TERRE HAUTE —
Few people know the Wabash River as well as Tom and Lisa Baer.
They have lived literally on the banks of the Wabash for 20 years, with their home just yards from the rippling water’s edge.
From their living room window, the Baer’s can see the river flowing past their backyard every day and night. The water is visible for about a half-mile to the north and to the south from their windows.
“In my den, every night’s a night on the river,” Tom Baer said.
Tom Baer has loved the river all his life and introduced Lisa to it when they were dating back in the 1970s. They have raised their two daughters, Crystal and Becky, along the river and taught them both to appreciate and enjoy what it has to offer.
“We’ve seen some really odd birds. We’ve seen swans,” Lisa said. “Bald eagles,” Tom added.
Lisa’s love of the river is expressed in an as-yet-unpublished book she has created. The book contains dozens of pages of colorful and artistic photographs of the river from Clinton to New Harmony. It also contains some of Lisa’s thoughts on the river and what it has meant in her life and the life of her family.
“I first ventured out on the Wabash River in the late 1970s in a small boat that was piloted by a young man with long blonde hair, cut off blue jeans and a summer tan that came from spending hours on the river under the Indiana summer sun,” Lisa writes in the first pages of her book. “Because we were in love, he shared the special space with me. In doing so, he opened my eyes to an undiscovered world that had been part of my town all along, but which I had never really noticed.”
The Year of the River in Terre Haute, a city-wide effort to better appreciate the Wabash, has given a lot of people a chance to notice the river. As with Terre Haute itself, many believe the Wabash has an “image” problem, and is not given enough credit.
The Nature Conservancy, a world-wide environmental organization, has definitely taken note of the river, launching its “Wabash River Initiative,” an on-going project to focus environmental resources and attention on the river because of the life it supports and the impact it has on other bodies of water.
“The Wabash is a treasure chest of rare and endangered species,” the Nature Conservancy states on www.nature.org, the organization’s website. In explaining the importance of the river, the organization notes it is home to 151 fish and dozens of mussel species. The river valley is also a migratory fly-way for birds headed to the Great Lakes each year. The Nature Conservancy estimates between 250 and 300 birds visit the lands and waters of the Wabash watershed each year.
The Wabash River “defines Indiana,” said Brad Smith, lower Wabash and wetlands program director for the Nature Conservancy office in Indianapolis. Most Hoosiers live in the river’s watershed, which provides drainage for 73 of the state’s 92 counties, he said. “It’s a huge portion of what Indiana is.”
Few people understand the dangers and challenges facing natural waterways, such as the Wabash, better than Dennis Evers, a microbiologist and public health engineer who has been interested in recycling and protecting water all of his adult life. Now in his 70s, Evers runs a global business that helps companies and municipalities manage waste and save millions of gallons of water in the process.
Evers, co-founder of VOW Resources and a Terre Haute resident, has developed a waste recycling system that transforms waste into energy, clean water and high-quality animal feed. His system can save manufacturing facilities, such as those making food or paper, millions of gallons of water per day, he said.
“It’s so easy,” Evers said. “We have the system and the process to do that economically.”
Before breaking out on his own with VOW Resources, Evers was a river inspector in his native England. In the 1970s, he would often visit industrial plants that used English rivers as giant dump sites essentially, he said. One plant in particular used to make quick changes in its waste disposal system when Evers appeared at the front gate, he recalled. Eventually, using a friend who was a sewer inspector, Evers caught them in the act.
“We got ‘em,” Evers said. “That’s the sort of thing they did.”
While the Year of the River is designed to increase awareness and appreciation for the river among folks in Terre Haute, The Nature Conservancy is working on improving the river’s overall health. One strategy is to help farmers find ways to reduce agricultural runoff into the river, Smith said.
Farmland dominates the Midwest, including land around the Wabash River. The Nature Conservancy would like to find ways to slow farm field runoff so sediment, fertilizers and other chemicals are less likely to end up in the river. Ideas include using cover crops, no-till and strip-till farming and “two-stage” drainage ditches, which better capture solids in water, he said.
According to Evers, the brown color of the Wabash near Terre Haute, making it difficult to see more than few inches into the water in many cases, suggests that the river’s ability to accept solids through drainage from side streams and agricultural operations, is maxed out. That can endanger “the spawning sites of aquatic organisms that are essential to the microbiological balance of a clean river,” Evers said.
“Also, such murkiness reduces light penetration which can also affect the efficiency of oxygenating algae and flora that take up the nutrients such as nitrates…resulting from agricultural runoff during storms,” Evers said.
The Nature Conservancy’s Smith agrees the murkiness of the river, which becomes darker the further you travel downstream, “has been greatly increased through the intensive [urban and agricultural] land use.” Species in the river can tolerate a certain amount, but the amount in the river now “has exceeded the capacity of many species to survive and call the river home,” he said.
Despite that, the Nature Conservancy believes the Wabash is in “pretty good” condition compared with other rivers in the Mississippi River basin, Smith said.
“We think the Wabash River has a lot of good things remaining biodiversity wise,” he said.
The longest free-flowing river east of the Mississippi, the Wabash ranks as one of the most diverse rivers in all of the United States, according to the Nature Conservancy.
Mussels are an important indicator of the river’s health, according to the Nature Conservancy’s Wabash River Project report. Mussels filter the water, which means they are also the first to suffer from chemical contamination and other problems. In the Wabash, about 55 percent of native mussel species have vanished, Smith said, adding that, while that sounds distressing, compared to some other rivers, it’s not bad.
The water in the Wabash is not just a matter of concern in Indiana, Smith noted. A large “dead zone” exists in the Gulf of Mexico due to excess nitrogen entering the gulf from river systems in the Corn Belt, he said. Sadly, the Wabash River is one of the largest contributors to excess nitrogen in the entire river system, Smith noted. That affects not only aquatic life in the gulf, but the people who fish for a living there.
“Their livelihoods are being directly impacted by what we are sending down the river,” he said.
Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or email@example.com
Care For It
Six major stresses that harm the Wabash River as a habitat and natural resource for plants, animals and humans.
• Changes in natural water flow
• High nutrient, herbicide and insecticide levels
• Localized problems with pollution from cities
• Alternation of land adjoining the river
• Elimination of tree cover along the river
• Non-native species
Source: The Nature Conservancy’s 2007 comprehensive biological assessment of the Wabash River.