News From Terre Haute, Indiana

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October 31, 2013

Water is focus of sustainability speaker

TERRE HAUTE — The Our Green Valley sustainability conference of 2013 started with a splash Thursday in more ways than one.

First, it was raining throughout the entire first day, putting a damper on some outdoor activities, but not hampering the many educational sessions taking place inside the Hulman Memorial Student Union building at Indiana State University, where the conference is continuing today.

Second, the keynote speaker, Betsy Damon, is all about water. Or rather, water is all about her and everyone, she told about 35 people attending the opening session in the Sycamore Banquet Center.

Water became Damon’s “obsession” a quarter century ago when she saw a dry river bed in Utah, she said. Since then, she has studied, worked with and advocated for water her entire life.

So far, Damon’s most-celebrated achievement as an artist and environmentalist has been the Living Water Garden in Sichuan, China. Working with local officials, Damon helped Sichuan erect a six-acre urban park that provides a spot for education and recreation and that uses natural plants and aeration to clean millions of gallons of polluted river water each day.

“I was hidden because you’re not supposed to work with foreigners,” she said of the project, which became a model for numerous other cities around the world.

Damon believes that a complete change of perception is needed to preserve healthy water and the life it supports. Dams, drainage systems, bottled water production, urbanization and other human factors have destroyed natural water systems, she said.

“The actual catastrophe is upon us,” Damon said. “We all have to change our need to have things be simple and predictable.”

After a short tour of Terre Haute earlier in the week, Damon praised the local community for the Wabashiki wetlands. She noted the importance of the Wabash River in the history of Terre Haute. The river helped promote the growth of the city, but also became a dump for city waste, she said.

“The river is a fabric that’s connected to everything else,” Damon said. Converting a river into a place people “want to hang out,” is a positive goal. Making it a place to build expensive housing is not, she said.

Among other things, Terre Haute could reduce the load on its wastewater treatment plant by building more bioswales, which are natural drainage systems that remove silt and pollution from stormwater runoff, Damon said. The city could also promote the building of more rain gardens and might even be able to help clean the Wabash River with the help of the Wabashiki wetlands, she said.

“It might be good to set up a few model areas here that would be models for other cities,” Damon said. “There’s no mistake in trying. The only mistake is not trying.”

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or arthur.foulkes@tribstar.com

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