Restoring Local Creek Brings Diverse Communities Together

Project Summary: Calvin College faculty are improving the Plaster Creek’s water quality and promoting environmental justice through green infrastructure restoration, biological and social research, and community education.

Project name: Restoring Local Creek Brings Diverse Communities Together

Location: Grand Rapids, Michigan

The diverse community of the Plaster Creek watershed has come together to protect a common shared resource. Photo courtesy of Gail Heffner.

The diverse community of the Plaster Creek watershed has come together to protect a common shared resource. Photo courtesy of Gail Heffner.

Description: West Michigan’s Plaster Creek is a 14-mile-long creek that flows into the Grand River and eventually Lake Michigan. Its watershed contains a variety of interests and communities reliant on the creek. Farms, industry, and higher-income communities dominate the upper reaches of the watershed, while downstream neighborhoods tend to be lower-income, minority communities. Land uses upstream have significantly degraded the creek’s water quality downstream. Stormwater has been the primary culprit, carrying excessive animal waste, sewage contamination, fertilizer, sediments, and other pollutants into the river, leading to severe bacterial contamination. Plaster Creek consistently has E. coli levels over 50 times higher than the limit for safe human contact. People who swim in or drink from water contaminated with E. coli can become ill with stomach cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea. The contaminated stormwater runoff at Plaster Creek has a disproportionate impact on the low-income minority communities living downstream. Despite these hazardous conditions, however, communities throughout the watershed still rely on the creek for fishing, and children often swim or play in the water.

Green infrastructure restorations used native vegetation to absorb stormwater and filter out pollutants. Photo courtesy of Gail Heffner.

Green infrastructure restorations used native vegetation to absorb stormwater and filter out pollutants. Photo courtesy of Gail Heffner.

In 2008, several faculty members from the local Calvin College formed Plaster Creek Stewards to address these stormwater and environmental justice issues. Plaster Creek Stewards identified three primary components for reducing stormwater impacts: green infrastructure restoration that uses native vegetation to absorb stormwater; scientific and social research; and community engagement. Over the past six years the group has undertaken at least 20 restoration projects. These include retrofitting retention ponds to slow stormwater and filter out pollutants, and installing bioswales and rain gardens for local schools, churches, and households. Plaster Creek Stewards collects seeds from local native species, grow them in Calvin College’s greenhouses, and then use the plants for all their green infrastructure projects. Calvin College professors are researching both the biological components of the stream’s health as well as an oral history of the residents of the watershed. To engage and educate the community, Plaster Creek Stewards holds several seminars each year exploring the issues and potential solutions facing the watershed, always including restorative action in the watershed that allow attendees to put their new knowledge to use. It also employs low-income urban high school students who receive both classroom and job experience through assisting with restoration projects. Plaster Creek Stewards is also developing partnerships between upstream and downstream schools along the creek; students from partner schools share their experiences and visit the stream in both locations to observe differences. Plaster

The summer Green Team initiative employed high school students who assisted with greenhouse work and with green infrastructure restoration. Photo courtesy of Gail Heffner.

The summer Green Team initiative employed high school students who assisted with greenhouse work and with green infrastructure restoration. Photo courtesy of Gail Heffner.

Creek Stewards is currently working to develop similar partnerships between upstream and downstream churches. The goal of these efforts is to foster an awareness that the Plaster Creek watershed is an inter-connected social and biological community defined by a common shared resource. Plaster Creek Stewards estimates that it will take 20 to 30 years of concerted efforts with an involved and informed community to undo a century’s worth of river degradation. 

Approximate cost of project: Over $1,600,000.

Resource challenges addressed: Polluted stormwater runoff, water quality degradation, sedimentation, erosion, bacterial contamination, environmental justice.

Key partners (public and private): Calvin College, River Network, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Types of jobs created: University research, excavators, engineers, and general labor.

Results and accomplishments: This project is reducing the harmful impacts of stormwater on this watershed and the people who rely on it. Treating stormwater will reduce the levels of sedimentation, nutrient runoff, thermal pollution, trash, and toxic effluent in the Plaster Creek, restoring water quality and reducing bacterial contamination. This project is also promoting environmental justice by forging partnerships between upstream and downstream communities and fostering a stewardship mentality.

Website: http://www.calvin.edu/admin/provost/pcw/

Originally published on September 10, 2014

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