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Growing up in Holland, Mich., one becomes accustomed to water fairly early in life. Some of my most powerful childhood memories include water: learning to swim in Grandma’s pool, playing with my siblings on our inner tube in Lake Michigan, running through the sprinkler in our backyard.

Another powerful memory from my childhood includes water too; specifically, the water from Lake Macatawa—or, as all the kids from Holland called it, “Lake Maca-Toilet.” There was something deeply wrong with Lake Macatawa that even young children from the community had picked up on. It was brown and smelly. Everyone’s mother warned them to not so much as touch it, much less eat anything that came out of it.

It wouldn’t be until I got a little older and learned something about biology and ecology that I would understand better what exactly was wrong with Lake Macatawa (astronomical levels of phosphorus from agricultural and residential runoff was creating an ideal breeding ground for bacteria like E. coli and salmonella).

All I knew back then was that there was a vast and plentiful resource that was going to waste--unapproachable for all the mother-fearing children of Holland. Far from being its intended source of joy, delight, and provision, Lake Macatawa was a risk; a threat to be avoided. Even my young mind could comprehend that this was not the way it was supposed to be.

Lake Macatawa is not unique. It is estimated that 42 percent of U.S. streams are in poor biological condition, and 23 percent of Canadian streams are in similarly dire straits. While there are many complicated, interrelated factors that contribute to this reality, one of the most important pieces of the water quality puzzle is watersheds.

If you are like me, you probably have a vague notion of what a watershed is (informed mostly by a 9th grade Earth Science class), an even vaguer notion of why they matter, and no hint of a notion as to which watershed you are sitting in as you read this.

Ignorance about watersheds is surprisingly widespread, but that is a reality that organizations like the Plaster Creek Stewards (PCS) are working hard to change. A collaboration of Calvin College faculty, staff, students, and regional partners working to increase the quality of the Plaster Creek watershed, PCS defines a watershed as simply “an area of land where all the water drains to the same place.”

Since water, wherever it falls, will flow somewhere, every person, building, and institution on earth resides within a watershed--including Calvin College.

In fact, Calvin College, Calvin Theological Seminary, the Christian Reformed Church denominational headquarters, over half of Calvin’s faculty, over 3,000 Calvin alumni, and more than 2,000 CRC households reside within the Plaster Creek watershed.

This realization, coupled with the fact that Plaster Creek is one of the most degraded watersheds in all of Western Michigan, served as the impetus for the formation of PCS. As Gail Heffner, cofounder of the group, put it, “The most Reformed watershed in Michigan should not be the most degraded.”

That’s why PCS is marshaling all of Calvin College’s resources to pursue research, community education, and hands-on restoration of the Plaster Creek watershed. There is plenty of work to do.
Plaster Creek, the watershed’s main tributary and namesake, contains E. coli levels 50 times higher than is safe for even partial body contact--a product of close to a century of unchecked pollution by local residents and industry.
Though discouraging facts like these abound, and though true restoration of Plaster Creek will take decades, PCS remains indefatigable. “I like to think of our work as embodied faithfulness,” says Heffner. “Reconciliation is needed between humans and the nonhuman creation. Our work is about practicing that reconciliation and inviting others to practice it with us.”

In the years since PCS was founded, many such partners in the work of practicing reconciliation within the Plaster Creek watershed have emerged. As of two years ago, one such partner is the CRC denominational headquarters.

Synod 2012 made a prophetic and critical proclamation: “Climate change is occurring; it is very likely due to human activity; it is a moral, ethical, and religious issue; and urgent action is required to address it.” Among its several recommendations to CRC congregations and individual members, the report also directed the denominational building to mitigate its carbon emissions. Perhaps Synod 2012 didn’t know it, but efforts at the denominational building to reduce carbon emissions and increase energy efficiency had already been underway for years.

In 2009, John Bolt, chief financial officer of the CRCNA, was approached by Michigan-based technology giant Johnson Controls with an offer to revamp the denominational building’s entire heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system in order to make it more energy efficient.

If net savings were not seen within the time frame that they guaranteed, they would cut a check for the difference. Three years since the project’s completion, the results are compelling. As of January 2014, the changes made by the denominational building have resulted in a savings of 2,680 metric tons of carbon dioxide--the equivalent of taking 564 cars off the road for one year--totaling $544,000 in recuperated energy costs.

Other efforts that focus on the landscaping of the denominational property are also underway. Partnership with PCS has resulted in large swaths of water and fossil-fuel intensive lawn being replaced with mulched beds and native perennials. Multiple rain gardens have been installed--including one on the very prominent corner of Kalamazoo and 28th Street--further enabling the property’s ability to absorb and trap rainwater rather than letting it run off of the asphalt parking lot into the already polluted Plaster Creek, carrying with it dangerous pollutants and suffocating sediments.

Bolt hopes that these efforts will not only be faithful responses to synod’s instructions but also an encouraging example both to the Grand Rapids community and to the CRC as a whole. After all, “Our number one obligation is to be the best stewards that we can of the resources God has given us,” says Bolt.

Related articles:

Climate Care (by Calvin DeWitt, The Banner)

CRC Statements on Creation Care

Mobile Justice Editorial: Responding Faithfully to the Reality of Climate Change

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