Slowing down stormwater run-off
"Many churches, schools, and businesses in the Plaster Creek Watershed have started working to capture stormwater by building rain gardens, constructing bio-swales, installing rain barrels or green roofs and otherwise stalling the process of rainwater flowing from where it lands to the stream."
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Written by Michael Ryskamp (with assistance from Andre Otte and Gail Heffner)
Re-thinking Plaster Creek
I was 3 years old when I took my first fish off a hook, and I’ve been an avid fisherman ever since. I started out with worms and bobbers in the inland lakes of West Michigan. Eventually in high school, I began fly-fishing for trout, traveling to the Rogue River, the Pere Marquette or the Muskegon River to get my angling fix. I lived just a short walk away from Plaster Creek, but there I was spending an hour in a car to find a fishable river. What should have been an asset to me, my friends and the community I grew up in- a healthy stream in which we could fish, swim and play- was instead a liability, something to be avoided and left untouched. Looking back I really didn’t think of Plaster Creek as a stream. To me, it had always been more of a drain. Unfortunately, I had never pictured it as a thriving ecosystem nor realized that it had been degraded over time as modern Grand Rapids was built and as the city’s neighborhoods, infrastructure and local economy were established.
Today the pollutants found in the stream come from a variety of sources: sediment from run-off and from in-stream erosion, excess nutrients from fertilizers and E. coli bacteria from unknown sources. But there is one pollutant that is a trigger for all the others: stormwater. Like most cities, stormwater in Grand Rapids is guided into drains and in southeast Grand Rapids, most of these drains empty into Plaster Creek. The rainwater that flows over our roads, fields, lawns, rooftops and parking lots quickly finds its way into Plaster Creek, along with all the dirt, fertilizer, oil, heat and debris that stormwater run-off carries with it.
Don't touch the creek!
Though many pollutants accompany stormwater into Plaster Creek, one in particular gives the stream the status of unfit for partial body contact: E. coli bacteria. This designation for streams is established by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and is based on a threshold of 300 colony forming units per 100mL of stream water. In other words, if too many colonies of bacteria show up in the petri dish, the creek is deemed unsafe to touch. Segments of Plaster Creek have been measured to contain 13,000 colonies of E. coli per 100mL of stream water. This is a level of contamination over 40 times higher than the acceptable level for partial body contact and 100 times higher than the acceptable level for full body contact. It is uncertain where all of the E. coli are coming from, but we do know that stormwater is a trigger, as we see concentrations of E. coli skyrocket after a rainstorm.
What can be done?
Plaster Creek is still decades away from being a healthy stream again. In order for that to happen, we must first change the way we think about stormwater. The current paradigm sends stormwater into streams as fast as possible, and the subsequent water that enters the stream is too warm and too contaminated. But a new paradigm is emerging and its motto is “slow it down and soak it in.” It aims to treat stormwater where it lands. It is a way of dealing with stormwater that opens up the possibility of one day having a creek that is an asset to our community and not a liability.
Calvin College is a comprehensive liberal arts college in the Reformed tradition of historic Christianity. Through our learning, we seek to be agents of renewal in the academy, church, and society. We pledge fidelity to Jesus Christ, offering our hearts and lives to do God's work in God's world.