When Andrea Lubberts discusses water quality in West Michigan, she always starts by defining watershed: an area of land that drains to a common body of water. Her experience taught her that while most people know the word, they aren’t entirely sure what it means.
Lubberts is a staff member of the Plaster Creek Stewards, a Calvin College program that works to restore health and beauty to the infamous Plaster Creek Watershed using research, education, and hands-on restoration work. The 14-mile long stream drains a 57-square-mile basin into the Grand River. It’s best known for a long history of industrial pollution and colloquially as the creek your mother warned you to avoid.
To achieve one key component of the program’s mission, Plaster Creek Stewards engage in local K-12 classrooms. Lubberts helps educate about the important issues facing the Plaster Creek watershed.
When I asked her what the program ultimately hoped to accomplish, she recited a quote by Dave Warners, co-director of the Stewards. “We are not just working to clean up a creek; we are working to restore the relationship between watershed residents and their creek.”
A big theme behind their community outreach is that education should be paired with restoration actions. In short, what good is talking about a problem if we aren’t working toward an achievable solution? “Encouraging a transition away from neglect and apathy toward tending and keeping,” she mentioned. It’s another Warners’ quote.
Listening to the various problems facing the Plaster Creek watershed made clear that apathy is certainly a natural reaction. But for many of her students, small steps were better than none.
The program found success inspiring students to help in restoration by building rain gardens, which if you aren’t familiar are depressions that allow rainwater runoff from both urban and rural areas, like roofs, driveways, walkways, and parking lots the opportunity to be absorbed and filtered by native plants with deep roots instead of pouring directly into the nearest ditch or waterway.
Lubberts likes to explain to her students that rain gardens act as “both a water treatment plant and a grocery store for animals.” It’s a simple, yet powerful analogy that helps simplify the important role that natural areas play in keeping water clean. Her motto: slow it down and soak it up. It’s a “water treatment plant because the gardens remove sediment, oils, trash and unseen pollutants like nutrients, heat and bacteria from the water” and a grocery store because “the native plants that filter the water also provide the nectar, greens and seeds for local insects and animals.“
I wondered aloud why students were so eager to build these small but impactful green spaces.
“If they see that something as simple as putting in and maintaining a rain garden can make a difference in water quality in the stream, then the kids feel like everyone can do something. It is empowering to be able to do contribute to a solution.” she explained. “Rain gardens make great additions to any school as they introduce practical applications of math, biology, art, language arts among other things. They are exciting places to learn and observe.“
Part of the Stewards’ mission that Lubberts embodies is bringing about a shift in how students think about our relationship with water and our environment. The end goal being that students understand that how we use our land affects our water and that affects everyone else in the watershed. “You can learn a lot about the watershed by looking at the water quality of the water flowing from the watershed.”
As it stands today, we engineer our developed land to move water off property as quickly as possible. In doing so, we bypass natural filtration systems and pour polluted water directly into streams, rivers, lakes, and oceans. Rain gardens introduce a natural filtration system where water slows down and soaks in.
In addition to the reduction of pollutants, the rain gardens serve another important purpose. The Stewards program collects local seeds for over 400 native plant species, and grow many popular, rare and endangered species in Calvin College’s greenhouses. When a new rain garden is built, native West Michigan plants are reintroduced into their respective community. Many of these species have declined with development.
Andrea described the fascination of looking down on their regional map of existing gardens and seeing the quilt of biodiversity that the Stewards and other partner programs have brought back to West Michigan. It’s a slow, steady process, but it makes a difference.
Progress and Making a Difference
“They feel when they’re faced with these overwhelming odds that there’s something they can do. We can’t tackle a huge problem and expect immediate success,” Lubberts explained.” But as long as everyone does something we can make progress.”
And progress they’ve achieved as dozens of rain gardens are built each year at the request of engaged, inspired students. Not only do rain gardens present a simple, yet effective hands-on project that students can accomplish, but it encapsulates so many of the key concepts important to affecting real change in a new generation and the building of important community-environment relationships.
Something that was mentioned frequently throughout our discussion was this idea that progress will be made as a relationship grows between upstream and downstream neighbors.
Facilitating the growth of this relationship “is important to our work, too,” said Lubberts, “so that people realize that this isn’t just work to restore our relationship with the watershed but relationships up and down the creek.” History would suggest this to be a difficult task, but the Stewards give every indication that they have what it takes to truly make a difference.