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A city runs through it: Growing up on an urban river

Written by Rod Lammers, a 2017-2018 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph. D. Candidate in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

A city runs through it: Growing up on an urban river

I grew up on an urban river – the White River that flows through Indianapolis. Indiana isn’t a state known for its natural beauty, and not without reason. We have no mountains or oceans, and just a sliver of a Great Lake. Like many places in the Midwest, we are more defined by our farm fields than our natural features. We do have rivers, but unfortunately, many are neglected, dirty, and often forgotten.

When I was nine, a state biologist came to my street to release fish into the river. I helped, carrying slippery, young catfish, bass, and bluegill from their buckets to the water. These fish had to repopulate the river after four million1 of their relatives were killed months earlier by a chemical spill. Luckily, fish kills are relatively rare but other pollution still plagues the White River. It receives all of our – mostly treated – waste. But, when it rains, the system is overwhelmed and raw sewage spills directly into the river. Oil and salt from roads wash in with every storm. Fertilizer from farms and lawns causes algal blooms; every summer there is a new outbreak of an invasive water weed that roots in the muddy river bed and thrives in the nutrient-rich water2. I’ve spent days pulling the plants to curb the epidemic, only to have them return weeks later. A sick system is hard to heal.

In my lifetime, I’ve seen many changes on the river. When I was younger, we used to skate on the ice when it froze. Lately, winters haven’t been cold enough. The river is also getting shallower. Water is slowed by a downstream dam, causing silt to settle and accumulate on the river bottom. The White River used to be called Wapahani (“White Sands”), a far cry from the muck-bottomed river today. Floods, too, seem more frequent, caused in part by the spread of the suburbs upstream. As more and more houses are built, the spongy ground is paved over and rain washes straight into the river. You don’t have to live within sight of a river to affect it. Rivers are often compared to the veins on a leaf; but rivers are really the whole leaf, because everything that happens on the leaf (the watershed) affects the river3.

After college – instead of looking for a job – I took a three day canoe trip down the White River. I paddled through several cities and drew some strange looks. I also portaged around at least ten dams, most of which had outlived their useful life. Dams have a lot of negative impacts4, but what struck me on this trip was just how boring they made the river. Behind a dam, the water was still and slow, the bottom mucky. Away from the dams, the river was free to move, make sand bars, trap trees, speed through riffles. This was much more fun as a canoer but – more importantly – it was better for the river and the fish, birds, and mammals who live there. I saw a beaver smack the water with his tail, a coyote stop mid-stream to stare me down, a fox dart up the river bank as I rounded a bend, and a snake resting on a partially submerged tree. Despite everything we have done to the river, nature was still hanging on.

Almost every city has a river. And almost every urban river has been neglected, polluted, and forgotten. But that is changing. We are starting to recognize that these are valuable resources – for drinking, for fishing, for swimming, and for enjoying. It has taken time but we are finally turning our attention back to our rivers. The White River fish kill spurred interest in protecting and restoring the river – not unlike the Cuyahoga River fires which galvanized the federal government to pass the Clean Water Act in 1970. Indianapolis is working to reduce the amount of sewage that flows into the river after every rain. Citizen action groups are engaged and working to improve water quality and river access. We are putting more sponges back into cities to slow and filter runoff. Most importantly, people are starting to return to their rivers, and they want to protect what they care about. The tides appear to be turning.

Every time I go home, I swim in the river. It’s partly nostalgia for my childhood but I think it’s mostly an affirmation of the river itself. I want it to know that I don’t think it’s too dirty, too polluted, too overgrown to love. I want to experience how it has moved, changed, shifted, flowed, and recovered since I was last home. And that is the best lesson it’s taught me. That urban rivers – if given the chance – can recover. They can be home to fish and birds and beavers and humans. So why don’t we give them that chance?


[1] Schneider, Justin. 2010. White River fish kill: 10 years of recovery. The Herald Bulletin.

[2] Milz, Mary. 2012. Invasive weed clogging Indiana waterways. WTHR.

[3] Credit to fellow student and SLF fellow Dan Scott for this analogy.

[4] Read more about the impacts of dams by former Sustainability Leadership Fellow, Natalie Anderson:


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