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Cutting curbs to clean a creek

Plaster Creek Stewards aims to reduce stormwater pollution and beautify a Grand Rapids Neighborhood.

/Mike Ryskamp

Underwriting support from:

Community Event

Plaster Creek Stewards fall 2014 community event will be on October 11 from 9 a.m. to noon at the Bunker Interpretive Center of Calvin College.

/Dave Warners

/Dave Warners

Written by Gail Heffner with Dave Warners and Mike Ryskamp


A 2013 study conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency found that over half of our nation’s stream miles are in poor condition. Especially in urban areas like Grand Rapids, stormwater is the biggest culprit in degrading our waterways, flushing an array of pollutants like dirt, E. coli, industrial metals, pesticides and excess nutrients from roadways, parking lots and lawns into our local streams and rivers. Plaster Creek has been particularly damaged by stormwater runoff and is deemed the most polluted creek in West Michigan.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) recently awarded a new grant to Plaster Creek Stewards, a watershed restoration initiative launched by Calvin College in 2009. The grant will fund several projects that will help the Stewards in their efforts to “restore health and beauty to the Plaster Creek Watershed.”

A portion of the work supported by this grant will focus on engaging residents, businesses and churches in the Alger Heights neighborhood to capture stormwater before it reaches storm drains. Alger Park Christian Reformed Church has agreed to serve as a demonstration site and community education center for this green infrastructure project. Plans are being made to design and install two rain gardens at the church during the summer of 2015. In addition to the the curb-cut demonstration gardens at the church, there will be funding available beginning in summer 2015 for 20 additional rain gardens in the Alger Heights neighborhood.

The neighborhood gardens proposed for this project will mostly be located on the tree-lawn areas between the sidewalk and street. To get stormwater into these shallowly excavated spaces, curbs will be cut and the water that normally flows down a street gutter and into a storm drain will be diverted, captured by native plants in the gardens, and allowed to percolate into the ground. In this way native plant roots will be able to soak up stormwater and filter out contaminants. These innovative designs have been used successfully in other cities to capture stormwater on site, helping to reduce the impacts of stormwater pollution.

One such project has been carried out in Grayling, Michigan, in the watershed of the Au Sable River, a prized trout stream in northern Michigan. Beginning in 2004, Grayling has installed 87 curb-cut rain gardens as part of a multi-faceted approach to reduce the volume and improve the quality of rainwater entering the Au Sable River.

The neighborhood project in Alger Heights will differ from the Grayling gardens in several significant ways. Plaster Creek Stewards will solicit community input from homeowners and other neighborhood stakeholders to determine the location and design of these neighborhood rain gardens. Residents will assist in selecting plants, transplanting seedlings, and maintaining the gardens.

“We want to make sure residents understand the importance of rain gardens for capturing stormwater, that they’ll like the finished product and that they will know how to weed and maintain the rain garden once we’ve helped them install it,” says Mike Ryskamp, Program Coordinator for Plaster Creek Stewards. Dave Warners adds, “The gardens will also help to beautify the neighborhood and will attract butterflies and birds.”

In addition to the Alger Heights neighborhood project, this new MDEQ grant will fund the installation of two other large-scale wetland restoration projects to help manage Plaster Creek’s stormwater pollution problem. One restoration project will be upstream at Shadyside Park near Dutton, and the other project will be in the Oakdale Park neighborhood in a midstream section of the Plaster Creek watershed. These projects were chosen because of their potential to make a measurable improvement to the water quality of Plaster Creek over time.

Archival evidence in the Grand Rapids Public Library reveals that Plaster Creek was already in a deplorable state as early as 1910, so we know that Plaster Creek has been getting worse for over 100 years. These projects will help improve water quality in Plaster Creek, but real change will take time. It has taken decades for Plaster Creek to become this degraded, and it will likely take decades to restore it.

Plaster Creek Stewards will be hosting their fall 2014 community event on October 11 from 9:00 a.m. to noon beginning at the Bunker Interpretive Center of Calvin College. This event will include a short educational presentation, followed by hands-on restoration opportunities involving planting wildflowers and trees at two bio-swale sites. Those interested in attending can email the Plaster Creek Stewards at [email protected].

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