand economically in the future.
“The concern is once you develop that pipeline, Indiana doesn’t have any real rules in place to determine how much can be moved,” Deery said.
Plus, the LEAP District is located well outside of Tippecanoe County, which means the benefits to the community aren’t as obvious as they would have been had the IEDC chosen a location closer to the Wabash River for the development.
Does Tippecanoe have enough water to share?
That’s what the IEDC has been studying.
The preliminary results from the INTERA, Inc. study show that two wells on the site will sustainably produce more than 30 million gallons per day, with “minimal impact on home-owner wells” according to the IEDC.
Those opposed to the project, however, aren’t confident that the IEDC will be able to provide an unbiased look at what the impact on the Wabash River would be.
“Typically, you research before you buy,” Deery said, “and there’s been a sense around here that the decision has been made. And now it’s in search of the evidence to support that.”
What did Holcomb propose to ease concerns?
Last month, Gov. Eric Holcomb directed the Indiana Finance Authority to take over oversight of the INTERA water supply study.
“I am confident that these new efforts led by IFA will provide the necessary data to gain a greater understanding of the amount of excess water that is truly available to support all the surrounding region’s growth prior to any action being taken that could inadvertently jeopardize this needed resource,” Holcomb said in a statement. “ No entity is better suited to lead this overall pursuit than the IFA which will approach this study in the same methodical, collaborative, and transparent manner the organization has conducted in the past.”
Moving oversight of the water study to a different agency was praised by some critics of the project as a step in the right direction.
IFA will also start a comprehensive regional water study for north-central Indiana, expected to be completed in fall 2024.
What is Tippecanoe County doing to try to stop the pipeline?
Last month, Tippecanoe Commissioners unanimously advanced a nine-month moratorium on “high volume water export(s).”
Rosenberg said the commissioners’ moratorium would have no impact on the IEDC’s plans because the agency would not be in a place to pump water from the aquifer in the next nine months.
“I think the action was unnecessary and it was playing to some of the rhetoric and misinformation,” he said.
How will state lawmakers address water during the 2024 legislative session?
Republican legislative leaders say they want to avoid legislating on the water issue until they get the data. That means they have no plans to finance such a pipeline yet.
“We’re not going to take any other steps until we have an opportunity to study to make sure that there’s ample water for the projects that we’re trying to bring into the state of Indiana,” Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray said last month, “and we understand just how much is too much to take away from a particular community.”
Those who represent Tippecanoe County, such as Deery, hope to implement some guardrails “that would help protect all communities against any potential harm of large water transfers to another community,” he said in a press release.
The INTERA water supply study is expected to be completed in early 2024. Rosenberg said it’s “too premature” to say whether a water pipeline would move forward without the blessing of Tippecanoe County, should studies show the capacity to move large amounts of water is there.
“We're not going to in any way inhibit Lafayette from their ability to to grow economically,” Rosenberg said, “because they've had so much success already.”
The legislative session convenes on Jan. 8 and must wrap up by mid-March.
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Indiana doctors performed fewer than four abortions a week during the final three months of 2023, continuing the sharp downturn under the state’s near-total abortion ban.
Doctors reported 46 abortions from October through December, according to the state Department of Health’s latest quarterly report on abortions.
The ban that took effect in August allows abortions only in cases of rape or incest before 10 weeks post-fertilization or to protect the life and health of the mother or because of a lethal fetal anomaly up to 20 weeks of pregnancy. It also voided the state licenses of all Indiana abortion clinics, allowing abortions only in hospitals or hospital-owned surgery centers.
Of the abortions reported during the fourth quarter of last year, 22 were because of lethal fetal anomalies, 21 were attributed to health risks to the pregnant woman and three were due to rape or incest, according to the state report released last week.
The 46 abortions during the fourth quarter represented a 97% drop from the 1,724 reported during the same three months in 2022 while the abortion ban was blocked by a judge’s order later overturned by the state Supreme Court.
Indiana Right to Life, the state’s most prominent anti-abortion group, hailed the decline but joined criticism of the Department of Health for not releasing individual terminated pregnancy reports as it had done before the ban went into effect.
The agency has said it no longer releases those reports under state law that declares medical records confidential because of more detailed information required from doctors.
“The Indiana Department of Health is blocking public access to terminated pregnancy reports,” Indiana Right to Life President Mike Fichter said in a statement Monday. “This manipulation creates a lack of transparency, making it impossible to verify these numbers are accurate — and that Indiana law is being followed related to abortion activity.”
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The scope of what Indiana’s public access counselor could consider in reviewing open government matters would be strictly limited under provisions added to legislation in the closing days of the legislative session.
Amendments that a Senate committee made this week to House Bill 1338 would also reduce the office’s independence by eliminating the four-year term the access counselor has after being appointed by the governor.
The Legislature in 1999 established the access counselor position to review questions from the public, government officials and others about the state’s open meetings and public records laws.
The public access counselor’s office, with two attorneys and one other staff member, issues dozens of advisory opinions each year but has no authority to enforce the access laws or punish violators.
Advocate says amendment ‘guts’ counselor’s authority
Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, offered the amendment allowing the access counselor’s advisory opinions to consider only “the public access laws, as plainly written,” and “valid opinions of Indiana courts.”
Freeman, chair of the Senate Corrections and Criminal Law Committee, expressed frustration with Public Access Counselor Luke Britt’s opinions without giving specifics during the Tuesday meeting when the provision was added.
“The public access counselor, it says that he, in this case, shall liberally construe the code,” Freeman said. “He’s issued some opinions that I vehemently disagree with and I think others in our body and in this building vehemently disagree with.”
The amendment “functionally guts” the access counselor’s ability to consider the context of a situation unless it has been directly addressed by the Legislature or court, said Amelia McClure, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association.
“The code can never contemplate all of the different circumstances that public access concerns are going to arise,” McClure said. “So the public access counselor has to consider new technologies, what location, the circumstances of the conversation in a way that a civil code will never be able to contemplate.”
Britt was appointed access counselor in 2013 by then-Gov. Mike Pence and reappointed by Gov. Eric Holcomb in 2017 and 2021.
Britt, whose current term runs until Oct. 31, 2025, declined to comment to State Affairs on Freeman’s amendments. The governor’s office didn’t immediately reply Thursday to a request for comment.
The restrictions on the access counselor’s office were not raised during the first seven weeks of this year’s legislative session and became public only two days before the Senate committee’s deadline to take action.
Public access counselor’s role at issue
Some conservatives criticized an opinion Britt released last fall in which he concluded the Hamilton East Public Library Board in Fishers violated the open meetings law when two board members met with their attorneys at a coffee shop.
That opinion came amid public debate over a push by conservative members of that board to review all youth-section books and move those with “inappropriate” content to adult sections.
The opening section of Indiana’s public records law states it should be “liberally construed to implement this policy and place the burden of proof for the nondisclosure of a public record on the public agency that would deny access to the record.”
Freeman said during the committee meeting that he favored striking the “liberally construed” phrase from the law, but other senators thought that went too far.
The amendment limiting the access counselor’s authority was added to the bill on a 5-3 vote as Democratic Sen. Greg Taylor joined Freeman and other Republicans Mike Bohacek, Cyndi Carrasco and Eric Koch. Republicans Liz Brown and Sue Glick and Democrat Rodney Pol voted against the amendment.
Glick said the restriction on what the access counselor could consider didn’t make sense.
“You’re paying an attorney for their opinion, and now you’re limiting that,” Glick said.
Change would eliminate term of office
Freeman also advocated for an amendment eliminating the access counselor’s four-year term and making the position one that serves “at the pleasure of the governor.”
“When we have a new governor … I believe the governor should be able to pick the person that they’re choosing to serve,” Freeman said. “As any other appointed office, we serve at the privilege of the governor. So I believe this should be no different.”
Those people appointed to lead state departments can typically be removed at the governor’s discretion. However, hundreds of appointments to state boards and other positions, such as the state Election Division’s co-directors, are made for set terms.
McClure, the Hoosier State Press Association’s director, said eliminating the four-year term would take away some of the office’s independence from political concerns.
“That’s important when it’s an advisory opinion that’s interpreting actions of all kinds of different bodies that have all kinds of different political affiliations,” McClure said.
The full bill, which initially focused only on allowing local government boards to establish meeting decorum rules, could be taken up by the full Senate next week. The additions would still also need approval from the House before this year’s legislative session ends by March 14.