In this first installment of a two-part series, we examine how local officials and Indiana State researchers are studying the Wabash River and Riverscape efforts. The next installment in August will look at an Indiana State alumnus’ efforts to clean up contaminated drinking water in Kenya.
A few hundred steps from the fast-moving Wabash River, crews are busy turning the site of a former meat packing plant into a new Indiana State University track and field facility.
As geese paddle near the riverbank at Fairbanks Park, where eagles are known to soar, student researchers collect water samples. Their work is part of an effort to determine how the river — the longest free-flowing waterway in the eastern U.S. — has evolved in the face of climate change and shifts in the way Terre Haute and other communities use the waterway.
“For too long, we treated the river as a sewer,” said Charlie Williams, ’70, who serves as president of Wabash River Development and Beautification. “We’re more environmentally and ecologically aware now.”
Williams said his involvement in preserving and developing the riverfront is driven by “quality-of-place” concerns.
The Terre Haute where Williams grew up lined the Wabash with factories and, in the 1950s, built a wastewater treatment plant near the current route of Interstate 70. After heavy rains, the city still sends raw sewage into the river, but a $150 million project is in the works to change that.
Changing attitudes toward the river in recent decades have culminated in Riverscape, a project championed by Williams and other community leaders, seeking to utilize the Wabash as a way to instill greater community pride by taking advantage of Terre Haute’s most under-utilized natural asset.
“Riverscape is transformative for the image of the community, to its citizens, to Indiana State students and faculty and to outsiders,” Williams said. “Terre Haute is a city that is transforming its river and its riverfront, a city that is embracing and restoring the natural wetlands and making them a place of recreation and sustainability, a city that is cleaning its air and its water, and a city that will help its colleges and universities thrive and become laboratories for its betterment and a model for others as well.”
Gibson Track and Field is part of Riverscape and part of a long-term university plan for a riverfront athletics complex. It is being built on the site of one of the greatest tragedies of Terre Haute’s industrial history, a Jan. 3, 1963, explosion at Home Packing Co. that killed 17 people and injuring more than 50 others.
Development of Indiana State’s West Campus is one of several goals set forth in a 10-year Riverscape development plan. Others include a network of trails connecting Terre Haute with West Terre Haute, the Wabashiki Fish and Wildlife Area and St. Mary-of-the-Woods; new and expanded city and county parks; and restoration of two pavilions at historic Fort Harrison.
Riverscape proponents also envision fishing tournaments, runs, walks and bicycling for fitness buffs of all skill levels.
Indiana State is and will continue to be “incredibly important” in Riverscape, Williams said.
“Indiana State has been a leader in urban renewal in its part of town. Now, there is urban renewal happening elsewhere, and we have the very unique opportunity across the river with Wabashiki to couple nature with civilization,” he said. “The university has become a tremendous neighbor and team player and has invested money to help us fund our work.”
Indiana State students also helped create the Riverscape plan, Williams noted.
Increasingly, the university is turning the river and its environs into an outdoor learning lab.
For several years, Jim Speer, professor of geology and geography, and other faculty members, have taken students to Wabashiki to measure trees, look for wildlife and take soil samples as part of field work for the classes in soil genesis and classification and conservation and natural resources.
Each year, about 700 students in environment classes visit Wabashiki, working in groups to complete research projects based on samples they collect there. Several laboratory activities in the department of earth and environmental systems also directly study streams and water quality in the Wabash River.
Students under the direction of Jeffery Stone, assistant professor of environmental geosciences, and Jennifer Latimer, associate professor of geology, are investigating the river by examining diatoms, microscopic freshwater algae that are highly sensitive to changes in climate and nutrients.
“If we want to look at modern river quality, we can look at the diatoms in the water today,” Stone said. “If we want to see what’s gone on in the past, we can examine diatom fossils.”
Stone and Latimer are working with history and geography faculty to tie changes detected from fossil records to historical events, and are studying the geochemistry of sediment in the river and nearby areas.
Weekly water sampling by students such as Erica Memmer, a sophomore biology major from Oakland City, is a key part of that effort.
“It’s awesome,” Memmer said of the opportunity to conduct research at such an early stage of her college career. “I’m learning lab and research skills that I will definitely use, and it’s interesting to learn new techniques. It makes me more confident.”
Memmer, a pre-medicine student, is a participant in the university’s Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) program, which provides students with more in-depth experiences than they are able to receive during the school year.
Indiana State’s department of earth and environmental systems has a history of exposing students early to research, Stone noted.
“At least a quarter of our students come into a lab when they join the department. That means they get practical experience, and they can actually go out into the field and apply techniques,” he said. “Student researchers take ownership of projects. It changes the way they view science. It goes from being, ‘I’m working on a project for somebody else’ to ‘I’m working on my project.’”
Weekly sampling of the Wabash by Memmer and other students began in May and recently received a boost when Latimer received monthly data on Wabash River quality dating to 1990 from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.
Because the Wabash frequently floods, depositing its contents elsewhere, researchers want to look beyond the waterway itself.
“One planned project is to try and look at lakes and reservoirs that are adjacent to the river,” Stone said. “Lakes are sedimentary archives, low areas in the landscape where sediments collect, and there is usually no way to escape. We can analyze how those systems changed over time and utilize those to get a sense of what’s been going on historically. Ideally, we would try to get a 200- or 300-year record from the lake sediments.”
It is possible to obtain such a record by taking samples from lake sediments and dating them, he said.
Because the research has just begun, it is too early to assess the river’s past or current quality, Stone said.
“People have a perception that the Wabash is relatively dirty or unhealthy, and I don’t think we necessarily know that,” he said. “The brown color that people see in the river is actually sediment and diatoms, and they’re not unhealthy. They’re things fish eat.”
Despite the early stages of research, there have already been surprises, according to Stone.
The city of Terre Haute’s Maple Avenue Park, site of a former strip mine and landfill, “is a relatively clear system,” he said. “The reclamation project they’ve done is pretty good.”
By contrast, the site of a former paper mill on the city’s southwest side, might be expected to be relatively clean, but it turned out to have high levels of lead, likely because of its proximity to an old auto salvage yard and to Interstate 70, Stone said.
“You can see the transition in the record where lead levels drop off when cars started using less lead,” he said.
Other heavy metals are also present in older sediments at the site, added Latimer.
As excited as he is about the potential for Riverscape to improve Terre Haute’s quality of place, Williams is also pleased by the research Indiana State professors and students are conducting.
An early Riverscape goal was for the development of an environmental learning center on the west side of the Wabash.
“We still have hope that can happen,” he said. “As a community with four colleges and an excellent public school system, there’s an opportunity to not just be a hub for learning in the area but maybe in the entire Midwest.”