The White River as it flows through downtown Indianapolis
White River The White River as it flows through downtown Indianapolis © Matt Williams/TNC

Stories in Indiana

The White River Journey to Renewal

The Nature Conservancy is part of a partnership to improve and protect the White River, which runs through Indianapolis.

Dreaming of the clear water and white sand of the Gulf of Mexico can be a pleasant diversion on a cold Indiana day. For the water that flows into your home and nourishes the food you eat, that journey to the Gulf isn’t just a fantasy.

About 30 percent of Indiana’s population—2 million people in cities including Indianapolis, Anderson, Muncie, Noblesville, Fishers and Carmel—live within the Upper White River Watershed. The waters of the White River flow to the Wabash—the largest river in Indiana—and ultimately to the Gulf of Mexico, carrying unwelcome souvenirs downstream: nitrogen and phosphates from agricultural fertilizers, cattle waste and polluted urban stormwater runoff. Only 1-7 percent of the water flowing into the Mississippi is from the Wabash, but that water contains a disproportionate 11-17 percent of the nutrients that make it to the Gulf of Mexico.

Extremely elevated phosphorus and nitrogen levels in the water lead to harmful algal blooms where the river meets the Gulf. Those algae use up the oxygen in the water, meaning immobile species like shrimp, clams and oysters can’t escape and will die; this year’s “dead zone” is projected to be the size of New Jersey. And the irony is that those same species serve as filters for the water, exacerbating the long-term consequences of poor water quality.

That direct connection between what happens on agricultural lands and in cities in Indiana and the Gulf is the focus of Partners for the White River, a new effort with nine organizational partners dedicated to raising awareness about the river’s journey and what everyone can do to give it healthier passage.

“The White River is the leading contributor of nitrogen to the Wabash within Indiana, which is the second highest contributor of nitrogen to the entire Mississippi Basin,” says Mike Dunn, Director of Indiana Freshwater Conservation Programs. “The partners bring diverse ideas and skills, and The Nature Conservancy is uniquely positioned to offer our global perspective to help accomplish the local goals we have set together.”

With a generous $4.9 million grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust, the Partners for the White River are launching a multi-faceted project including public art installations, new recreation options and community engagement programs to inform and empower residents to improve the health of the river. “The value of a clean and protected White River to our communities, wildlife and economy cannot be overstated,” said Kent Agness, a trustee with the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. “The work to be accomplished through the Partners for the White River will significantly improve water quality while allowing more people to enjoy the river and become involved in protecting it for the communities and wildlife who depend upon it.”

Over the next three years, The Nature Conservancy will lead three key strategies in this collective effort. We will:

  1. WORK with the agricultural community to increase the adoption of soil health practices such as planting cover crops. Only 1-3 percent of the agricultural land in the White River watershed is planted in cover crops that support nutrient reduction, compared to about 10 percent for the rest of the state.
  2. PRODUCE educational radio segments in Indianapolis to draw the connection between the decisions we make in the city to the health of the river and the Gulf so people are empowered to learn more and be a part of positive change.
  3. ENGAGE decision-makers, such as county commissioners, mayors, state legislators and others, to support water quality efforts. State budgets have not prioritized natural resources protection for years—and it is clear that our rivers are suffering.

“Our hope is for people living in central Indiana to better understand how they are connected to the White River and change behaviors to benefit its water quality,” says Dunn. “We all play a role in ensuring a healthy future for our own communities and everyone downstream.”