July 29, 2016 | Matt Kucinski

Biology professor Randall DeJong conducting research with students in Plaster Creek.

“Water is a great barometer. If your water is healthy, you are probably treating the land well,” said Dave Warners, biology professor at Calvin College. 

And if it’s not?

“How do we help people understand that they have a relationship [with the creek] whether they are aware of it or not?,” asks Gail Heffner, director of community engagement at Calvin.

A passion runs through it

That’s what’s driven the work of the Plaster Creek Stewards—a collaboration of Calvin College faculty, staff and students, churches, schools and community partners working to restore the health and beauty of the Plaster Creek Watershed—among the most polluted watersheds in the state.

And thanks to a $629,178 grant from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ)—the third in a series of grants from MDEQ—and a $178,837 grant from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, that work continues to expand.

The newest MDEQ grant supports all three PCS focus areas, providing education, research and restoration opportunities at three sites within the watershed. And the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant will involve a partnership with Grand Rapids Christian High School in restoring wetlands at the Indian Trails Golf Course.

A proven commitment

Since 2011, PCS has generated nearly $3 million in grants that are being used to support its three areas of focus. And the group has partnered with churches, schools, businesses and environmental organizations to do this work.

“A watershed integrates different communities. The Plaster Creek Watershed has agricultural, industrial, commercial and all different levels of residential. We are all connected by a common concern that this watershed is in bad shape,” said Heffner. “So what we want to do is build relationships between upstream and downstream groups, and help people learn about each other. ‘What practices can help and what practices can hurt?’ The upstream-downstream connection is critical, and one way we’ve done that is by connecting schools and churches up and down stream.”

An interdisciplinary approach

And just as critical to the health of the watershed, says Heffner, is seeing it from multiple vantage points—taking an interdisciplinary approach.

“We have engineers helping with hydrology modeling, historians helped collect info about time periods—what happened at this neighborhood, or at this farm, and its impact on the creek,” said Heffner.

“Chemists care about what toxins might be in the water, GIS help us do the mapping stuff as well as microbiologists looking at Ecoli and invasive species,” added Warners. “This is a real world problem, and I don’t know if there are many real world problems that aren’t interdisciplinary. So to address a problem with one discipline is not very effective.”

And Warners and Heffner say that when you see a real world problem that needs healing, it’s important to gain an understanding of the broken relationship.

“Our mission is not just to clean up a creek. If that was true, we could get it all cleaned up and leave. But, if behaviors don’t change, it will become degraded again,” said Warners. “The key is to address the relationship, get people to care for the creek and start to develop an affection for it. When they see pollution in the creek, it should hurt. How do you develop that kind of sensitivity again? We feel it’s through getting them involved, introducing them, sometimes it’s telling stories about how the creek was used by people in the past.”

In short, it’s an interdisciplinary approach.

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