Nonprofits and Sustainability

Cleaning up Plaster Creek will take 'watershed-wide effort'

October 8, 2012
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Plaster Creek is considered the most polluted creek in West Michigan, according to Gail Heffner, a faculty member and director of community engagement at Calvin College. It covers 14 miles and traverses agricultural, suburban and urban landscapes in its journey from Caledonia/Dutton to downtown Grand Rapids, where it empties into the Grand River near Market Avenue.

“It’s a long urban creek that is in a highly degraded state,” Heffner said. “It’s in bad shape. It’s considered the most polluted creek in West Michigan, for a variety of reasons.”

Heffner said E. coli is present in the river at 50 times higher than what is considered safe for human contact. In addition, chemicals and toxins have made their way into the river. The pollutants come from agriculture, vehicles, lawn upkeep and many other sources.

Due to the high levels of contaminates, Plaster Creek poses a serious health risk to the community surrounding it. It also has the potential to devalue property and hurt businesses in the area due to flooding and its less-than-enviable state.

The Plaster Creek Stewards, which includes members of Calvin College, West Michigan Environmental Action Council, other environmental organizations and neighborhood churches, are hoping to change that through cleanup efforts and educating the community within the watershed area.

Late last month the group held a workshop, “Love Thy Downstream Neighbor: From Plaster Creek to the St. Lawrence River,” that involved an education component and the planting of two rain gardens upstream as part of its ongoing cleanup efforts.

Much of the pollution in the creek arrives there from runoff following large rain events; rain gardens are one way of helping suburban and urban environments prevent runoff by keeping the water onsite and helping the ground absorb it.

“When you have the landscape covered in concrete, whether it’s for roads or parking lots or strip malls — anything that is covered in concrete, water can’t be absorbed into the ground,” Heffner said. “It runs off. When you have a heavy rain event and you have a large amount of water running off (and) getting in storm drains, it causes a lot of flooding. So what is better to do is to try and manage water on site.”

Suburban and urban areas are not the only areas where runoff can occur.

“Runoff can occur in agriculture areas as sheet or gully erosion,” said Connie Redding, district administrator for the Kent Conservation District. “Sheet erosion moves water over the surface of soil, and gully erosion is runoff which wears a path through the soils. Both types of runoff result in erosion and can be caused by several factors, including soil type, slope, over-irrigation and plowing practices.

“Proper irrigation and equipment, along with conservation practices including cover crops, filter strips, grassed waterways and increasing crop residue, will slow the excess water and allow it to infiltrate the ground. It is in the best economic interest of the farmer to keep his water and his soils.”

The cleanup event was made possible due to a $4,000 Fulbright Eco-Leadership Program grant that was awarded to former Calvin College professor and current Gordon College Provost Janel Curry. The grant provides former Canadian Fulbright scholars with money to use in their local communities.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality also recently allocated $375,000 to the Plaster Creek Stewards for cleanup efforts and education, and the U.S. Environmental Protection agency has given the group $58,500.

But that is a minimal amount in comparison to what is needed for the substantial cleanup required. Heffner said that she expects it would take 20 to 30 years of concerted effort and was hesitant to put a dollar amount on what would be needed to achieve a clean Plaster Creek.

She was not hesitant, however, in suggesting ways in which a clean creek would impact the economy of the area. She pointed to property values as a key impact opportunity, noting the creek can be both an asset for homeowners and a problem if a house is located in one of the flood-prone areas.

She noted that businesses have the ability to aid cleanup efforts through the creation of their own rain gardens and landscaping choices. Known as green infrastructure, rain gardens, vegetation choices, green roofs, rain barrels and permeable pavements all are options with a positive environmental impact and good for a business’s bottom line, directly or indirectly. They are also ideas that have been around for a while.

Heffner mentioned Catalyst Partners as a business that is doing it right in terms of reducing stormwater runoff. She also noted that both Pioneer Construction and Cascade Engineering have been involved in cleanup efforts.

“Plaster Creek is a long-neglected community asset,” said Chris Beckering, Pioneer Construction’s director of business development. “It is actually a quite beautiful, natural refuge in the heart of a largely industrialized area. Our team members volunteer twice a year to clean up the area from the U.S. 131 overpass to Buchanan. Since we began our effort four years ago, we’ve noticed a real improvement.

“When we first started, we pulled thousands of pounds of garbage out of the creek and its banks. We found everything from shopping carts to tires to car parts. It was essentially being used as a garbage dump. As the creek has been cleaned up, I think people are now treating the area with greater respect. We now see walkers and bikers including families and young children enjoying the creek.

“Our efforts to date have focused primarily around cleanup. We are in the process of evaluating measures we can take to reduce runoff from our properties and working with Calvin College to educate people who live and work in the watershed area about the impact of their activities. In 2009, we received the Associated Builders and Contractors’ green contractor certification. The certification process evaluates environmental impacts of our headquarters operations and helps us establish benchmarks and plans for improvement. It’s going to take a watershed-wide effort to restore Plaster Creek to health.”

Plaster Creek has a long way to go before it will be clean enough for human contact, but its potentially hazardous health and economic impact means there are many people and businesses with a vested interest in seeing the cleanup efforts succeed.

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