Indiana’s Plan to Pipe In Groundwater for Microchip-Making Draws Fire

When Indiana officials created a new industrial park to lure huge microchip firms to the state, they picked a nearly 10,000-acre site close to a booming metropolis, a major airport and a university research center.

But the area is missing one key ingredient to support the kinds of development the state wants to attract: access to the huge amounts of water that microchip makers might need.

Officials floated a plan to pipe in enormous volumes of water from an aquifer about 40 miles away. But the plan raised concerns about straining groundwater supplies at the source, prompting widespread calls to scrap the idea, at least until more studies can be carried out.

Last week, state officials said they would do just that, with Gov. Eric Holcomb and other leaders pledging to move on the project only after studies could be completed to ensure any withdrawals are sustainable.

“The data — yet still to be gathered — will drive any or all future decisions,” Gov. Holcolmb said in a news release.

The fight in Indiana is an example of increased tension over water as urban growth, industrial demands and spotty regulation collide in communities that are putting increasing strain on their limited groundwater supplies. Overlying all of it is a changing climate and the potential for more erratic weather, including droughts like one that dried out the state in 2012.

Critics say the pipeline plan could cause some residential wells to run dry and overstress an aquifer that farmers rely on for irrigation, as well as possibly reduce flows in nearby rivers and streams. Supporters say initial tests show the aquifer has plenty of water, and that the new investments — including a drug factory to make a rival medication to Ozempic, the diabetes and weight-loss drug — would create jobs and boost the economy.

The debate has also exposed how the state’s lack of groundwater regulation could lead to future problems in the region, which is trying to take advantage of the Biden administration’s funding for chip research and development.

“We’re not against economic development and growth, we just want to make sure our citizens in our area are protected and our precious resources are protected,” said Indiana State Rep. Sharon Negele.

Indiana leaders have courted semiconductor firms in South Korea, Taiwan and Japan in hopes of turning the state into a microchip hub. But chip making requires huge amounts of water to prevent contamination.

The Central Indiana industrial park is in Lebanon, Ind., surrounded by corn and bean fields . Water is increasingly in demand there, not only from population growth in nearby Indianapolis, but also from a gravel-mining industry that uses significant amounts of water to cool stone during cutting and to keep dust at bay.

The plan from officials at a quasi-public economic development corporation would transport water from an aquifer under the Wabash River in Tippecanoe County to the new industrial park, which is in an area that lacks significant access to rivers and lakes or to ample groundwater.

Officials have said they may transfer as many as 100 million gallons a day, an amount that Rep. Negele called “shocking.” By comparison, she said, the city of Lafayette, Ind., with its population of more than 71,000, uses 17 million gallons a day.

“The state appears to have pretty much targeted us, and they’re using our money to fight us and steal the water,” said Jeff Findley, a retired well driller who lives in Tippecanoe County and who is leading an opposition group against the project.

Indiana allows most groundwater users to pump as much as they want. Because many parts of the state have access to sufficient water, regulation largely comes only after a crisis hits, Rep. Negele said.

It’s a pattern that exists across other states. This year, a New York Times investigation of groundwater regulations across the country found a patchwork of state and local rules so lax and outdated that, in many places, oversight is all but nonexistent. Groundwater is being dangerously depleted nationwide, The Times found, a problem that is being exacerbated by climate change.

Indiana regulators track major groundwater users by requiring them to register and self-report their annual withdrawals. But the state has relatively few monitoring wells to track groundwater levels, according to scientists. And responsibility for water issues is spread among several state agencies.

Land in Boone County is being prepared where the industrial park, called LEAP for Limitless Exploration/Advanced Pace, would be situated.

Eli Lilly and Company announced plans to build two new $2.1 billion manufacturing sites there to make its weight-loss drug, as well as others. Lilly plans to draw its water from existing sources in Lebanon rather than rely on piping in water, a spokeswoman for the company said.

Potential chipmakers would require significantly more water. Indiana is still smarting from being passed over last year by Intel, which chose Ohio as the site of a $20 billion chip facility.

In November, after complaints about a lack of transparency at the economic development corporation, Gov. Holcomb shifted responsibility for a groundwater study to the Indiana Finance Authority. He also announced plans for a broader regional water study of north-central Indiana, as well as for installing new water monitoring devices.

The study will provide 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,” the governor said in a November news release.

His office did not respond to a request for comment. At a news conference last week, he said that “not one drip or drop of water will be piped until we know what volume is needed, not just for that region, but for a greater region throughout Indiana.”

A spokesperson for the Indiana State Department of Natural Resources, which helps regulate groundwater, declined to comment aside from sending links to official websites showing the state’s big water users and a brochure outlining groundwater rules. The state can restrict pumping during drought and if it determines an aquifer isn’t recharging, according to the brochure.

Hydrologists say some aquifers can withstand extraordinarily large withdrawals because they recharge with rain and snowmelt. Also, some industrial users of groundwater return it to the watershed. But that wouldn’t be the case for the water taken from Tippecanoe County, opponents say.

The aquifer there supports several large farmers of corn, soy, wheat, hay and other crops, which require irrigation because they are largely grown in sandy soils. Carly Sheets, whose husband farms in Granville, Ind., said officials carried out tests on one well during the summer irrigation season.

“For the first time ever, nearby residences experienced gravel in their filter, grit in their sinks and toilets, lowered water pressure and hydrogen sulfide odors,” she wrote in an email, adding: “The state’s solution to restore one depleted aquifer is to deplete another.”

In early December, Tippecanoe County commissioners voted to support a nine-month moratorium on large withdrawals of groundwater from the area, a move designed to halt the project until legislators can act in next year’s session. Rep. Negele, among others, intends to push for measures that would create a permitting process for big groundwater users.

Keith Cherkauer, a Purdue University professor of agricultural and biological engineering and the director of the Indiana Water Resources Research Center, said that, under normal circumstances, it is possible that the aquifer under the Wabash River could withstand huge withdrawals. But he worries about drought years.

Large withdrawals in times of drought could significantly draw down the river, he said, as well as cause the shallow wells of nearby homeowners to run dry. Most of the state’s crops are rain-fed, he said, but irrigation generally has been on the rise since the 2012 drought.

“Since the state has no regulation and no permitting, there’s nothing to stop another one and another one and another one,” he said, referring to users who want to make huge withdrawals. “And, at some point, you break the aquifer.”