Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Exploring a Community through a Common Resource - Canoeing the Elkhart River

In a society that so prizes individualism and private rights, it is easy to forget how many things we hold in common.  Air is the primary example.  It is easy to forget about air since it is largely invisible and we really only feel it when it moves around or is polluted.  Water seems more tangible. Yet, to those of us who are fortunate enough to live within the watershed of the five great lakes, where rain, groundwater, and surface water are all abundant, it is even possible to forget how much human and non-human life are depending upon and using this common resource. 

This past weekend 17 students and two professors from Goshen College took a “Sustainability Canoe Trip” to explore the communities of Goshen and Elkhart from the perspective of the Elkhart River.  This 48 mile long unassuming river rises from the “lake country” of northern Noble and southern Lagrange counties in Indiana.  Its two branches converge before it runs (generally northwestern) through the city of Goshen before it enters the St. Joseph River in the City of Elkhart.  Though many bridges carry people on county roads and highways over the Elkhart river, it seems to go largely unnoticed.  The purpose of this trip was to notice.  What does the river look like? What plant and animal life are using this river corridor for food and shelter?  How are the human residents of these cities making use of this common waterway? 

Aerial view of the land between Goshen and Elkhart
One of the surprises about this trip is how wild the river feels.  Driving between Goshen and Elkhart on US 33 you are assaulted by a barrage of strip malls and suburban sprawl.  A look at an aerial photo, though, does reveal large portions of the land in residential and agricultural use and there is a forested riparian greenway along much of the length of the river that gives the canoeist a very scenic experience.  Because humans are heavily using so much of this land, this riverway is an important wildlife corridor.  Certainly, there lots of herons, kingfishers, and ducks all long the river’s length.  We also saw mink, beaver, turtles, fish, and hawks on the trip.  The wild feel of the river is most impressive as you approach downtown Elkhart.  Despite the industrial heart of Elkhart surrounding the river, there is a large riparian corridor all the way until you reach downtown Elkhart where we had to portage around a dam and the river ways become solid concrete.

Goshen's new retention basin to treat the CSO water
Despite the trees and wildlife, though, there were lots of signs of human usage of the river.  Storm drains abound.  The city of Goshen now has a retention basin so its combined sewer overflow (CSO) is treated at the wastewater treatment facility before it is released into the Elkhart.  The city of Elkhart still has CSO entering the river in many locations.  Many of the residents have pipes drawing water from the Elkhart to irrigate their lawns and many manicured lawns come right down to the river edge suggesting that the river is washing away the fertilizer and herbicides that are used on these lawns.  There is a lot of evidence of people trying to protect their land from the ever-changing river.  Piles of concrete blocks or stone walls are used to try and stem the eroding river banks, often with limited success.  We also encountered people fishing in the river and many of the shoreline residents had boats and docks along the river suggesting a recreational sharing of the river.

On this trip, each canoe was given a “stakeholder” or group of people who would have interest in the river and they were supposed to view the river with those eyes and take photos of things that might be important to this group.  Some were open space advocates, some were highway engineers and others were farmers.  It was interesting to see how different the river might appear depending on ones interests and needs. 

I came away from this trip marveling again at the “ecosystem services” that the natural world provides that we so often take for granted.  As we go happily about our day; taking showers, flushing toilets, fertilizing our fields and lawns, this river is always there, -largely out of site - carrying away our waste, bringing us water we need for our fields and industries, and even draining the water off the land so we can plant our crops.  I am more thankful for this little river and hope that we will all pay a little more attention to this precious common resource. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your perspective on this trip. It is certainly important to remember this common resource that affects all of us in ways we don't often consider. Indeed, the river is the reason Goshen, Elkhart, and the other towns along its course exist where they are!
    One feature of the river that impressed me in particular was its unifying properties. Of course, it physically unites Kendallville, Ligonier, Benton, Goshen, and Elkhart, but I think it also played a large role in unifying our group. We started out as a diverse mix of faculty and students in different class years with various majors. But after a day on the river, I saw us become a remarkably cohesive group.
    In fact, I observed the same thing on the Sustainability Semester in Residence canoe trip last year ( I am thankful for the Elkhart River, and I look forward to the future expeditions it will hold!