The Tippecanoe County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Monday to advance an ordinance that would create a nine-month moratorium on large water withdrawals from the county.
The move comes as the state considers the construction of a pipeline to move millions of gallons of water from the county to an industrial district in Lebanon.
The ordinance would block water withdrawals of more than five million gallons for a nine-month period starting after its passage.
For over an hour, Tippecanoe County residents spoke in favor of the ordinance. Many said they were afraid they would run out of water if the withdrawals were ultimately approved.
First to speak was Lafayette Mayor Tony Roswarski, who joked he would shorten his comments given the number of people who had turned up to speak.
“This is an incredibly important issue to all of us, not only now but 50 and 100 years from now,” he said. “It’s important we do this right.”
Many residents called on the commissioners to do more.
West Lafayette resident Cheryl Kirkpatrick said slowing the project down wasn’t enough.
“It’s no today, tomorrow, next month, next year, forever,” she said. “We don’t want it.”
Commissioners say the ordinance is intended to give a group of local representatives working on protective water legislation time to move those measures through the state legislature.
Commissioner Tom Murtaugh said if the next legislative session didn’t see protective water legislation passed, their moratorium could be extended.
“If in those nine months we’re not happy with what comes out of the statehouse, then we can extend that moratorium,” he said.
Murtaugh acknowledged that regional opposition to the Indiana Economic Development Corporation’s project could have major implications for their relationship with the IEDC. Commissioners said in meetings with the state, they have been told that the Lebanon industrial project is expected to be the rubric for several such projects across the state.
“Am I concerned that we’re harming this long-term relationship?” Murtaugh asked. “We’ve made comments about the lack of transparency and other issues and so I am concerned about that. But I also think those were not problems that we created. Those were created on those ends.”
It’s not clear whether the commissioners' measure blocking water withdrawals is legal.
County attorney Douglas Masson said the ordinance was crafted to withstand legal challenges – though he said he doesn’t know whether to expect one.
“It focuses on places where the county is given home rule authority,” he said. “Excavation, drainage, economic development, regulation of water courses.”
Masson said if the state hasn’t staked a claim on those issues, it shouldn’t be able to preempt the county.
“[The state] may take the position that some of what is one the books preempts our ability to do this,” he said. “I think by focusing on those areas and having a limited time frame of nine months…will help us withstand challenges.”
Not everyone feels the ordinance will stand up to a legal challenge.
Lebanon Mayor Matt Gentry is one of them.
“I think they're pretty far out on a limb for whether they actually have authority to regulate things like this,” he said. “But again, I'm not a lawyer. I don't try to pretend to be one. So there'll be someone else for the courts to decide at some point.”
Commissioners also approved a resolution against the Lebanon water pipeline. The measure was similar to resolutions passed in Lafayette and West Lafayette.
In a statement, the IEDC called the county’s decision “moot,” saying that there were no plans to withdraw water in the next nine months.
“There has never been a scenario in which water would be pumped in the next nine months,” the spokesperson said. “Thus, this was a clear action to stoke further rhetoric and misinformation.”
The ordinance is expected to receive a second reading in December.
Contact WBAA/WFYI reporter Benjamin Thorp at firstname.lastname@example.org.