Kevin Haight, President Two Rivers Coalition

It’s easy to love the Paw Paw River — cold water running over gravel bars, huge floodplain forests, its myriad clear tributaries. But it’s hard to generate enthusiasm for the river’s final tributary, Ox Creek.

Ox Creek rises in the farmlands of northern Berrien County. It runs past the county’s first mall (now nearly empty), through Benton Harbor’s old industrial area, then slowly oozes into the Paw Paw River just above its confluence with the St. Joseph River. This little stream suffers from the same water quality problems that afflict many Midwestern streams. Farm soil and nutrients wash into the creek. Storm water, laden with petroleum products and road salt, rolls from acres of nearby paved parking lots into the creek. Factories have rerouted Ox Creek to suit their own needs. As a final indignity, the MDEQ has determined that Ox Creek is impaired for most uses.
Ox Creek may not be an easy stream to love, but the mission of Two Rivers Coalition (TRC) is to promote better water quality in the entire Paw Paw and Black River watersheds – not just the pretty parts. So we rolled up our sleeves, gritted our teeth, and joined several partners in a pilot project that focuses on Ox Creek.

One of these partners, Berrien County Conservation District, has sponsored a series of workshops for farmers on management practices that reduce sediment run-off, such as sowing cover crops to prevent winter erosion, installing vegetative buffer strips that filter run-off before it enters streams and drains, adopting no-till farming practices that create healthy soils, and restoring wetlands. Another partner, local engineering firm Wightman and Associates, has focused on the storm water problem by converting one of its large, unused parking lots into the biggest rain garden in Berrien County. TRC volunteers have also begun to monitor Ox Creek for E. coli bacteria.

Southwest Michigan Planning Commission (SWMPC) coordinates the Ox Creek project. It has facilitated community-wide discussions on ways to transform the decaying mall and nearby commercial area into a multi-use zone that meets modern needs, while drastically reducing run-off from vast parking lots. TRC has advocated for Ox Creek during these meetings, encouraging people to think of it as a natural stream system and not just a drain past the big box stores.

I first began to feel affection for this neglected, impaired, abused stream when Marcy Hamilton of SWMPC and I explored portions of Ox Creek by kayak. We expected the worst: industrial waste, toxic algae, people’s trash. What we found instead took us completely by surprise: miles of quiet stream flowing through marsh and woodland ecosystems, supporting a series of beaver dams and lodges!

The takeaway here is that any stream may be redeemed, no matter how unattractive and unappreciated it is. Ox Creek is a reminder that every stream in southwest Michigan is important to the environmental health of the huge watershed to which we all belong, the Great Lakes Basin.