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updated: 9/4/2012 9:09 AM

South Bend hopes to transform polluted creek

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Associated Press

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Industry, urbanization and illegal trash dumping have made Bowman Creek one of the St. Joseph River's most polluted tributaries.

But that doesn't necessarily mean the stream, which winds through much of the city's south side, is a lost cause.

South Bend officials see Bowman Creek as a potential centerpiece for recreation and redevelopment in blighted neighborhoods. Staff and students from Riley High School and the University of Notre Dame also have taken an interest in studying the creek and raising awareness about it.

"Everybody sees it as an impaired natural resource and great potential in turning it around," said Gary Gilot, the city's acting director of public works. "Usually, waterfront property is the most popular, valuable land in a city. This has been pretty degraded."

Bowman Creek starts near Madison Road and U.S. 31, and flows north from there, reaching South Bend city limits in the area where the St. Joseph Valley Parkway crosses Ireland Road.

It continues past AM General's proving ground on Chippewa Avenue and through south-side neighborhoods before emptying into the St. Joseph River just west of a former Veterans of Foreign Wars post on Lincoln Way East.

City officials are focusing on the creek's final two miles between the area south of Kaiser Park, at Ewing Avenue and Green Tech Drive, and the river, the South Bend Tribune reported.

Several sections of that stretch were diverted decades ago into underground storm sewer pipes. One part, for example, flows underneath the parking lot and football field at Riley High School.

One problem with the creek is it doesn't have a consistent flow: It runs fast, causing erosion, during heavy rains; it doesn't run at all during dry spells.

An empty streambed has proved to be a tempting place for people to dump garbage. And the enclosed sections have proved to be optimal for harmful bacteria, as measured by the presence of E. coli, to thrive.

City officials held a meeting with south-side residents in 2010 to present the concept of creating a linear park with biking and walking trails alongside Bowman Creek.

The idea includes "day lighting" most of the creek. That means redirecting its flow from sewer pipes to an aboveground path built to meander in a way that would mimic a natural creek and include areas with deep pools where fish could survive during periods of heat and drought.

City officials agreed in December to spend $150,000 toward restoring the creek as part of an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency to cut the amount of sewage that flows into the St. Joseph River.

The Indiana Department of Natural Resources gave the city a $56,000 grant last month to study ways to improve the creek as a habitat for fish.

That $206,000 isn't enough to fully restore the creek, of course, but Gilot said it's a start.

He said it's too early to know how much it would actually cost to restore the creek and build the linear park -- and city officials haven't committed to doing any of it -- but it's a realistic goal if planned well and coordinated with other city projects, such as road and sewer upgrades and vacant housing demolition.

Kaitlin Maggiore, a Notre Dame junior and member of the team studying the creek, said part of the effort needs to include educating people to treat it better.

Otherwise, the mechanical engineering major from Lombard said, "It's kind of like a never-ending cycle. If it doesn't look like something that should be respected and revered, people treat it like a dump."

Ben Brubaker, a Riley engineering teacher, said students are excited about the prospect of restoring the creek.

"It would beautify our campus and the surrounding neighborhood," he said, "and I think it could provide some interesting outside learning experiences for students."

Nearby residents, however, emphasized that people need to feel safe before they're going to bike or stroll next to Bowman Creek.

Jimmy Scales, who for 45 years has lived on Indiana Avenue next to where the creek enters Ravina Park, said people are scared to walk the streets in his neighborhood.

One reason, he said, is vegetation surrounding the creek in Ravina Park is so overgrown that it's become a haven for criminals.

"Clean it up -- I think that's the biggest thing. It'd be a beautiful place," Scales said. "I'd prefer to see an improvement in the park rather than a sidewalk if nobody's gonna use it."

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