The Grand Calumet River – Fighting its Way Back to Life

By Cameron Davis

Growing up, my family and I used to drive over the I-90 “Skyway” to Pennsylvania during spring breaks. As acute as my memories are of piling into the back of our yellow Chevrolet Caprice station wagon (complete with fake exterior wood paneling), I also remember my brother, sister and I holding our noses as we reached the Skyway bridge venturing into Northwest Indiana’s airspace. We drove by the sluggish Grand Calumet River, whose flow was then infamous for being comprised mostly of wastewater from nearby manufacturing plants. The river was virtually lifeless.

 

Four decades later, and after even more time of dogged work by legislative, civic and agency leaders, the Grand Cal is fighting to make a comeback. And there are signs it’s winning the fight for its own survival.

Four years ago, on June 11, 2012, we celebrated the completion work at one of the river’s most visible assets: Roxana Marsh.

“Roxana Marsh has become a special place for local schoolchildren, both as an outdoor laboratory and as a peaceful natural area,” said Caitie Nigrelli of IL-IN Sea Grant, who helped rally local community involvement for the site.

A combination of efforts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Indiana Department of Natural Resources and Indiana Department of Environmental Management had contributed some $52 million—including funding through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the Natural Resources Damage Assessment process—to revive the area in and around Roxana Marsh. The revival involved removing upwards of 730,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment. It also involved replacing invasive, cattail-like Phragmites, with native plantings in some 25 acres of wetlands along 2 ½ miles of the Grand Cal River.

Two months ago, while driving to Kentucky for spring break, I pointed out the area to my own son and daughter. Today, a very different Roxana Marsh can be seen from the highway: budding instead of battered, alive instead of lifeless, “green,” as my kids said early this year, instead of “gross!” as my brother, sister and I uttered four decades ago.

 

 

 

 

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