July 20, 2012 | Matt Kucinski

Calvin College has received a $375,000 state grant to further research, education and restoration efforts in the Plaster Creek watershed.

“What happens in Plaster Creek affects the Grand River and what affects the Grand River, affects Lake Michigan,” said Gail Heffner, director of community engagement at Calvin College.

“Every parking lot, every rooftop is contributing storm water when it rains,” said Nathan Haan, a staff member in Calvin’s biology department.  Stormwater is the leading source of pollution to urban waterways.

“Whatever I throw into the stream and the way I manage the rain water that comes off my yard will affect people who live downstream from me,” said Heffner, “just like those who live in my part of the watershed are affected by what others are doing upstream.”

That interconnectedness is clear to Heffner, Haan and biology professor Dave Warners, who are all working to restore the Plaster Creek Watershed through research, education, and restoration.

The three are members of the leadership team for Plaster Creek Stewards, a group composed of members from Calvin College, West Michigan Environmental Action Council (WMEAC), other environmental organizations, and a growing list of churches within the watershed, including the home office of the Christian Reformed Church of North America. The group was formed in 2004 under its former name the Plaster Creek Working Group.

“We’ve just been taking baby steps, week by week, year by year to be faithful, and the project has just blossomed,” said Heffner.

One gift gets it going

It was in 2009, that things really took off.  After an article in the GR Press highlighted some initial efforts, the Plaster Creek Stewards were given a $10,000 anonymous donation to further their work in Plaster Creek. Heffner describes that as a “catalyst moment,” which paid significant dividends.

The group used those funds to support a full-time program coordinator for the Plaster Creek Stewards.   Then in 2010 the leadership team developed a strategic plan for the watershed, positioning the college to successfully apply for a $58,500 grant from the River Network and Groundwork USA. That recognition put Plaster Creek on the map, both regionally and nationally. And now, the college has received a significant $375,000 state grant from the Department of Environmental Quality:

“It’s very exciting to go from ideas and good intentions to small groups of people doing small projects. And now, it’s so affirming to have the state recognize that we have both the motivation and the capacity to do significant watershed restoration and to be willing to fund the work we really want to do” said Haan.

Calvin will use the grant to further their education and outreach efforts in local schools, churches, and businesses, fund faculty and student research and do four large-scale bio-swale infiltration projects within the watershed. In addition to involving Calvin faculty and students, local churches and residents in the project, the college will also work with several community partners, including WMEAC, Kent Conservation District, the Kent County Drain Commission, the Center for Environmental Study, the City of Grand Rapids and the Kent County Parks Department.

Heffner and Haan agree that the biggest changes will come as a result of education and awareness. They say the big projects funded by this new grant aren’t big enough to create substantial change. Instead, the really big differences will come when residents that live within the watershed (25-percent of Kent County’s population) commit to doing their part.

“It’s not the kind of problem you can fix by doing a couple of rain gardens, it’s not that simple,” said Haan of the condition of the watershed. “It’s got to be a transformation of how we think about and manage storm water throughout the whole watershed, and that requires a long-term effort.”

As part of a redesigned curriculum, a Calvin College biology class “Research Design and Methodology” is doing its small part, using the Plaster Creek watershed as its laboratory. In addition, an oral history research project is underway to collect the stories and experiences of those who have lived or worked within the watershed in the past 60 years.  These oral histories reveal how the watershed used to be and create a vision for its restoration in the future.  Heffner says these are just two examples of how faculty and students are having an impact on the watershed.

“It will take many years to restore Plaster Creek. The watershed is so damaged,” said Heffner of improving one of Michigan’s most polluted watersheds. “But, with lots of people working together we can make change happen.”

Looking ahead

And more help is just downstream. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regional office in Chicago has chosen the Plaster Creek watershed to serve as the Michigan pilot project for SUSTAIN—a decision support system to facilitate selection and placement of Best Management Practices and Low Impact Development techniques at strategic locations in urban watersheds. Representatives from the EPA will look at sub-areas of the watershed, run spatial modeling and plug in hypothetical stormwater management practices. Through that project, those working on Plaster Creek will be able to determine which stormwater management projects will have the most benefit to the watershed for the least cost.

“If the EPA is willing to come to our watershed and run models to tell us what practices to do and where, that’s terribly useful information because we can then apply for grants to do those specific projects that they recommend we do,” said Haan. 

Warners adds, “We’re really excited to receive the level of funding we need to begin making the kind of changes necessary to turn the health of this creek around.  For so many years now, the creek has become increasingly impaired.  Our hope is that with the efforts of Plaster Creek Stewards and our community partners we can reverse that trend and begin to see the creek recover, to become the beautiful, life sustaining stream it was intended to be.”

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