Twenty years ago, a chemical discharge in Anderson contaminated the White River and killed millions of fish — an unforgettable site of environmental devastation that impacted miles of river ecosystem all the way to Indianapolis. Much progress has been made since that massive 1999 fish kill as the region worked toward supporting a cleaner river. Yet, much still needs to be done.

For the past three years, 13 local nonprofits — many of which have worked on behalf of the White River for years or decades — have come together to improve water quality and access to the White River under the Partners for the White River collaborative. With a $5.5 million investment from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust, the Partners have increased awareness of, and stepped up efforts to protect the rivers and streams that provide our drinking water and helps fuel our economy.

Your river needs everyone’s help

In September, the Indianapolis Star ran a series of articles and videos about the watershed’s water systems and their challenges. It reminded us that our drinking water, stormwater and combined sewer systems have, for a century, been tied to the same river. Raw sewage and polluted runoff from lawns, streets, farms and industrial sites dump into our waterways, making the water dangerous at times to even touch — and making it harder and more expensive to clean before it is delivered to our faucets. With climate change and more frequent severe weather events, our waterways will see more erosion, associated pollution and flooding into the future. These waterways aren’t just crucial for people; they are also home to diverse wildlife and unique plant species. We are facing a critical time of action that requires everyone’s help.

What efforts are underway?

In addition to advocating for public policies to protect rivers and streams, the Partners for the White River are educating residents, neighborhoods, businesses, municipalities and elected officials about the role of water in our daily lives and ways to improve water quality. We’re working with neighbors to improve the habitat around waterways to limit flooding, support wildlife and open up views to the river. We’re working with Indiana farmers to reduce field runoff when it rains, with policymakers to reduce risks from power plant waste, and with municipal leaders on more sustainable stormwater practices.

The Partners are also developing a vision for the future of the White River and increasing access to it through trails, greenways and raft outings. We are having community conversations about how a healthy river can become the next frontier in building a livable Central Indiana, with connected parklands and destinations like dining, recreation and respite along its banks.This placemaking and public engagement work includes making sure that historically disenfranchised neighborhoods have a voice in the future of the White River.

What can you do?

We can’t have a truly clean river through these efforts alone. It requires broad collaboration among residents, businesses, organizations, government agencies and elected officials. Here’s how to help:

• Pick up trash and pet waste on the ground, no matter where it is, as it all washes into the river

• Reduce chemical use (fertilizers and pesticides) on lawns and fields

• Plant native trees, shrubs and other plants on your property and along streams and rivers to filter stormwater

• Get inspired by the beauty of the river by visiting one of the many parks, trails, neighborhoods, and destinations along it

• Install green infrastructure (such as rain gardens) to conserve, clean and reuse rainwater and recharge well water sources

• Remove invasive plants and install deep-rooted native, pollinator-friendly plants to improve habitat and water quality

• Sign a pledge to take positive actions and measure the impact at http://indiana.clearchoicescleanwater.org/

• Get involved in activities with one (or more) of the Partners for the White River

• Speak out about local and state policy and legislation that impact our waters

• Tell your friends and neighbors how they can help

Cleaner water doesn’t just bring us a step closer to safe recreation on the White River. Clean water is critical for everything we grow, eat, cook, wash and manufacture — it really is our most valuable resource. As we approach the 20th anniversary of the devastating fish kill, we must better understand our role in securing the future of our water. It requires taking steps, both big and small, in our lives.

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