How do we do it? How can we make our globe and our global society resilient to the challenges of today and tomorrow? How should we think and act in disciplines as diverse as ecology, religion, politics, hydrology, ethics, agriculture, economics, sociology, technology, and sustainability?
In this blog, Goshen College faculty and staff will explore these issues, inviting discussion with any who choose to participate. Be part of the conversation!
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.