As Terre Haute made clear during its 2013 Year of the River observance, the Wabash is a treasure.
An astute student of the famed waterway used those words last week in a downtown presentation, “The Wabash: Indiana’s River.” The speaker, Brad Smith of The Nature Conservancy, said, “The Wabash River is really a treasure that the state of Indiana has.” Smith, the organization’s Lower Wabash and wetlands program director, described the abundant aquatic wildlife in a river that uniquely flows 411 miles undammed. Larger rivers, even the mighty Mississippi, can’t compare to the “biologically rich” Wabash, he said.
It faces man-made problems, though. Smith listed six stresses on the Wabash — change in its natural flow; high amounts of nutrients, herbicides and insecticides; pollution from Wabash communities; alternation of adjacent lands; vanishing tree cover; and invasive species. The Conservancy is tackling the hard-to-change farming practices that cause erosion and runoff problems through coalitions with farm groups, and is raising awareness concerning changes made to the Wabash tributaries and ditches that disrupt the river’s natural flow.
The leadership of the state government needs to help out, too. To be sure, former Gov. Mitch Daniels enhanced the river’s future as a diverse, breathtaking outdoor oasis by protecting nearly 45,000 acres of its watershed, including the Wabashiki Fish and Wildlife Area. That action may arguably become Daniels’ most positive lasting legacy.
Unfortunately, Indiana pays only lax attention to the pollution that finds its way into the Wabash. Indiana ranked No. 1 in the nation in the amount of toxins poured into its waterways by industries, according to a 2012 report by Environment America. More than 27 million pounds of pollutants reached Hoosier rivers and streams, said the report, which was based on the U.S. EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory data compiled in 2010 and cited by the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette. A primary repository was the Ohio River on Indiana’s southern border, but the Wabash and other streams were affected, too.