News From Terre Haute, Indiana

December 21, 2013

EDITORIAL: Turning point for the Wabash

2013 river observance sets standard for future

The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Twenty-five years from now, community-minded people will use 2013 as a blueprint for progress.

They’ll fondly recall it as the year the Wabash Valley rediscovered its roots — the Wabash River. Residents learned about the wildlife living in and around their fabled waterway, brushed up on its history, paid close attention to its cleanliness and potential sources of pollution, and put aside phobias to enjoy its recreational value. Energized artists depicted its scenery. Musicians composed and recorded songs inspired by it. Lifelong citizens recalled childhood activities on it. Historians lectured about it. Scientists and biologists taught about it. Engineers, public officials and outdoors groups devised bridges, trails and facilities in its parks and wetlands. Festivals, seminars, art exhibitions, trash cleanups, rafting, boating, fishing, cookouts thrived on its banks.

The 2013 Year of the River celebration, organized by a trio of local arts groups, reminded Terre Haute that it possesses a real, tangible natural asset — the Wabash — and that its quality reflects on the community, either positively or negatively.

Let’s hope a quarter-century from now, locals will see 2013 as the year Hauteans and their neighbors committed to treating the river as a ticket to a greater quality of life. Let’s hope the dreams and goals set back in ’13 are vibrant realities in 2038.

But will our actions today really matter a generation from now? Absolutely. That reality was one of the many lessons from the Year of the River. As the year began, Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett outlined a fitting initiative for the city to create a 1.5-mile recreational trail along the riverside. It would hug the east bank of the Wabash from the south end of Fairbanks Park to Interstate 70, opening up a new opportunity for walkers, runners and cyclists to exercise on the scenic bluff overlooking the stream. It would be built atop the old Dresser Drive.

A problem cropped up, though.

Lead contamination was discovered on a 39-acre plot of land, given to the city at no charge by a local business. That plot of ground stands a half-mile south of Fairbanks Park, in the middle of the proposed trail. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determined the contamination risk from the acreage was too great to allow the trail to cross it. So, until the mess is cleaned up, the city will have to settle for building a half-mile trail. The EPA is trying to determine the “responsible parties” for the dumping of hazardous materials on the site going back several decades.

Several decades. The community in 2013 is now living with, and paying for, the consequences of irresponsible behavior decades ago. Our dreams for enhancing the riverside are being altered — limited — by those deeds.

With that negative lesson in mind, the community should resolve to implement the positive visions unveiled in the 2013 project. By the end of next year, a sculpture honoring Terre Haute composer Paul Dresser and his Indiana state song, “On the Banks of the Wabash (Far Away),” will be in place near his boyhood home in Fairbanks Park, thanks to Wabash Valley Art Spaces Inc. and local residents who’ve donated to that effort. Ideally, a pedestrian bridge, attached to the existing eastbound Dreiser Bridge, will come to fruition soon, too. And the new Indiana State University track and field complex on North First Street. And the trailhead for the Wabashiki wetlands at Dewey Point in West Terre Haute. And a pedestrian bridge over Third Street. And public-access ramps every 10 miles along the Wabash south of Terre Haute. And a wide-scale, no-till farming promotion to curb runoff from fields.

If so, folks here in 2038 will consider the Year of the River a turning point, a time when the town regained its pride, and got its groove back.