August 01, 2023 | Matt Kucinski

A couple dozen parking spaces on the Calvin University campus are out and a large bioswale has now moved in.

“It’s kind of like a bowl full of plants,” said Haley Weesies, a 2022 Calvin University graduate who is in her first year as program coordinator for Plaster Creek Stewards, 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 construction and planting work on campus creates a beautiful space alongside the parking lot for the Prince Conference Center and features a diversity of native plants and pollinators.

“It’s an extension of the natural spaces we already have on campus,” said Julie Wildschut, assistant professor of engineering.

A natural filter for stormwater

The construction work on the new bioswale kicked off in late spring and is supported by a 319 grant from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy's Non Point Source Division.

High school students on the Green Team work with Plaster Creek Stewards to create a bioswale on Calvin's campus.
High school students on the Green Team work with Plaster Creek Stewards to create a bioswale on Calvin's campus.

“This used to be just parking lot, which obviously doesn’t soak up water,” said Weesies, “and now it’s like a sponge, a sink for that dirty runoff that’s coming off of what’s in the parking lot (when it rains) and then the plants are soaking it up so that instead of it going down the drain, it’s being naturally filtered through the ground and absorbed by the plants.”

Without bioswales like these, the stormwater runoff would head down the drain, then into Plaster Creek, the Grand River, and eventually into Lake Michigan. Weesies says understanding these ripple effects is crucial and why education is one of the three pillars of the Plaster Creek Stewards’ work.

“All of the dirty water that would have been flowing off this parking lot would have been carried to our neighbors downstream and that’s impacting their health, their homes, and it’s making the place they live and play in dirty and gross,” said Weesies.

From awareness to appreciation

Sophia Ferenczi is a high school senior and a member of the Green Team, a group of high school students who work with the Plaster Creek Stewards each summer.

“We know the plants are important, but this is the on-the-ground restoration piece of our work. We also focus a lot on research and education, so learning and doing is what we like to pair together,” said Weesies. “And the high school Green Team Program is a great example of that, where students learn about our watershed, tour it, they see different places in it, they learn about things like environmental justice, about hydrology and ecology, and how water moves and how plants grow and what are good plants and what are invasive plants. So, they are learning about their place. Because these students all either live or go to school or both in our watershed.”

All that Ferenczi has learned being a part of the Green Team over the past two years has her taking greater responsibility and action.

“I think when you know about the space you are inhabiting you feel more like it’s a place you need to care about it,” said Ferenczi. “We are a part of the ecology of this land and of this place and we’ve had such a massive impact on it, and I think knowing that and understanding that, especially in a group of people, you feel like ‘oh, it’s my responsibility to start changing this and being better for this land that I’m a part of.’”

From appreciation to action

Cherith Pickett, now a sophomore, chose Calvin University because it was “the only small Christian liberal arts school with a strong environmental science program that was affordable for me.” She’s deepened her appreciation for and commitment to caring for creation through her time at Calvin and working with Plaster Creek Stewards this summer.

Cherith Pickett is a sophomore from Dallas, Texas studying environmental science.
Cherith Pickett is a sophomore from Dallas, Texas studying environmental science.

“God has given us this beautiful planet and we are called to be stewards of it in Genesis,” said Pickett, “and when we’re not stewarding it, it’s just sad to see the effects of our human impact on creation. And when we can do our part, it’s so rewarding to see the life we can help propagate and generate.”

From student to steward

For Weesies working on this project is a bit of a full circle moment. “I worked on the Plaster Creek Stewards summer team after my sophomore year, so I worked on the curb cut rain garden team and got to do exactly what these guys are doing, installing green infrastructure projects, learning about native plants, being out in the community,” said Weesies.

Haley Weesies, a 2022 graduate of Calvin University, is program coordinator for Plaster Creek Stewards.
Haley Weesies, a 2022 graduate of Calvin University, is program coordinator for Plaster Creek Stewards.

A living lab

Wildschut is excited about the additional research and experiential learning possibilities this newest project will open up for current and future learners.

“From an engineering perspective you design the bioswale to do certain things, and since it’s right here on our campus, it gives us the opportunity to say, does it do those things?” said Wildschut. “And there’s a widespread adoption of green infrastructure, but there’s not always a willingness to push the boundaries, engineers like to play it safe sometimes. So, when we are doing this work on Calvin’s campus, we can push those boundaries, try new things, and then monitor to see what happens and works well. If something doesn’t work well, we maybe adjust it, figure out what needs to be different. If something does work well, then we use it as a demonstration so hopefully we can spread these techniques elsewhere.”

Because the work happening on Calvin’s campus has ripple effects.

“One of the things that Calvin wants to do is demonstrate the commitment we have to sustainability and the research and the knowledge we’ve been accruing over these years. We really have an extensive research connection to sustainability efforts, from energy to stormwater to land use, so many different areas,” said Wildschut. “We’ll put signs up about this project and just point to what we are doing and why, so everybody who comes here will be able to see it. They’ll be able to benefit from the beauty of it and the increase in biodiversity and pollinators, but they’ll also be able to see and make that connection of what Calvin is doing for sustainability, and then be able to use Calvin as a resource. We want to take that place in our community, that we are a resource, and we can help other people with their sustainability efforts.”

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