News From Terre Haute, Indiana

News Columns

June 14, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Protecting the Wabash and ‘clean water all the way’

TERRE HAUTE — The only things missing were a volleyball net and a campfire.

Otherwise, the setting fit all the criteria of an NFL game-day TV commercial — a warm sandy beach, glistening waters, a cloudless sky, and smiling people munching on a mess of fresh fish cooked by an expert. For the thirsty, there were coolers full of cold beverages. (Soft drinks and water, for those wondering.)

Daytona? Malibu?

Try the Wabash River.

Too few locals have seen this fabled, much-maligned waterway from the perspective provided to a couple dozen curious souls Tuesday afternoon during a celebration of the Healthy Rivers INitiative’s second anniversary. The formalities included comments by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, and various other speakers praising him for triggering the project, which will eventually protect 43,000 acres of wetlands and wildlife areas, including the centerpiece — the Wabash River and its watershed. In return, Daniels thanked federal agencies, conservation groups such as The Nature Conservancy, and grassroots organizations like Riverscape and the Wabash River Heritage Corridor Commission for illuminating the value of the oft-ignored Wabash.

As he spoke, Daniels stood at the spot where most Terre Haute residents get their only exposure to the river — Fairbanks Park. With that backdrop, the governor said during a brief ceremony, “That’s about as pretty a sight as any available in Indiana.”

Less than an hour later, after the crowd at the park dispersed, I realized the governor, with all due respect, was wrong. Actually, the Wabash offers plenty of other postcard-caliber scenery along its 500-mile path, including the most famous segment flowing through Terre Haute and Vigo County.

A trio of vans carried a couple dozen willing souls from Fairbanks Park to the Michael Hunter Kearns Public Access Site near Tecumseh, a few miles north of Terre Haute. From that ramp on the river, a flotilla of fishing boats and airboats ferried a couple dozen willing souls to a large sandbar. As we climbed ashore, a cluster of folks surrounded Bud Montgomery, who was frying Asian carp — yes, those weird, leaping, unwanted fish — in the middle of the sandbar.

The demonstration was intended to spread the word about the problems created by that fish species that invaded the Wabash a decade ago, migrating here through the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. But this forum on the sand also highlighted the resilience of the Wabash. Over the decades, man has subjected it to pollution, neglect and now a foreign fish species that devours its algae and plankton — the crucial first layer of the river’s food-chain.

And yet, there was the Wabash, graciously entertaining its human guests once more, as if nothing had ever happened, showing off its hidden beauty under spectacular June sunshine.

Most of us avoid getting too close to the Wabash for various reasons. Indeed, it definitely should not be approached without proper safety precautions and permission. Others worry about its water quality, a significant yet misunderstood concern. For some, visiting its banks is too much of a hassle.

The trip to that sandbar Tuesday was special. The dry weather exposed more of it than usual, said Chuck Adams, senior donor relations manager for The Nature Conservancy Indiana Chapter. The sandbar hugs an S-curve in the Wabash, where the only signs of civilization are utility lines and towers on the horizon above the opposite shore.

“I don’t think many people — even if they’ve lived their whole life in Terre Haute or the suburbs — have ever seen what the river looks like,” Adams said as small waves rocked one of the arriving fishing boats. A majority of those folks, he added, have “certainly not been on the river in any capacity.”

Aside from the presence of numerous dignitaries Tuesday — including two mayors, a state legislator, the directors of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and The Nature Conservancy Indiana Chapter, and John Goss, the Asian carp “czar” for the White House Council on Environmental Quality — the moment on the Wabash was routine for Montgomery.

Others may see the Wabash as an unknown, but not Montgomery. “I was raised on it,” he said, grinning beneath a straw hat. “It’s been there. They’ve just never been to it.”

Representing the Vigo County Parks and Recreation Department, Montgomery blackened and deep-fried the Asian carp at the sandbar cookout. He knows Wabash River fish. His 80-year-old dad, Arbie, runs a legendary fish market in West Terre Haute. Often behind the grill at pancake breakfasts and other Parks Department events, Bud said matter-of-factly, “I can cook about anything.”

The thought that his entree on Tuesday was Asian carp from the Wabash might, alone, scare some folks. For me, the second and third bites came much easier than the first. I’ll admit to hesitating before chewing that first Asian carp nugget. Other than a few scattered fish bones, the morsels tasted light, flaky and good.

A month ago, a Purdue University professor who studies the Wabash explained to me that water-quality problems along the river are primarily localized. The Wabash, he said, is actually cleaner than its muddy appearance indicates. It has pollution issues, no doubt. As statistics from The Nature Conservancy state, seven fish and 18 mussel species once native to the Wabash have vanished. Land developments and draining, deforestation and wetlands loss, sedimentation and pollution have degraded the water quality and wildlife diversity, according to the conservancy. But progress is happening.

Daniels contended that the Wabash, and the air above it, is cleaner “than it was when I was a kid.”

Once those 43,000 acres along 93 miles of the Wabash’s watershed are fully protected, nature lovers who experience the river up close “will be in clean water all the way,” the governor assured.

Later, at the sandbar gathering, which Daniels was unable to attend, Larry Clemens — an official at the Efroymson Conservation Center in Indianapolis — offered a measured assessment. Thinking back to the adoption of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972, Clemens said, “We’ve come a long ways. It’s been an improvement, for sure.

“I think,” he added, “we have a ways to go.”

Then, he and others boarded a departing fishing boat and headed upstream.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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