January 09, 2024 | Matt Kucinski

Calvin University recently received a $674,817 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The grant is one of 43 new or continuing habitat restoration grants that were awarded as part of the Sustain Our Great Lakes project.

“This latest grant will allow us to further reduce the daily load of pollutants entering Plaster Creek,” said Andrea Lubberts, program manager for PCS.

Defending the creek

The project will add native trees, shrubs, and plants to various strategic locations within the Plaster Creek watershed. These natural additions will serve as sponges soaking up stormwater that runs off paved surfaces throughout one of west Michigan’s most contaminated watersheds. Lubberts says that over the course of a year, this project will enable the capturing of three-and-a-half Olympic-sized swimming pools’ worth of water.

Volunteers with Plaster Creek Stewards work on a project in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Volunteers with Plaster Creek Stewards work on a project in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

“A mature tree can hold 50-100 gallons of water just on their leaves. That’s a lot of rain and that’s not even considering the work the roots are doing,” said Lubberts. “There’s a lot of water movement that trees are intercepting.”

Lubberts says this absorption is crucial to the health of Plaster Creek and its residents. She says the stakes are too high to not take action.

Promoting a healthy creek for ALL

“If we don’t add trees or rain gardens or green features as sponges, then we will continue to have surges of stormwater that overwhelm the creek with polluted water,” said Lubberts. “The paved surfaces contain heat in the summer, salt in the winter, a lot of e-coli from animals and other pollutants which all runoff into the creek if not absorbed. Even the surge is very damaging, these spikes end up eroding the creek banks, creating an unhealthy environment for the creatures that live there.”

It also creates an unhealthy environment for residents—and not all residents are affected the same. Downstream communities tend to receive the brunt of the unhealthy creek issues in neighborhoods already facing environmental justice issues. It’s a key reason why PCS leaders see this work needing to be a more holistic venture than just showing up and planting trees and creating curb cut rain gardens.

“At the heart of the work we are doing with Plaster Creek Stewards is helping neighbors reconnect with the creek and with one another,” said Dave Warners, director of PCS and professor of biology at Calvin University. “We want to cultivate relationships between upstream and downstream neighbors, to help them see they are all part of the same watershed and show them ways their actions can contribute to the flourishing of their neighbors.”

A shared resource

The neighbors include residents, schools, houses of worship, and various other businesses and organizations. This month, the PCS team will bring together representatives from the various locations they’ll be working on through this grant.

Volunteers with the Plaster Creek Stewards work on a project at Brookside Christian Reformed Church.
Volunteers with the Plaster Creek Stewards work on a project at Brookside Christian Reformed Church.

“As soon as you start conceptualizing this upstream downstream situation, what people do in their place influences people elsewhere, it can be applied in so many different areas,” said Warners. “They see they are not nearly as isolated as they thought they were. We all depend on one another, and my actions are going to impact other people. So upstream/downstream thinking opens up all kinds of new awareness I think, it helps us live more thoughtfully and intentionally. We all are one human race, we need each other, and our actions influence one another.”

Committed to renewal

While this current grant provides significant funding and will lead to improvements throughout the watershed, PCS is playing the long game. Since 2009, they’ve received 40 awards totaling more than $5.2 million in funding from 15 different federal, state, and local agencies and foundations. The group has used these funds to transform many more acres of land into natural habitat, install 130 curb-cut rain gardens, and restore floodplains to mitigate flooding and erosion downstream. The work has also involved many partners and brought many communities together to work on solutions to a shared problem.

“What excites us most about this latest grant is that it allows us to invite several new partners into the work of Plaster Creek Stewards,” said Warners. “Water is one of the most unifying features in our landscape, but we oftentimes don’t fully realize it, because we live on roads instead.”

Note: The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as representing the opinions or policies of the U.S. Government or the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and its funding sources. Mention of trade names or commercial products does not constitute their endorsement by the U.S. Government, or the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation or its funding sources.

The work ahead

The funding from the latest grant will include:

  • Retrofitting a parking lot with permeable pavers and a rain garden
  • Installing 30 curb cut rain gardens
  • Creating 30 parkway pocket gardens (native plant gardens)
  • Planting 500 trees at six key locations from upstream to downstream
  • Numerous community education/action opportunities

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