Plaster Creek Stewards – 2014 Update

Plaster Creek Stewards is a collaboration of Calvin College students, faculty and staff working with local schools, churches, and community partners to restore health and beauty to the Plaster Creek Watershed.  Plaster Creek is the most degraded stream in West Michigan, so contaminated that for much of the year the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality deems it unfit for even partial human body contact.  Plaster Creek Stewards focuses on three areas—education, research, and on-the-ground restoration. Our goal is to educate the community about watershed ecology, and to develop a growing group of people who understand the strengths, needs, and problems affecting the Plaster Creek Watershed.  Our educational events are always combined with opportunities to take action and we work to equip people with the knowledge and skills needed to restore health to the watershed.   For more information, see http://www.calvin.edu/go/plastercreekstewards

We received funding from River Network in 2011 to deepen our educational programming and to begin an oral history social research project among people who have lived, worked, or attended school, or church within the Plaster Creek Watershed.  These oral histories are part of a strategy to engage the public in paying attention to and caring for Plaster Creek.  In particular we are focusing on developing upstream-downstream partnerships among local schools and local churches. The River Network grant was completed in the past year but the work begun by this funding is ongoing.

In 2012 we received a major grant from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) which is being used for community education efforts, faculty and student research, and to reduce storm water running into the creek through the installation of four, large bio-retention swales.   We know from our historical research that it has taken more than 100 years for the watershed to become this degraded and it will take several decades of concerted effort to see significant improvement in this damaged urban waterway.  In May 2014 we received word that our second proposal to MDEQ has been funded for over $1.1 million to continue this important watershed restoration project.

We have also come to realize the importance of reaching the next generation of potential leaders and helping them develop knowledge and particular skills to foster watershed restoration. During the summer of 2014 we expanded the Green Team initiative, comprised of eight at-risk urban youth and provided them with research experience in watershed restoration, job skill development in green infrastructure, and mentoring by college faculty and student research assistants.  The selected members of the Green Team increased their awareness of ecological problems occurring within their own community and developed a deeper understanding of environmental justice.   Specifically, they learned about watershed restoration and the importance of low impact development.  They gained research experience in green infrastructure job skills, including the propagation of native plants, as well as designing, installing and maintaining rain gardens and bio-swales.  The first two years for the Plaster Creek Stewards Green Team has been a huge success and we recently received an EPA Urban Waters grant to expand the Green Team for the next two summers.  We were the only ones in the state of Michigan to receive this highly competitive grant.

Calvin College is uniquely positioned and poised to help restore Plaster Creek, a highly damaged watershed.  We have the expertise needed, the community partners in place, and a clear strategy to make a significant positive difference in West Michigan and the whole Great Lakes region.  For more information, contact Dr. Gail Gunst Heffner at gheffner@calvin.edu