TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (WTHI) - It's a sunny, breezy morning in Riverview, Ind. and Ellen Donker is sweeping off the porch of her house overlooking the Wabash River.
Donker has spent much of her life along the river: playing on its banks as a girl, fishing its channels commercially, even recovering from the destruction of flood waters.
While the river glitters below, Donker recalls how polluted the river once was.
"I can remember mother saying one day ‘Oh, we can't swim today. Get out of the water; there's human feces in it," Donker recalled.
What Donker had witnessed was the product of extensive sewage and garbage dumping, dumping which had dirtied the river. In the years since, however, that dumping has declined dramatically, thanks to tougher environmental regulations and better technology for treating wastewater.
The city of Terre Haute, for example, has expanded its wastewater treatment plant to capture and hold more water.
Before that expansion, large rainstorms would put too much dirty water through the city's sewer system, forcing the city to let large quantities of untreated water out into the river. While the bulk of that water was untreated rainwater, about 5 percent of it was sewage that had been left in lines, city officials said. By filtering that excess water, fewer contaminants make their way to the river, officials say.
"So obviously that's less debris and trash and a little bit of sewage that's been left in the line," Mayor Duke Bennett said. "Now we're capturing that, so we're able to treat it and put clean water back into the river."
Even as direct dumping into the river has slowed, other threats to river quality have remained.
Early Native Americans had referred to the river as Wapashiki, meaning something like "it runs white." That name may seem hard to imagine, given the river's brown tint.
"The … big issues facing the river currently are soil erosion and fertilizer/chemicals … that form algae blooms which give it the brown tint you see when you look at the Wabash River," said Stanton Lambert, executive director of the Wabash River Enhancement Corporation in the Lafayette area .
Much of that runoff comes from agriculture, but conservationists say newer farming techniques like no-till farming, drill planting and two-tiered drainage ditches have helped reduce river pollution.
They also point out that farms are not the only sources of chemical and soil run-off and that urban lawn and garden care can cause problems as well.
"If you look at the poundage of fertilizer that's placed per unit of land, homeowners put a lot in their yard to keep (it) green," said Kent Womsley of the Nature Conservancy in Indiana.
Experts point out that there are plenty of ways to limit or avoid that runoff like rain gardens which capture and consume rain water or rain barrels that store rainwater for use in gardens. Each option helps keep rain water from running across heavily-fertilized lawns or flowing through sewer systems.
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