It was a chilly May 12th, cloudy and windy as well. But 29 sixth graders from West Side Middle School in East Chicago, Indiana came to nearby Roxana Marsh to experience what the outdoors has to offer, learn new things, help with the cleanup and restoration of the natural area, and enjoy the afternoon.
Roxana Marsh is part of the larger Grand Calumet River Area of Concern, which has been undergoing dredging through the Great Lakes Legacy Act over the past six years. The marsh section of the project was completed three years ago with the removal of 600,000 cubic yards of sediment.
This accomplishment was celebrated with a press event attended by government officials and local school children. Those middle schoolers left their legacy in perennial plants that are now thriving along the marsh. This year’s class is the third group of gardeners in what may well become an annual tradition.
In addition to planting natives, the students learned the basics of birding, explored the small community of life in sediment, and manned trash bags for garbage detail. There were water beetles, egrets, killdeer, toads, dragonfly nymphs, and more to experience.
Throughout their afternoon tour, the 6th graders were guided by experts from Audubon Chicago Region, U.S. EPA, The Nature Conservancy, Shirley Heinz Land Trust, Indiana’s departments of Natural Resources and Environmental Management, Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission, Dunes Learning Center, and Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant.
The first surprise for the students was just how close the natural area is to their school and their world. “They had no idea that this was here or about the dredging and restoration, said teacher Linda Padilla. “They were sure we would be going someplace farther away.”
Last June, she took part in a one-day workshop at Purdue University Calumet, which introduced the Helping Hands curriculum to 25 local educators. Helping Hands activities are ideally suited to schools in Areas of Concern that are going through the cleanup process—they provide opportunities to directly engage students in the larger project. The workshop also included a visit to several sites on the Grand Cal to see the dredging work in progress as well to walk around a finished site—Roxana Marsh.
Caitie McCoy, IISG environmental social scientist, has been helping keep residents informed during the dredging. She saw the Grand Cal project as an opportunity to connect students with their environment.
“The cleanup and restoration of the Grand Calumet River is brightening the northwest Indiana landscape,” she explained. “This work transforms space into places that students can visit, perform stewardship work, and develop pride in their local environment. Environmental educators teach students that nature is in their backyard, but for these students, high quality nature is in their backyard, right here in East Chicago, Indiana.”
At one point, the Grand Cal was referred to as the most polluted river in the country. Through the remediation process, more than 2,000,000 cubic yards of sediment have been removed from this waterway, which runs through a highly-populated region. If funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative continues and non-federal cost share partners are secured, the river work could finish as early as 2019.
Over 200 bags of trash, some shopping carts, mattresses, and a port-o-let were removed from Milwaukee’s Lincoln Park earlier this month during an annual river cleanup led by Milwaukee Riverkeeper. The event drew nearly 3,500 residents and local officials to rivers across the city. Almost 100 of these volunteers were members of the Friends of Lincoln Park. Formed last October, this cleanup was the group’s first outreach project, with many more slated for 2015.
Members of the Lincoln Park community first came together in response to ongoing efforts to rid the Milwaukee River bottom of legacy contaminants like PCBs and PAHs. Phase two of the Great Lakes Legacy Act project was underway, and with the river making up such a large portion of the park, the community was taking notice. With support from focus groups conducted by Caitie McCoy and UW-Extension’s Gail Epping Overholt, residents were inspired to create a way to voice their thoughts and concerns on the direction of the park.
The result was the Lincoln Park Friends Group, who, in association with Milwaukee County Parks, the Park People, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and Wisconsin Sea Grant, is now working to revitalize Lincoln Park in a way that brings together the surrounding community.
“Most members have grown up enjoying the parks,” said David Thomas, secretary for the Friends of Lincoln Park. “We all think of the parks as a valuable community resource.”
The group hopes to instill a similar sense of stewardship in other community members. Along with plans to clear out areas overgrown with invasive plants, some members have expressed an interest in creating youth groups to provide opportunities to learn how to fish or canoe and to get to know the park’s natural surroundings in general.
“There’s a ton of work to do, but we want to build organically,” Thomas added. “We want to build it slowly, and we want it to be strong and sustainable.”
***Photo credit: Friends of Lincoln Park
We talk a lot about the environmental benefits of sediment remediation. These are hard to miss—a trip to the river or harbor is often all it takes to confirm that the aquatic habitat is on the mend. The role of cleanup projects on local economies can be harder to pin down, but the impacts are just as striking. Brandon Steppan, IISG’s new communications intern, has the story.
I’ve lived in the city all my life. With the exception of a few parks and forest preserves, I never really saw environmental health as being all that connected to the welfare of my community. The only rivers that ever made the news were the Chicago River on St. Patrick’s Day and the Des Plaines River whenever it flooded—especially if that meant Gene and Jude’s, an iconic hot dog stand in River Grove and arguably the best place to get a Chicago-style hot dog, would have to shut down for repairs.
What I’ve learned about other Great Lakes communities in the short time I’ve been with IISG has already made me reevaluate just how valuable a healthy river can be—not just in terms of environmental integrity, but in dollars and cents. Results of economic studies of Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOCs) have listed the values of what a clean waterbody would be for those communities, with numbers ranging from $6 million for one small neighborhood to $19 billion for all 31 original AOCs in the U.S. To get these numbers, economists and social scientists looked at money brought in from tourism, real estate values, and residents’ willingness to pay for a cleaner waterway.
One of the more remarkable returns came from a 2004 examination of the Waukegan Harbor AOC in Illinois. An analysis of housing data and resident perceptions determined that proximity to the PCB-ridden harbor substantially drove down property values. When surveyed, Waukegan homeowners revealed they would be willing to pay more for their property if it meant full cleanup of the harbor—a collective value of $436 million, much more than the projected cost for remediation.
My initial reaction to these reports was a mixture of confusion and surprise. But as I took into account the number of people in each area and how they rely on their local rivers not just for livelihood but for quality of life, the numbers no longer seemed all that surprising. The hazards of a toxic river bed aren’t always obvious, and unfortunately, neither are the benefits of remediation. Having these numbers available helps create a conversation where those benefits are no longer vaguely environmental, but economically tangible.
***Photo from the Waukegan Port District.