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Why every farmer should take a ride on the river

Slideshow: See what your urban counterparts are doing to improve water quality.

Editor’s note: In the fall of 2014, Greg Lake and Dan Wire took me on a boat ride on the rivers that converge in Fort Wayne, Ind. Earlier this month, we made the same boat ride, but this time with guests. Here’s a look at changes that have happened since 2014, and why education is the key to water quality improvements.

Dan Wire, an urbanite by birth and a river lover by habit, appeared on the cover of the January 2015 Indiana Prairie Farmer piloting a boat along one of the three rivers that intersect in downtown Fort Wayne, Ind. The cover story was aptly titled “River crusader.” His goal then was to educate both urbanites and farmers about the rivers, and that’s still his goal today.

“We believe it’s paying off,” says Wire, who now works with the Maumee Watershed Alliance in northeastern Indiana on various projects related to improving water quality. Three rivers — the St. Joseph, St. Mary’s and Maumee — converge in Fort Wayne, and the city of Fort Wayne draws its drinking water from the St. Joseph River. It’s processed through the city’s water filtration plant before it’s piped out to homes as drinking water.

“My goal five years ago was to educate people about how these rivers are important resources, and it’s still my goal,” Wire says. “The best way to do that is by getting them on the river. For decades, people have thought these rivers were dirty, smelly and nasty. Once you get them on the river, they can see that there isn’t any odor, and they’re not dirty. They’re not crystal blue like a lake, but there is no scum or anything of the kind on the surface. They’re suitable for lots of activities.”

People return to water

Five years ago, few people other than Wire regularly ventured onto the rivers for any purpose. Today, people canoeing, kayaking and fishing are common sights any day the weather is suitable. This change is not all because Wire has taken thousands of Fort Wayne residents on rides so they can learn what the river is really like, but it certainly has helped.

“Once they get out here, see that the river is really a pleasant place and see wildlife on the river, they’re more likely to utilize it,” he says.

And it’s not just urban people who have taken rides with Wire. Greg Lake with the Allen County Soil and Water Conservation District notes the SWCD has arranged for rides for supervisors and many farmers over the years, and continues to do so.

“Ag people need to see that their efforts in keeping soil and sediment on the land lead to cleaner rivers,” Lake says. “There is a definite connection between how land is farmed along the rivers and their tributaries, and water quality in these rivers.”

More river changes

There are other large differences compared to five years ago. Recently planted native plant species are taking hold along the banks, and it’s not by accident. “We’re following plans and implementing various practices along the riverbanks,” says Chad Shaw with Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation. “Much of this activity has occurred within the past couple of years. These rivers are great resources, and both parks staff and volunteers undertake various projects to improve the rivers.”

The city of Fort Wayne is responsible for some of the changes, too, including the large park along the riverbanks downtown. Five years ago, many people opposed or questioned the value of development along the “dirty” rivers. Today, many have changed their minds, Shaw says. The area is used by residents. A mix of residential and commercial development is already underway near the rivers as a continuation of this project.

Perhaps the largest change, still underway, is the huge undertaking to greatly minimize overflows of combined stormwater and wastewater discharge into all the rivers during rain events. By separating stormwater from sewage water, officials say there hasn’t been a discharge containing sewage overflow into the St. Joseph River, the source of drinking water, in the past three years. To make this and future projects possible has required a hefty rate increase for ratepayers.

“When people are educated and understand what is going on — both urbanites and ag people — they are more likely to support efforts to improve the rivers,” says Jerry Raynor, Indiana state conservationist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. He was one of the guests on the most recent boat ride Wire guided down the rivers.

Read more about how Fort Wayne is resolving sewer overflow issues into the rivers in this article

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