Charting a New Course for Plaster Creek

With the help of several partners, Calvin College is taking an interdisciplinary approach in improving the health of a watershed in the West Michigan area.

“Water is a great barometer. If your water is healthy, you are probably treating the land well,” said Dave Warners, biology professor at Calvin College.

And if it’s not?

Gail Heffner, director of community engagement at Calvin, answered that question with one of her own.

“How do we help people understand that they have a relationship [with the creek] whether they are aware of it or not?”

That question has driven the work of Plaster Creek Stewards (PCS)—a collaboration of Calvin College faculty, staff and students, churches, schools, and community partners working to restore the health and beauty of the Plaster Creek Watershed—among the most polluted watersheds in Michigan.

Thanks to a $629,178 grant from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ)—the third in a series of grants from MDEQ—and a $178,837 grant from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, that work continues to expand.

The newest MDEQ grant supports all three PCS focus areas, providing education, research, and restoration opportunities at three sites within the watershed.

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grant will involve a partnership with Grand Rapids Christian High School in restoring wetlands at a local public golf course.

Since 2011, PCS has generated nearly $3 million in grants that are being used to support its three areas of focus.
Heffner emphasized that it is critical to take an interdisciplinary approach in doing this work.

“We have engineers helping with hydrology modeling, historians helped collect info about time periods—what happened at this neighborhood, or at this farm, and its impact on the creek,” said Heffner.

“Chemists care about what toxins might be in the water, GIS (geographic information system) [people] help us do the mapping stuff as well as microbiologists looking at E. coli and invasive species,” added Warners.

“This is a real-world problem, and I don’t know if there are many real-world problems that aren’t interdisciplinary. So to address a problem with one discipline is not very effective.”

Warners and Heffner said that when you see a real-world problem, it’s important to gain an understanding of the broken relationship.

“The key is to address the relationship, get people to care for the creek and start to develop an affection for it,” said Heffner.

“When they see pollution in the creek, it should hurt. How do you develop that kind of sensitivity again? We feel it’s through getting them involved, introducing them, sometimes it’s telling stories about how the creek was used by people in the past,” added Warners.

In short, it’s an interdisciplinary approach.

About the Author

Matt Kucinski is media relations manager at Calvin College.

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So many issues require an interdisciplinary approach. What an inspiring story!

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