The Sprinkle Road corridor in Portage might not make you think of nature. But if you walk down Sprinkle near Meredith Street, and look between the trees, you’ll see Davis Creek. The water is clear, with something that looks like rust on top.
“That’s iron oxide coming out of a spring somewhere,” says John Cincilla, who likes to fish and keeps an eye out for waterways.
Cincilla first noticed Davis Creek not on foot but from a car. And what he saw was not the water but a sign. “Davis Creek Watershed,” it says, with a picture of a frog on a lily pad. John says he doesn’t see signs for watersheds – at least not with artwork – very often.
“Why is Davis Creek special?” he asks.
Before we get to that, perhaps you’re wondering: what is a watershed?
“That is an excellent question, I’m glad you brought that up,” says Jamie McCarthy of the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council.
“A watershed is sort of like a bathtub if you can imagine,” she says. “The edges are higher elevation and it drains down to the lowest point.”
If you pour a glass of water on the ground in the Davis Creek watershed, it’ll drain to Davis Creek, which in turn drains to the Kalamazoo River.
“Which actually ends up draining to Lake Michigan so we’re part of the Lake Michigan watershed as well,” she says.
(Figuratively a watershed is a turning point, as in, "the invention of the radio was a watershed in broadcasting.")
We might not know our watersheds. But they know us. McCarthy says everyday city life has an effect on every piece of the system.
“Sand and dirt, salts from the road, oils and greases from parking lots, pet waste, things like that that we leave around without picking up, all gets rinsed off into the waterways after a rainstorm or snowmelt in the spring,” she says.
Davis Creek has faced that kind of road gunk pollution, plus some.
John and I meet Kalamazoo County Drain Commissioner Pat Crowley at a different part of the creek near Kilgore Road. Crowley says by the 1990s, Davis Creek was one of the most polluted parts of the watershed.
“There used to be refineries and all kinds of stuff. There were fish kills, people had been fishing on it but it gradually degraded,” she says.
After people spoke out, plans to clean up Davis Creek began to come together.
“And so it’s been busy improving since that time,” Crowley says.
The water’s still polluted, but the work that’s been done has made a difference. The former Lakeside Refining site is cleaner than it was, though the groundwater still has petroleum in it. Illegal drains that had dumped human waste in the creek came out. A recent state grant targets phosphorus pollution in the creek. And some of its banks have been re-landscaped to promote a natural habitat.
Anna Kornoelje is with the Kalamazoo Nature Center. We walk down to Davis Creek where it crosses under the I-94 business loop. One way to measure the health of a creek is to see what kinds of bugs are living in it. Kornoelje says in the five years since monitoring began, they’ve seen the number of insects go up modestly.
“Last time we caught a giant water bug, which is a big predator bug. And when you’re starting to get more predators in the water and less worms and blackflies that’s a good thing. That indicates more diversity in the water and that more things are able to live there,” she says.
Kornoelje adds that the surveys don’t reveal why more bugs are turning up. But she says it likely has something to do with the work that’s been done on the banks, which now feature boulders and native plants. Kornoelje says for one thing, they keep storm water from hitting the creek fast and eroding it.
“It’s also providing a little more habitat for critters, so some of those bigger critters need a little more vegetation on banks, they need some rocks to hide under,” she says.
John Cincilla wanted to know more about Davis Creek because he noticed a sign on Sprinkle Road. Drain Commissioner Pat Crowley says the sign went up as part of one of the cleanup efforts. It was meant to tell the public – hey, this watershed exists. And John paid attention. Before we leave Sprinkle Road, he poses by the sign for a picture.