June 24, 2011 | Myrna Anderson

The Plaster Creek stewards plant rain gardens and bio-swales to hold down erosion and contamination.

Biology professor Dave Warners had two epiphanies that inspired him to help rehabilitate the Plaster Creek watershed.

The first came several years ago when Warners and his kids were walking along Plaster Creek and saw a man climbing up the bank of the tributary, holding a big salmon he had caught. “He was just beaming,” said Warners, who even back then knew that Plaster Creek was rated unfit for human contact by the Environmental Protection Agency. And he knew that the fish was most likely destined for the man’s dinner table. “I thought, ‘There is so much that is not right with this picture,’” he recalled.

Warners’ other epiphany came during a 2004 meeting of the Plaster Creek Working Group—now the Plaster Creek Stewards—a medley of organizations dedicated to cleaning up the watershed. One member mentioned how hard it was to get people of faith involved in environmental work, which got the group calculating:  In its 26-mile meander from Dutton to downtown Grand Rapids, Plaster Creek flows past Calvin College, Grand Rapids Christian High School, the Christian Reformed Church’s denominational offices, the Christian Reformed Recreation Center and numerous Christian Reformed and Reformed Churches.

Reforming a watershed

“We came to the conclusion it must be the most Reformed watershed in the world,” he said, “but the watershed was unfit for whole body contact. That was such a strong dissonance. How could you not do something?”

The chief reason Plaster Creek is so toxic, Warners said, is because of runoff from hard pavement after the rain: “When it rains, the creek fluctuates unnaturally, and it rises too high too fast, which causes intense erosion along its banks. We’re trying to stop a lot of things, but it all seems to be triggered by this high volume of water.”

The erosion brings sediment into the creek, and the runoff brings bacteria caused by chemical fertilizers and animal waste. “Every time it rains, you get higher bacteria in the creek,” said Warners. “It’s officially listed as an impaired stream because you’re not supposed to touch the water—no drinking, no swimming. Full body contact is discouraged; even partial body contact is discouraged.”

The low water quality is changing the habitat quality of the creek, said Nate Haan, the 2007 Calvin graduate hired to manage the watershed project. Instead of the Mayflies and stone flies he hopes to find when netting the stream, Haan is netting crayfish and bloodworms, which indicate warm water, low oxygen and sediment.

“It’s very much a creek in terms of—the water’s really moving through there—but it’s a low-quality habitat for fish and other wildlife because of the land use around the creek and the storm-water management around there,” Haan said.

The Plaster Creek Stewards—composed of Calvin, the Christian Reformed Church of North America, WMEAC, watershed churches and a growing list of environmental organizations—work all along the creek's banks.

Slowing the flow

“The main thing is to hold the water on the land, and don’t let water rush off our houses and yards and parking lots into the creek,” Warners said. Traditionally, the answer to this problem has been to keep the water away from human dwellings. “Historically, that’s meant sending the water into some stream nearby, and that’s where the problem comes in,” he said. “Get the water away from your house—that’s fine—but you’ve got to put it somewhere.”

The Plaster Creek Stewards slow down the runoff with rain gardens and bioswales: depressions that support wetland plants. The plantings both filter the water and decrease the volume because wetland plants evapo-transpire: “They’re like straws,” Warners said. “They suck water way better than a straw does.”

Recently the stewards received a grant of $58,500 from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to support their work. The grant will allow the group to expand their educational outreach to the larger watershed community. A large part of the money will be used to make presentations at area schools and churches.

A larger effort is needed, Warners said, because Plaster Creek unites a large community. “What happens in the headwaters of the watershed will affect the people in the lower places near the mouth of the stream, further down in the water shed. So, this is a justice issue: It’s a whole issue of how people are treating other people, with the stream being the factor, and really all of us being implicated,” he said.

“We’re hoping a lot of other people will get excited and start planting storm and rain gardens too,” said Haan “It would be nice to have a creek that didn’t flood so dramatically when it rains; it would be nice to have a creek that was safe to swim in.”

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