Photo: Calvin University
Dave Warners (second from left) and Gail Heffner (far right) were among those nationally recognized during the Urban Waters Learning Forum in Cleveland, Ohio.
Photo by Calvin University

Plaster Creek Stewards, an initiative of Calvin University that is dedicated to returning health and beauty to one of the most contaminated urban waterways in West Michigan, recently received the prestigious Learning Network Signature Award. 

The national recognition for their work came from the Urban Waters Learning Network, Groundwork USA, River Network, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

The award, which was presented at a conference in Cleveland, Ohio, honors individuals and organizations that have made significant contributions to the network of urban waters practitioners and to the field of urban waters protection and restoration.

Now in its tenth year, Plaster Creek Stewards (PCS) has involved students, staff, faculty, community members, and partners in education, research, and many different on-the-ground restoration efforts.

A major goal of this work is to reduce the amount of stormwater runoff that enters Plaster Creek. Over the years, the runoff has created a range of problems for Plaster Creek: high levels of bacteria, heavy sediment loads, reduced aquatic life, and flooding.

It has taken more than 100 years for the Plaster Creek watershed to become so degraded and PCS leaders know it will take at least 15-20 years of concerted effort to reverse the damage.

Getting to the root of the problem

“When we began this work we thought our job was to help clean up a contaminated creek,” said Dave Warners, biology professor at Calvin University. “But before long we realized the creek wasn’t the problem, it was a symptom.”

The real problem, he said, “is the way people are living in the watershed and the disregard that watershed residents show for the creek.”

As a result, PCS focuses on restoring the damaged relationship between people and their creek. “We are trying to get people to care for this neglected and abused part of God’s creation.”

Gail Heffner, Calvin’s director of community engagement, started PCS with Warners in 2009. In reflecting on PCS’ work over the past decade, Heffner says simply: “it’s an embodiment of Calvin’s mission.”

Because of the mission

“Calvin’s mission asks us to think deeply,” said Hefner, who accepted the Signature Award with Warners. This award is one of many forms of recognition PCS has received over the years.

“We’ve taken an interdisciplinary approach in looking into what’s causing the problems in this local watershed. What we’ve discovered is that there are populations of people and particular neighborhoods that are disproportionately affected by the contaminated runoff,” said Heffner

Part of their mission demands PCS to seek justice.  “So,” she said, “when we discover that this environmental injustice is happening, we are compelled to do something about it.”

And that’s what Plaster Creek Stewards have done over the past 10 years.

Research. Education. Restoration.

During that time, Plaster Creek Stewards have secured 18 grants totaling more than $2.7 million.These grants have supported research: 63 student summer researchers and faculty from six academic backgrounds have received funding to study the problems and possible solutions to the challenges faced by urban waterways like Plaster Creek.

These grants have also supported the education of hundreds of people, not just in the college classroom but from pre-school through post-retirement, helping people learn how to care for their local place.

Since 2009, Plaster Creek Stewards have worked with more than 26 local schools and more than 18 local houses of worship to educate and help them take restorative action in the Plaster Creek watershed.

These grants have also supported numerous on-the-ground restoration projects to capture stormwater where it lands, preventing stormwater runoff which helps improve water quality. This restoration work has included a variety of projects from a large floodplain restoration project in an upstream county park to bioswales in suburban areas and curb-cut rain gardens in urban neighborhoods.

Since 2009 Plaster Creek Stewards have expanded their native plant nursery by building two additional greenhouses and now grow more than 100,000 native Michigan plants per year that are used in these various projects throughout the watershed.

A bright future

PCS has also hosted a Green Team comprised of urban high school students who learn about watershed ecology and green infrastructure installation, while simultaneously being encouraged to consider college as part of their future.

Grant funding and numerous individual donors have supported the Green Team program, which has provided 96 high school positions to students in the Plaster Creek and the Rogue River watersheds over the past seven years. This has been a rich learning environment for high school students and the college student mentors who have worked alongside them.

This fall, PCS will host a 10 anniversary celebration — the final one of the year — in collaboration with the Art Department and the English Department under the theme of Dwelling: Our Watershed in Image and Word, followed by opportunities for attenders to roll up their sleeves and take part in some tangible restorative action on behalf of the creek.

Heffner and Warners say that restoration is hard but hopeful work, and that it points to a future when even urban streams will once again be places of delight and beauty for the communities through which they travel.