It really was a “Watershed Awakening!” by Gail Heffner

Volunteers install a raingarden in the Plaster Creek watershed. Photo: Plaster Creek Stewards
Volunteers install a raingarden in the Plaster Creek watershed. Photo: Plaster Creek Stewards

It really was a “Watershed Awakening”…the growing awareness and eventual decision made by Calvin College to turn its attention to Plaster Creek, the impaired creek that drains the watershed in which the college is situated in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Back in 2002, Calvin College began involving students in service-learning activities that evolved into today’s Plaster Creek Stewards, a highly successful collaboration of college faculty and students, urban residents, local churches and schools, and community partners working to restore the health and beauty of our 58 square mile watershed.

Back in 2011 we never could have guessed just how far we would come in the next four years, or what a significant role the EPA Urban Waters Program and the Urban Waters Learning Network* would play in our progress. That was the year we received our very first grant – an EPA funded, $58,000 Urban Waters Capacity Building grant administered by River Network. Since 2011, we have leveraged that initial grant into a $1.8 million investment in the restoration of the Plaster Creek watershed.

The ripple effects of that initial Urban Waters grant have been nothing short of amazing.

A few faculty members were aware that our watershed was in trouble as early as 2002, but our work didn’t begin in earnest until 2009 when a staff person from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality challenged us–-a Christian, liberal arts college–to engage faith communities living upstream in a discussion about how we could work together, motivated by our common beliefs, to help heal Plaster Creek. News of this effort motivated an anonymous $10,000 gift from a member of the community, which helped us hire a part-time coordinator and develop a strategic plan.

That initial strategic plan pushed us to articulate our vision for Plaster Creek and helped Plaster Creek Stewards–then a small, fledgling organization–to be selected as just one of five Urban Waters grant recipients from across the country.

Both the funding and our membership into the newly created Urban Waters Learning Network (UWLN) positioned Plaster Creek Stewards for success. As a member of the “Urban Waters family,” we have attended various River Rallies, were invited to the 2012 EPA Urban Waters National Training Workshop, and have participated in the virtual UWLN forum. These opportunities to network with other watershed leaders and federal staff, to share our work with a national audience and learn from others’ work have been invaluable.

Today, Plaster Creek Stewards is respected locally, regionally, and nationally for our watershed restoration and community engagement efforts. We continue to gain momentum and we are currently:

  • Installing over 20 curb cut rain gardens and large green infrastructure projects across the watershed working with churches, local schools and businesses, and many community partners;
  • Supporting college students and faculty in research projects that include GIS mapping, hydrologic modeling, habitat restoration, and bacterial
    Students conduct water quality monitoring on Plaster Creek
    Students conduct water quality monitoring on Plaster Creek. Photo: Plaster Creek Stewards

    monitoring and sourcing;

  • Connecting local youth – urban and suburban – to each other and to Plaster Creek through our Green Team, a program designed to teach youth about watershed science, train them to install and maintain green infrastructure projects, and provide them a gateway to a college education;
  • Educating our community members – rural upstream and urban downstream residents – about Plaster Creek and providing them opportunities to take an active part in its restoration.

One small step leading to the next… it’s good to reflect on Plaster Creek Stewards’ journey. The EPA Urban Waters office has not only provided important technical assistance and funding for us but they have created training opportunities for mutual learning and growth. We are grateful to all those who have supported and inspired our work over the years, especially the Urban Waters family for lighting the spark and then fueling the flames that have put us on the path to success.                               l

Dr. Gail Gunst Heffner
Director of Community Engagement
Calvin College, Grand Rapids, MI

2 Responses to “It really was a “Watershed Awakening!” by Gail Heffner”

  1. Mary Cook

    Thank you!! In researching to attempt to work as a neighborhood within the watershed to save a Welland from destruction proposed as a 55 unit condo complex in the East gate Neighborhood located North and East of Burton and Breton Ave, I came across this website. I am wondering if your group might be able to help us. We just had a hearing tonight with the MDEQ ( ?) To oppose a permit application to develop a 3 acre wetland with mitigation to “replace” it’s removal with 10 acres elsewhere in Grand Rapids near Christian High and also the Grand River, which are already wetlands, so there would be no new truly added. I have a few questions I’d love to discuss if you or your group is able. Thank you for any information, advice or help you can offer!
    Mary Cook
    local resident of the Eastgate Neighborhood

    • Maria Brodine

      Hi Mary,
      Thank you for your comment. Unfortunately I do not have any contact information for you, but if you email me directly at I will be happy to see how we can help you or put you in touch with some people who can. You can also contact the author of this post, Gail Heffner, directly at

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