Restoring Local Creek 

Brings Diverse Communities Together

Calvin College faculty are improving the Plaster Creek’s water quality and promoting environmental justice through green infrastructure restoration, biological and social research, and community education.


West Michigan’s Plaster Creek is a 14-milelong creek that flows into the Grand River and eventually Lake Michigan. Stormwater and farm runoff enter the upper portion of the creek, causing bacteria growth to accelerate and reach dangerous levels by the time the water enters Lake Michigan. Plaster Creek consistently has E. coli levels over 50 times higher than the limit for safe human contact making it unsafe for people to swim in or drink from. In 2008, several faculty members from the local Calvin College formed Plaster Creek Stewards to address both stormwater and environmental justice issues. Plaster Creek Stewards identified three primary components for reducing stormwater impacts: green infrastructure restoration that uses native vegetation to absorb stormwater, scientific and social research, and community engagement. Plaster Creek Stewards employs low-income urban high school students who receive both classroom and job experience through assisting with restoration projects. The group is also developing partnerships between upstream and downstream schools along the creek; students from partner schools share their experiences and visit the stream in both locations to observe differences. Plaster Creek Stewards is currently working to develop similar partnerships between upstream and downstream churches. The goal of these efforts is to foster an awareness that the Plaster Creek watershed is an inter-connected social and biological community defined by a common shared resource. Plaster Creek Stewards estimates that it will take 20 to 30 years of concerted efforts with an involved and informed community to undo a century’s worth of river degradation.

Resource Challenges Addressed

  • Polluted stormwater runoff
  • Water quality degradation
  • Sediment build up
  • Erosion
  • Bacterial contamination
  • Environmental injustice


A group of 10 people stand together in front of a greenhouse

The summer Green Team initiative employed high school students who assisted with greenhouse work and with green infrastructure restoration. Photo courtesy of Gail Heffner.

Results and Accomplishments

This project is reducing the harmful impacts of stormwater on this watershed and the people who rely on it. Treating stormwater will reduce the levels of sedimentation, nutrient runoff, thermal pollution, trash, and toxic effluent in the Plaster Creek, restoring water quality and reducing bacterial contamination. This project is also promoting environmental justice by forging partnerships between upstream and downstream communities and fostering a stewardship mentality.

College student hands a plant to a young child.

The diverse community of the Plaster Creek watershed has come together to protect a common shared resource. Photo courtesy of Gail Heffner.

Volunteers plant trees

Green infrastructure restorations used native vegetation to absorb stormwater and filter out pollutants. Photo courtesy of Gail Heffner.