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Plaster Creek Stewards is a collaboration of Calvin College faculty, staff, and students working with local schools, churches, and community partners to restore the health and beauty of the watershed.

News from the
Plaster Creek Stewards

                                                                                              Fall 2013
In this Issue: Straining Our Eyes
Plaster Creek—stories from the past
Hidden Waters: The Secret Life of Silver Creek
Plaster Creek 2013 Green Team was a Dream Team
Straining Our Eyes by Dave Warners

“Don’t strain your eyes!” came a gruff voice from a van that had pulled up alongside a low-lying lawn area where Mike Ryskamp and I were scheming to plant a rain garden. We had stopped by one of the churches in the watershed that is becoming involved in Plaster Creek Stewards and were down in this low area checking things out, wondering about replacing the lawn with native wetland plants.

I wasn’t quite sure I heard the man correctly, so I walked upslope toward his van and said, “Excuse me, what was that you said?” “Don’t strain your eyes!” he yelled out at us again, followed by, “And what are you doing down there anyways?”

What ensued was one of the more interesting watershed conversations we’ve had in quite some time. After explaining who we were and what Plaster Creek Stewards is trying to do he told us “Aw, that creek is way too messed up for anyone to do any good to it...if you think you can actually help that creek, you’re wasting your time.” I explained that we know it will take a long time but even if I don’t see improvement in the creek in my lifetime, I think it’s the right thing to do and in any case trying to help the creek is better than not doing anything at all. He disagreed, saying it was better not to waste time than it is to waste time. And when Mike offered that it’s something we should do for our children and for future generations, he said he doesn’t care about that creek and his kids don’t care about it either.

This man’s strong impression was that our efforts are futile.  But the longer we engage in this work, the more convinced we have become that this work is indeed worthwhile, necessary and critical.  Instead of not straining our eyes, as this man implored, straining our eyes is precisely what is needed - straining our eyes to envision communities working together to help make a very sick creek well again; straining our eyes to see beauty returning to the watershed - beauty and biodiversity and children once again splashing in the water; straining our eyes to see a growing affection for this much-maligned creek and a growing sense that because watershed residents have inflicted such harm, we are precisely the ones who need to bring restoration.

None of us involved in this work is pretending that a quick fix is available, or that we won’t experience times of frustration or discouragement. But Plaster Creek Stewards is committed to working in this watershed for a long time and we are hopeful that one day the visions that require eye straining today will become joyfully apparent close up, for all to see—even the most skeptical.

How can you help?
Plaster Creek Stewards has grown significantly over the past four years. We have educated hundreds of people of all ages, from elementary students to retirees. We have spoken to schools, neighborhood associations, church groups, community organizations, and we've presented at regional and national conferences. We have also begun collecting data so that we can monitor and track changes in water quality over time. And we have implemented dozens of on-the-ground restoration projects that will help restore the damage that's been done to Plaster Creek over time.

There are many opportunities to volunteer with Plaster Creek Stewards. If you are interested in learning more about this, please contact Mike Ryskamp at

As you know, we have grant funding for some of the work we are doing but it doesn’t cover everything we are working on. For example, we would like to purchase and install signs that explain what a rain garden does and how it helps to improve a watershed. We estimate we need 12 signs for the projects we have already completed and we estimate each sign will cost $125. Would you consider a gift to Calvin College to cover the cost of one sign for Plaster Creek Stewards? This is a concrete way you can help extend our reach and educate the public about the need to take care of Plaster Creek. You can donate on-line using this secure link.

Or you can make a check payable to Calvin College, noting Plaster Creek Stewards in the memo line, and send to:
Calvin College
c/o Development Office
3201 Burton SE
Grand Rapids, MI  49546

Thank you for your consideration.
Plaster Creek—stories from the past by Gail Gunst Heffner
For the last two years, we have been collecting oral histories from people of all ages who have had memorable experiences or interactions with Plaster Creek at some point in their lives. We have collected 65 stories so far and they are fascinating and rich in detail.& The Plaster Creek watershed was a very different place 60 and 70 years ago! We have heard stories of family gatherings and of forbidden wanderings. We’ve heard childhood memories of swimming in the creek or exploring storm drains. We’ve heard stories from people living upstream in rural sections of the Plaster Creek watershed and downstream in the urban areas. We’ve heard stories about farming, industry, schools, and neighborhoods, but the one constant in all the stories is that Plaster Creek was noticed and appreciated. The oral histories that community members have shared remind us that the condition of the creek today is quite different from the creek decades ago. Today much of the Plaster Creek watershed is either hidden from view or forgotten and ignored. What was once a thriving stream has now become a polluted creek unsafe for even partial body contact. We hope that by sharing some of the stories of Plaster Creek we all will be motivated to take better care of this valuable community resource.

‘There’s something about being outside’
One of the conversation partners in this oral history project credits his experience of playing near Plaster Creek as being formative and significant in who he has become as an adult.
“We played there a lot. So having those woods... you could go down that hill, and walk through the woods and there was a creek running down there that we would sometimes jump across… I think now about how, how wonderful it was that we had this. We would refer to it as ‘the woods,’ as in ‘we are going to go play in the woods.’ And it seemed a lot bigger to us at the time than I am sure it is now…it seemed like the kind of thing that was just vast growing up. And it seemed like the kind of thing you could get lost in. Of course, you couldn’t, you could walk up anywhere and you know, find yourself on a street and get home. But our parents, we were growing up in an age…it was an era where our parents would just let us go and we… would be expected to be home by, you know, by supper time. I think there’s probably less and less of that kind of thing today as kids are more scheduled and parents are just more concerned about the safety of kids, you know, going out by themselves. But that was not really a factor for us.

And the times that we had down there, you know, just being able to walk around and discover and explore, I will always have that. And I think that was a great part of growing up. And having that [creek] in that neighborhood was a wonderful thing. I appreciate it even more now as an adult than I did at the time. And I think that the time that we had down there and the time with friends both helped me appreciate the natural world in a firsthand way that I would not have been able to do otherwise…that independent time, that time with friends out there both helped me come to an appreciation of that and those were formative times for those friendships…But we will always have those times in the woods.

And I think, it was part of becoming an adult for me and part of coming of age, because these were things that were planned and done by us as kids and there are ways that we all have to learn to do that in life and those experiences were part of that for me…There’s just things that kids can think up and try and do when given some freedom and opportunity to have experiences like that, and as I think about it, the kinds of memories that come from experiences like that, you know, there’s something about being outside. These experiences, you know, the subtotal of these experiences contributed to my formation as a person and my learning how to have a friend, be a friend. And being outside was the ideal and best place for those kinds of experiences to happen. And much of that happened right by the creek. “
If you have lived, worked, worshiped, studied, or played in the Plaster Creek watershed and have stories to tell, we'd love to interview you. Please contact Dr. Gail Heffner at
Hidden Waters: The Secret Life of Silver Creek by Mike Ryskamp
Chances are, if you live in Grand Rapids, you’ve either driven or walked right over Silver Creek without even realizing it. That’s because this four mile stream flows almost completely underground, from East Grand Rapids (near Hall and Plymouth) to downtown (near Grandville and Market). And unless you’re old enough to remember FDR’s Works Progress Administration transforming this stream into a subterranean drain, you’ve probably never seen this stream or even heard of it.

Silver Creek is a tributary of Plaster Creek and its history is as turbid as the water that flows through its pipes.   But we know a few things about this stream for sure.  For one, Silver Creek is not its original name; in the 1830s it was known as Burr-Oak Creek, most likely named after the landscape through which it flowed. Today, the Oak-hill cemetery overlooks the low-lying Oak-dale neighborhood (a dale is a valley), through which (or actually beneath which) Silver Creek flows. 

Maps and other records from the 1800s and the early 1900s describe a stream corridor comprised of open savannah and prairie habitats in the area where Madison Avenue and Oakdale Street intersect today. Additionally, it’s clear that swamps, fens, and other wetlands, scattered throughout the length of the stream, were home to orchids and other rare plants that are noticeably absent through the post-industrial corridor that presently characterizes old Silver Creek “dale.”

Today, Silver Creek is functionally an ever-flowing storm sewer that only sees daylight in two locations, near the intersection of Hall and Plymouth, both of which lie in the historical headwaters of the stream. Along with the Kent County Drain Commissioner’s office, we’re actively working to restore one of these two “day-lighted” portions of Silver Creek, the Kreiser Street retention basin. The basin was converted into a storm water retention area after flooding in neighborhoods along the Silver Creek drain became a reoccurring problem in the 1970s and 80s. The Silver Creek drain pipes quickly became inadequately small as the urban and suburban landscape of Grand Rapids expanded—increased development in the area meant more stormwater run-off into the Silver Creek drain. More recently, in 2011, the Drain Commissioner retrofitted the basin with a wide channel that can retain a much greater volume of water. This has greatly reduced the risk of storm water flooding out of the basin and into the residential area around the basin. The good news is this basin has not flooded since the 2011 retrofit, not even with the record flooding Grand Rapids saw this past spring.

Plaster Creek Stewards is working within the Kreiser Basin to re-establish a wetland habitat, along the channel in the lower portions of the basin, and a native Michigan prairie habitat, in the upper reaches of the basin. These restored ecosystems will help improve in-stream water quality by providing a place for sediment to deposit, by filtering and transpiring massive volumes of stormwater through their deep root systems, and by using up excess amount of nutrients (i.e. fertilizers) in the stream that can create ecologically harmful algae blooms in downstream wetlands and water bodies.  We hope that within a year or two, this area will serve as a reminder of what Silver Creek once was—a living and a thriving stream habitat.

Silver Creek, though out of sight and underground, reminds us of how human interactions with the natural world have profound and long-lasting impacts. Silver Creek will almost certainly never be restored to the flourishing stream that once flowed through southeast Grand Rapids.  But there are things we can do and things we are doing, to begin reversing the negative legacy that now characterizes Silver Creek. Whether it is creating a glimpse of Burr Oak Creek in a retention basin or installing a residential rain garden, we hope to restore some portion of what had been forgotten and hidden underground—so that we can heal our waters.
Plaster Creek 2013 Green Team was a Dream Team by Dave Warners
This past summer Plaster Creek Stewards piloted a summer “Green Team” for urban high school students who live within or attend school or church within the Plaster Creek watershed. Gail Heffner and Dave Warners learned about similar programs operating in Atlanta and Buffalo when they attended an EPA Urban Waters Training Conference in Washington, DC last October. As far as we know, the Plaster Creek Stewards Green Team is the first such effort here in the state of Michigan. Our goals for this project include providing urban youth with hands-on experience in watershed education, restoration, and research, green infrastructure job skill development, and mentoring by college faculty and student research assistants. This summer we hosted two groups of four students each, working for three weeks as a short-term summer job. Funding was secured through the Michigan Colleges Foundation and students did a variety of watershed restoration activities including installing and weeding rain gardens, collecting native seeds, planting seeds and transplanting seedlings in the greenhouse, performing plant rescues, tending the native tree nursery and learning about stormwater runoff and upstream-downstream connections within the Plaster Creek watershed. Members of this Green Team have also increased their awareness of ecological problems occurring within their own communities and have developed a deeper understanding of environmental justice.

The students also had a lot of fun working as a team to accomplish meaningful goals. Plaster Creek Stewards wants to sincerely thank our amazing Green Team members Asher, Christa, Crisma, Khalil, Deanna, Diego, Marcus, and Tyreece (as well as team leader Mr. Gary Warners) for their hard work and joyful spirits. Thank you also to Katey Westergren, Ian Noyes (Calvin summer research students) and Emma Vautour (summer intern from Messiah College) for working alongside the high school Green Team. Based on feedback we received, this has been a wonderful experience for all those involved. Our hope is to secure funding so that the Plaster Creek Stewards Green Team can be expanded next summer.