October 21, 2022 | Matt Kucinski

An image of a creek with greenery around it (left); a student doing research in the creek (right)
Plaster Creek Stewards have been doing education, research, and restoration projects within the watershed since 2007.

Growing up in Maryland, Julie Wildschut took field trips through her middle school to the Chesapeake Bay.

“I learned that the choices upstream within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the land uses, the chemical outputs, even the phosphates in the soap used to wash cars, trickled down to the bay,” said Wildschut.

She recognized that this was impacting the habitat of the softshell crabs and that was then impacting the livelihoods of the watermen who relied on harvesting the crabs to provide for their families.

“I recognized there was an injustice, my actions were negatively impacting the ecosystem,” said Wildschut. “To me that was not okay.”

Called to act

Those moments along the Chesapeake shaped Wildschut and launched her into a career in civil and environmental engineering. She needed to do something about this injustice.

She graduated with a degree from Calvin in 2000, worked as a consulting engineer in Colorado for a handful of years before returning to west Michigan. She started as an adjunct engineering professor at Calvin in 2011.

It was during this time that she learned about Plaster Creek Stewards (PCS) and clearly saw how her passion and gifts could help a complex issue.

An opportunity opens

She started by volunteering her time with PCS, a collaboration of Calvin University faculty, staff, and students working with local schools, churches, and community partners to restore the health and beauty of the watershed. The group focuses on education, research, and on-the-ground restoration.

But, during her time volunteering, PCS leaders started to see how there were technical aspects of their projects that required an engineer. So, they started to partner with local engineers.

In 2014, Wildschut was asked to get involved and she worked with engineering professor Robert Hoeksema and then student, now alum, Ryan DeGroot on a hydrology study of the watershed.

Research drives further exploration

The study was a success. By putting level loggers in the stream, the team was able to understand the rise and fall of the creek after a rain event.

“We wanted to create a model to understand the timing of when rain falls to when it moves into the creek,” said Wildschut. “We wanted to create a model to understand the timing so that we would know where to target our work. We didn’t want to go in blindly and do stuff, we want to prioritize, let the research guide what we’ll be doing.”

The research has brought increased understanding of the creek, which has in turn informed what projects faculty, students, and the community pursues and has led to more opportunities for discovery.

Students creating solutions

Using the data, a Calvin biology student did an independent research project focused on identifying a few of the key hot spots, suggesting what could be done to improve those areas, and looking at if installing a diversion structure to take water away or converting the land to another use would lead to successful results.

Another student looked at installing curb cut rain gardens and explored their effectiveness in controlling runoff. The student discovered that if one of every eight houses in the Alger Heights neighborhood put in a curb cut rain garden, runoff would be restored to pre-developed levels.

“In your head you know these [curb cut rain gardens] are good, but now we have the math to say just how good they are. That gives us motivation to keep doing them.”

To date, 140 rain gardens have been installed in the watershed.

Renewing relationships

Over the past 14 years, Plaster Creek Stewards have plenty of quantifiable data to show their work is making a tangible difference with millions of dollars of grant-funded work and thousands of hours of volunteer labor being poured into the watershed. However, the initial goal of restoring the creek is much deeper now. The real goal, the one that will have the lasting impact, is restoring people’s relationship with the creek.

The goal is for middle schoolers, high schoolers, retirees, church members, farmers, business owners, for all residents who live within this watershed and others, to have their eyes opened like Wildschut did along the Chesapeake decades ago.

PCS connects upstream and downstream groups, people in the inner city come to the suburbs and people from the suburbs come to the city. What PCS has found is that the groups don’t think they are looking at the same creek. The water quality measurements they have the groups do at each location seems to validate those assumptions. So, they are surprised when they realize that indeed it is the same creek.

“Just like in the bay the way in which I used my land impacted the watermen, today, environmental contamination impacts downstream urban communities, putting residents at a greater risk of harm,” said Wildschut.

She notes that low-income and communities of color are often concentrated in urban communities and are thus disproportionately affected by environmental injustice.

Wildschut has got to work. But what she and her colleagues are doing now across many disciplines at Calvin are helping students both at Calvin and throughout the community see the reality, understand the injustice, and are then inviting them to help create solutions, to partner in the work of renewal.

“When we allow things to work again, it’s amazing how God’s design just works so well.”

Inauguration-related events

Wednesday, October 22

9:00 a.m.

Future Thriving: Sustainability at Calvin, in Grand Rapids, and in Our Watershed
A panel discussion moderated by Matt Heun, Calvin professor of engineering, where attendees will learn more about sustainability in the areas of energy, theology, clean water, and more.

Location: Covenant Fine Arts Center Recital Hall

Panelists include:

Rosalynn Bliss, mayor of Grand Rapids

Dr. Wiebe Boer, president of Calvin University

Rev. Kyle Meyaard-Schaap, vice president of the Evangelical Environmental Network

Gia Mien Le, student at Calvin University

Debra Rienstra, professor of English at Calvin University

Dave Warners, professor of biology at Calvin University, director of Plaster Creek Stewards.

10:00 a.m.

Hands-on Restoration Activity
Participants will have the opportunity to serve with Plaster Creek Stewards at key project sites, planting native flora to help restore the watershed. Sign up in advance to help us plan for transportation needs. Carpooling is encouraged; indicate whether you can give a ride or need one using the form.

12:00 p.m.

Calvin’s dining hall will be serving an environmentally conscious menu for lunch.

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