Juday Creek is a peaceful little stream that cuts through a portion of northern St. Joseph County.
Legally classified as an open drain, the 12-mile creek begins in farm fields in Granger and meanders west across the Grape Road corridor, Warren Golf Course near theUniversity of Notre Dame and through some South Bend neighborhoods before with the St. Joseph River.
The creek affects many in the area, from residents who fish or live on the stream, to scientists who study it extensively, to the very fish and wildlife that populate it.
And, with a 14,700-acre watershed, what the community does impacts the creek, too -- in good ways and in bad.
Indeed, the creek faced threats from a nearby Superfund site, pollutant runoff from public and private land and the necessity for creek bed reconstruction because of the development of the Warren Golf Course.
But in the past two decades, efforts by county officials, students and faculty at Notre Dame, and others have put the creek's health at the forefront of rehabilitation efforts. Through their work, the creek has bounced back from sediment and other erosion problems in the 1980s and 1990s -- and scientists are hopeful of a promising future.
One concerned resident is William Klem, who has lived on Juday Creek since 1957. He contacted The Tribune in January asking about possible pollutants in the creek from the Superfund site on Douglas Road, just east of Grape Road, and how they affected the fish population.
"I don't see fish in the creek anymore," Klem said. "I don't remember the last time I've seen salmon swimming in the fall."
It's true the salmon numbers have decreased, but those studying the creek are finding other fish, native to this area, growing in promising numbers.
Klem's house is downstream from the former Uniroyal and Ball Band dump site. According to Tribune archives, a report years after the original chemical dumping estimated hundreds of thousands of of hazardous waste, many of which are known carcinogens, were dumped into the former gravel pit over a 25-year period.
The "Superfund site" designation comes from a federal program under the Environmental Protection Agency begun in the early 1990s to begin repairing damage to sites such as this one on Douglas Road.
According to Tribune archives and reports from the EPA, remediation began in the Douglas Road area around 1994, after contamination was detected in groundwater and wells for 15 homes nearby. These homes were connected to Mishawaka city water by 1996, and work to contain and ultimately clean the contamination began around the same time.
The EPA worked with residents who were concerned about contaminating the creek, according to the EPA's website. A filter strip was installed to help keep undesirable materials out of the creek -- one of the first of its kind used in the region, and contrary to original plans to direct water runoff into the creek.
Every five years since the remediation began, the EPA issues a report with updates. The most recent report, issued in September 2012, states that the remediation is working.
"These results show decreasing concentrations in onsite monitoring wells as well as in off-site wells, demonstrating that groundwater extraction and treatment is progressing towards achievement of cleanup goals," the report stated.
Ron Hellenthal, a retired biology professor at Notre Dame, said he hasn't found pollutants in his tests, conducted for many years before and during the remediation.
"I would have expected to find pollutants in my tests (if the Superfund site was releasing them)," he said.
Hellenthal added that if it weren't for bacteria, the creek would be clean enough to classify as drinking water.
In fact, Hellenthal said he's least concerned with problems from the Superfund site harming the fish population. What he's most concerned with are oxygen and sediment levels in the creek.
"Those could keep the fish population low," he said.
Fish and sediment
Hellenthal has researched Juday Creek since practically his arrival at Notre Dame in 1977. He still works with students from his office in the Gallivan Science Building, though his work with the creek hasn't been extensive since 2002, when a study on the fish population was concluded after construction of a new creek bed on the golf course, he said.
Arriving here fresh from the University of Minnesota, Hellenthal was an entemologist, or a scientist who studies insects, with a specialty for aquatic insects and their habitats. He began looking around for a location to continue his research.
"One that seemed like a good research site was Juday Creek," he said. "There are only a couple of trout streams in Indiana, though officially it's a drainage ditch and under the jurisdiction of the (St. Joseph County) Drainage Board."
Hellenthal and his students began studying the energy flow of streams -- how energy makes its way from the plant life to insect life, and from insect life to the fish.
One of the biggest events during his observation of Juday Creek was maintenance and other improvements done on the stream in the mid-1980s, he said. These improvements, among other actions, greatly altered the water and habitat, and caused an 85 to 90 percent reduction in the amount of insect-based food in the part of the stream that cuts through the Izaak Walton League on Darden Road near the Laurel Road intersection.
This wasn't caused by a pollutant, such as a contaminant from the Superfund site, Hellenthal said, because tests would have shown some species completely gone while others remained unaffected.
Instead, it was a habitat change, he said, because he didn't see a reduction in the number of types of insects present, but rather just the number of insects in general.
"Everything was still there, but at much reduced numbers than had been before," Hellenthal said. "(The sediment and silt) made much less of the stream usable for species that couldn't tolerate it."
"As soon as we showed him, and definitely to his credit, the data that was having big impact on organisms in the stream, they stopped almost immediately," Hellenthal said.
McNamara said efforts were taken to strengthen the stream's banks from eroding further. And the management plan and Juday Creek Task Force were established by 1995, according to a Michiana Area Council of Governments fact sheet. The management plan set forth guidelines to take care of the creek as a natural wildlife habitat -- meaning only tree limb removal and no dredging, unlike in other regulated drains in the county.
According to John Law, survey technician for the surveyor's office, many groups, including the St. Joseph River Basin Commission, the Drainage Board, of Juday Creek and the Juday Creek Task Force, have studied the creek.
"The biggest concerns found were pollution entering the creek from storm drains, stream bank erosion, sediments and the lack of fish and stream-bottom insect habitat (the insects that feed larger life, such as fish, in the creek)," Law said.
However, stopping the habitat changes didn't bring back the insect and fish populations, Hellenthal said. By then, more individuals had begun affecting the creek as it passed through their backyards in such ways as taking down trees near the creek edge or otherwise changing plant life, causing more erosion.
With this in mind, recommendations had to look at the whole stream, he said.
"The problem was not going to be resolved with just stopping maintenance work. (We were) going to take a whole stream approach," Hellenthal said.
It was around this time that Notre Dame came up with plans to construct Warren Golf Course -- and parts of Juday Creek would be rebuilt.
Flow in fairway
The construction of a new creek bed was a "unique position" for Hellenthal, he remembered.
With the construction of the course near the creek, Hellenthal and others proposed using it as an opportunity to construct "idealized channels" for the creek -- what would be best for the creek in a perfect situation.
Hellenthal said the university hired a stream restoration company and the creek was reconstructed in such ways as to help purify the water and provide a chemical runoff-free pathway for the creek.
Maps provided by Mike Brueseke, lab manager for Notre Dame biology professor Gary Lamberti, show that the creek was reconstructed in two sections, moving portions that would cut through two fairways into stream beds constructed to the north in arcs that eventually connect back to the original stream.
Hellenthal said the downstream conversion, near the 18th hole fairway, was converted to an "amenity stream," which just recycles water through a series of pumps -- done directly just to protect the stream, he said.
Because of fertilizer, they couldn't keep that water connected to original stream because they didn't want runoff in the stream. None of the amenity stream water mixes with Juday Creek, he said.
"This was the perfect opportunity," Hellenthal said. "It was like an experiment -- if we rebuild the stream, will the life come back?"
After the stream construction finished in 1997 and the water flowed, Hellenthal studied the creek for five years to see the how life in the creek did -- or did not -- change. From 1997 to 2002, he and his students and staff took samples, monitoring pesticides and other chemicals.
He said they sampled creek water both when it entered the Notre Dame property and when it exited -- and found no chemical contamination from the Notre Dame property.
Though the monitoring of the creek in this way ended in 2002, Lamberti's lab still kept fish population data, Hellenthal said. This data has shown the growth of native fish, and especially silt-intolerant fish -- meaning the creek's water and habitat are improving.
"I think this stream is one of the best understood streams, at least in this part of the country," Hellenthal said. "People have tried to protect the stream."
"What this did do," he added, "is it actually showed that it's possible to improve streams in an urban environment, but it does take a long-term commitment."
Silt trap filled
There are still things that could be improved when it comes to helping Juday Creek. A silt trap that was constructed in Warren Golf Course to help with silt and sediment levels hasn't been emptied in years, according to Notre Dame graduate student Patrick Shirey, who has studied the creek for years.
In an early March visit to the golf course and creek, a Tribune reporter and photographer saw firsthand that the trap, which would have been at least six to eight feet deep when empty, was so full that the creek water was only a foot or two above the pile of sediment.
Hellenthal said that the trap is supposed to be emptied annually after someone from the university calls the county, but that no one has really done that since he retired. McNamara said county staff hadn't heard about the full trap, or they would have been out to clean it.
Shirey, who has studied the creek for around five years for his dissertation, would ideally like to see it treated more like a stream and less like a drainage ditch, considering goals set by the watershed plan and the desires of those who value the stream as a habitat.
This would mean things like continuing watershed efforts to reduce the input of some pollutants, like fine sediment; conducting restoration projects to repair previously damaged or abandoned portions of the stream; improving public education efforts; and encouraging the native fish species while reducing the stocking of non-native species.
ND lab manager Brueseke also mentioned educating homeowners along the creek, and encouraging "buffer strips" where residents would allow native grasses and other plant life to grow to help slow erosion.
"The buffer strip is more than appropriate between someone's property and creek. It definitely helps, though it might not be as aesthetically pleasing," he said.
As a South Bend native, Brueseke takes a personal interest in the creek.
"Growing up in South Bend all through high school, I didn't have a good appreciation for rivers and streams in the area," he said. "I've done a little bit of outreach, talking in some classrooms about the creek, and kids are really entertained by that. I think we should be reminding kids that just because you're driving over a creek every day doesn't mean it's empty or there's no fish life."
Meanwhile, county officials are counting on future grants for creek reconstruction.
Law, a technician with the county's surveying office, said two Lake and River Enhancement grants from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources will go to rebuild parts of the creek bed that were once straightened out. They total $168,000, he said.
The grants will restore the natural meanders in stretches of the creek near the east side of Indiana 933 and the Toll Road, as well as the section between Ironwood and Douglas, Law said. The reconstruction will also remove some ponds that are causing thermal pollution by raising the temperature of the creek.
McNamara said that prior to his time at the helm of the surveyor's office, the creek was dredged and straightened -- destroying natural habitat.
"(Putting the meanders and curves back in) really helps the fish and other things grow and prosper," McNamara said.
Law said there is continuous vetting of construction projects within the watershed. And according to McNamara, all of the construction projects within the watershed are given a recommendation from the Juday Creek Task Force, which reviews possible impacts and gives a recommendation to the Drainage Board.
"The Drainage Board works with existing and all new developers of property along the creek to leave natural buffers and environmental easements along the creek, and all public work projects involving the creek goes through extensive environmental reviews involving multiple county, state and federal agencies," Law said.
Staff writer Amanda Gray: firstname.lastname@example.org 574-235-6209