October 09, 2014 | Matt Kucinski

A group of volunteers doing restoration work near Kreiser Pond in Grand Rapids

The Plaster Creek Stewards (PCS) recently received a $1.1 million grant from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). The grant will enable PCS—a collaboration of Calvin faculty, staff, students and community members who are working to restore Michigan’s most contaminated watershed—to further their education, research and on the ground restoration efforts.

Committing to the journey

This most recent MDEQ grant is the largest grant the group has received since Plaster Creek Stewards began their work in 2009. And getting to this point wasn’t easy, says Dave Warners, a member of the PCS leadership team and a biology professor at Calvin College.

“We submitted 9 grant proposals for funding before the first one came through,” said Warners.  “Our story is one of perseverance. We believed we needed to do something here.”

And so they did. Five years later the group has now received four grants totaling nearly $1.6 million. And the new MDEQ grant will enable PCS to expand their restoration efforts to three new locations in the watershed. Leaders say the locations were chosen strategically and represent upstream and downstream projects.

Taking on new projects

The first location the new grant focuses on is in Alger Heights at Alger Park Church located downstream, where the group plans to create two curb-cut rain gardens to help alleviate the amount of stormwater runoff that enters the stream from that neighborhood.

The second location at Shady Side Park in Dutton is upstream in the headwaters of the watershed. And the third location is midstream in the Oakdale Neighborhood. PCS leaders say that in the latter two locations they propose to create more streamside wetlands and restore floodplain habitats that were removed when the creeks were channelized.

Gail Heffner, director of community engagement at Calvin College, says it’s a paradigm shift for many: “We want to slow down the water flow. We want the water to soak in.”

“Most people think if the banks flow over its bad, but it’s better if the creek occasionally spills over its banks so it can slow down. When it slows down it drops out sediment and its energy is reduced,” said Warners.

The group will also be removing parking lot spillways that work like a gutter channeling water right into the creek. Instead, they will plant native plants and trees in an effort to capture stormwater and support more biodiversity.

“It’s going to take many years with this level of funding to make significant change happen,” said Warners. “We can’t fix this overnight. It’s going to take 10-20 years of hard work, a very concerted effort to restore Plaster Creek and change the way people think about their watershed.”

Sharing the responsibility

Both Warners and Heffner realize that it starts with awareness, with education—one of the three key focus areas for PCS. And the group has a big audience to reach with 25-percent of the population of Kent County residing in the 58-square mile watershed. And that includes those students attending Calvin. Heffner says Calvin is a strong proponent of place-based education—preparing students to think about and care for people and places wherever they are.

“Everybody lives in a watershed, but many people don’t realize what a watershed is, so this work promotes a better understanding about watersheds in general,” said Heffner. “Students at Calvin go to school in the Plaster Creek Watershed. They don’t all stay in West Michigan after they graduate, but we hope they leave impacted to think about the needs of the watershed where they go. There are challenges in every watershed, but as we have learned Plaster Creek is the most degraded in West Michigan.

“It’s significant that Plaster Creek Stewards emerged out of a Christian college. For some time there has been criticism of the faith community for not becoming involved in environmental issues.”

Taking the lead

Heffner adds that environmental groups think it is unique and exciting that a college is doing this work. Leaders of PCS have been asked to speak at national conferences about working with the faith community and also how to effectively engage colleges and universities in watershed restoration work.

“The quality of the water that drains a watershed tells a lot about how carefully people are living in that watershed,” said Warners, “or how they are neglecting it,” added Heffner.

On Saturday, October 11, the group will continue their education and restoration efforts at their fall event “Rain Gardens on Steroids: the role of trees and bio-swales in the fight against stormwater pollution.” Participants will meet at Calvin’s Bunker Interpretive Center at 9 a.m. for a brief educational presentation and then will head out to plant native trees and plants in two large bio-swales, one on Calvin’s campus and one at Mel Trotter Ministries.

“We don’t see ourselves as a group focused only on cleaning the creek,” said Warners. “We want to motivate people in the watershed to think differently about the creek and begin to take care of it again … we hope to turn people’s hearts toward the creek … to see it as a community resource, not to ignore it.”

A volunteer works near Kreiser Pond.

Susan Hedman, EPA Region 5 administrator announces $60,000 in funding for the Plaster Creek Stewards in late July.

Along the banks of Plaster Creek

Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell speaks at a press conference in late July near Kreiser Pond.

History of funding

Plaster Creek Stewards was formally started in 2009. An article published in the Grand Rapids Press that highlighted PCS’s initial efforts led to the group’s first funding—a $10,000 anonymous donation that was used to hire a part-time coordinator for the group.

“That was a catalyst moment,” said Heffner.

In 2010, the leadership team developed a strategic plan for the watershed, which leaders say positioned Plaster Creek Stewards 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. In 2012, the college received a $375,000 grant from the Department of Environmental Quality. And, this past July, the college received $60,000 from the Environmental Protection Agency, to fund Plaster Creek Stewards’ Green Team—a cohort of high school students who are learning about and doing watershed restoration.

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