Embracing a Treasure: White River

IMM photo

by Thomas P. Healy

The White River watershed is Central Indiana’s defining geographic feature. Since the founding of Indianapolis, the river has gracefully served as a source of drinking water, recreation, wildlife habitat, and greenspace. Yet the community has also taken it for granted, and this ambivalence has led to decades of neglect and pollution.

 A growing number of community service organizations, neighborhood groups, environmentalists, river advocates, and business leaders are striving to change the city’s relationship to the river. They recognize that the community needs to shift its attention and embrace the natural asset in our midst. A series of initiatives are under way to achieve this goal.


The Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust is fostering a stewardship ethic by committing $5.5 million to Partners for White River, a group of Central Indiana nonprofit organizations participating in a three-year initiative to protect and restore the northern headwaters of the river in Marion and Hamilton counties.

According to David A. Hillman, a Pulliam Trust program director, the initiative commenced in 2017 with three objectives: “We want to make the water cleaner, make the watershed more accessible, and help people understand and appreciate the importance and value of the White River watershed,” he said.

Hillman said the grant emerged out of a recent strategic planning process for the limited lifespan trust that was established in 1997 upon the death of Mrs. Pulliam. “We have 30 years left and want to be as impactful as possible,” he said. As a result of the strategic plan, the trustees decided to increase environmental funding and selected a diverse group of nonprofits for the partnership: Central Indiana Land Trust, DaVinci Pursuit, Inc., Friends of the White River, Hoosier Environmental Council, Indiana Humanities Council, Indiana Wildlife Federation, Indianapolis Art Center, Keep Indianapolis Beautiful (KIB), Reconnecting to Our Waterways (ROW), The Nature Conservancy, White River Alliance, and Newfields.

Water quality is an important focus for the partners. “If you’re going to encourage people to access the river, it’s going to have to be clean,” Hillman said. “We can’t overlook the $2 billion Citizens Energy will invest in the deep rock tunnel project to address the combined sewer overflow problem that we have. That will go a long way to improving water quality.”

Another element is collaboration. “We’re all trying to do this together, coming at this from all different directions and working in tandem with state agencies and other government agencies and local communities,” Hillman said. David Forsell agrees. “The Pulliam Trust gift was an important marker. It was something that enabled organizations to have the breathing room to be able to dream together,” he said. “That was a remarkable gift.”

Forsell wears two hats in the Partnership: as executive director of KIB and volunteer co-chair of ROW. KIB brings ecological value and community value by undertaking White River watershed habitat restoration and creating native public landscapes. ROW’s contribution will be to monitor projects, devise metrics, and keep track of project effectiveness. “Metrics are crucial and keep us honest and help us understand the impact we’re having,” Forsell said. “That’s crucial for ROW and now more broadly for Partners for White River. We understand the goals we aim for and keep ourselves accountable.”

Photo by Dennis Faulkenberg

Kevin Hardie, executive director of the Friends of White River, Inc. (FOWR), said the diverse group of partners assembled by the Trust is meaningful for the river as a whole. “These groups could have been competing for a set amount of money but with the Trust’s approach, collaboration is a key element. It shows a lot of leadership by the Pulliam Trust.”

FOWR’s mission is engagement, inspiration, and action, and that’s the role they play with the partners by scheduling riverbank cleanups and taking people on canoe rides. “We’ve conducted 21 trips since last spring,” Hardie said. “We’re good at getting people to and on the waterway and make sure they enjoy it safely. When people discover the river, they can enjoy it and the river gains a broader base of protection and stewardship for it.”

Map courtesy Newfields. CLICK TO ENLARGE.

One of the newest partners is Newfields, which is represented by Jonathan Wright, the Ruth Lilly Deputy Director for Horticulture and Natural Resources. “The big problem for us is that the river is eroding the bank on the north side of the Virginia Fairbanks 100 Acres Park,” he said. The site was originally part of the floodplain and cleared for farm fields. In the 1960s a quarry was created and the excess soil from the site was pushed to the river to keep the quarry dry. “When they were done, they cut a hole in the bank of quarry to create a lake, pushed the mud back up to seal it off, and then gifted the site to the IMA,” Wright said. “A damaged site, left to its own devices, doesn’t necessarily improve over time,” he added. “We did some work to the bank but the erosion problem we mitigated 10 years ago has moved and now is in unsafe condition. The trail is steep and we’ve had to block that passage on the back side of the lake until we can address the issue.”

Wright said Newfields approached the Trust about a grant for the work and instead was invited to join the Partners. “They’re very supportive,” Wright said. “It’s so forward-thinking to pull together all these players across the watershed and pool knowledge resources. That way we won’t duplicate efforts and we can learn from one another.”

Renderings for an observation deck at IAC courtesy of V3 and SWT Design. CLICK TO ENLARGE

Another Midtown arts partner is the Indianapolis Arts Center, which used funds from the Trust to hold a planning charrette and create a vision to guide a multi-year effort to transform the 9.5-acre ArtsPark on the White River into a cultural gateway. “We brainstormed about how we can become a more artful third space,” said Emily Leiserson Hunter, the Arts Center’s director of development. “We see our role as having the potential to bring more people to the river, increase awareness and environmental stewardship, and offer a place where they can enjoy the river in multiple different ways,” she said.

The Hoosier Environmental Council (HEC) is another Midtown-based partner. Executive director Jesse Kharbanda says HEC brings a focus and expertise on what he describes as the White River watershed’s two greatest threats to water quality: “waste from factory farm operations and coal ash. We want to protect the river from toxic threats,” he said. “We appreciate that the Trust is willing to think big on scale about reducing water pollution and improving water quality.”

HEC is working upstream from Noblesville on another project that the Trust has supported, the Mounds Greenway—a proposed 2,300-acre linear park between Anderson and Muncie. “If we can keep this forever a conservation area, then we will be helping continue the progress we’ve seen in the healing of the river since the Guide spill,” he said. In 1999, more than 1.6 million gallons of contaminated water from the auto parts manufacturer’s wastewater treatment plant made its way into the White River and killed an estimated 5 million fish. A record $14.2 million judgment was levied against Guide, with the money used for river cleanup.

Kharbanda emphasizes the importance of keeping the entire White River watershed as naturally preserved as possible. “We think that’s not only smart environmentally but also economically,” he said. Given volatile weather patterns and the fact that what happens upstream affects water quality downstream, HEC is happy to support the revitalization of the entire corridor. “We’ve got to reorient to the river, but we’ve got to make sure it’s in a careful and sustainable way,” Kharbanda said. “It’s not wise to put commercial and residential properties in the 100-year floodplain.”

All agree there are multiple community benefits from a renewed engagement with the White River. Earlier this year, the Trust’s David Hillman attended a waterway conference in Nevada and came away energized. “There were attendees from all over the country discussing proven models of what happens when rivers and waterways are improved,” he said. “There are lots and lots of benefits: an economic development component, a wellness component, quality of life components. You hit several of these when you improve waterways.”


In January, state Senator John Ruckelshaus sent a letter to his legislative colleagues in central Indiana, extolling the virtues of the White River and asking them to explore opportunities to enhance and transform the waterway. “The White River is one of Indiana’s most underutilized assets,” Ruckelshaus said. “I’m calling on my fellow lawmakers to be bold and join me in shaping the future of the White River and turning it into one of Indiana’s greatest resources.” [PDF]

In March, the White River Caucus held its inaugural media event at the Statehouse and announced support for the goal of a master planning effort for the 58-mile stretch of the river from downtown Indianapolis to Noblesville. Afterwards, Ruckelshaus took a few minutes to describe his vision. “There is so much change in the membership of the General Assembly—we’re going to have basically whole new leadership in the state senate—and anytime there’s change you have opportunity,” he said. “People are more cognizant of the environment today, cognizant of quality of place and connectivity,” he said, adding, “People do want some kind of a natural habitat to claim as their own.”

In addition to the enthusiasm of his legislative colleagues, Ruckelshaus says the state’s chief executive is also on board. “I’ve talked to Governor Holcomb about it and he absolutely gets it,” he said. Part of the attraction is that the State of Indiana will not carry the financial burden alone. “A lot of times people come to the General Assembly and say ‘OK, we’ve got this great idea, you fund it.’ This is different because we have a lot of stakeholders involved.”

The stakeholders who joined the White River Caucus at its inaugural meeting include the City of Indianapolis Department of Metropolitan Development, the Central Indiana Community Foundation, Visit Indy, Hamilton County Tourism, and the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.

“When you’ve got local funding, then the private sector will step up,” he said. ”As you redo the waterway, clean it, and add connectivity with trails, that’s going to attract development.” But Ruckelshaus is quick to point out that this does not mean it’s going to be commercialized all up and down the corridor. “It’s going to be pockets: trails, housing, commercial, or maybe just the river itself,” he said. “It won’t be one seamless thing.”

“This is an all-hands-on-deck approach” to funding, he said. “Federal, state, local, philanthropic, private dollars—everybody is going to be in on this.”


On May 3, Mayor Joe Hogsett joined tourism allies from Marion and Hamilton counties and Sen. Ruckelshaus at the Indianapolis Art Center to announce the selection of Cambridge, MA-based Agency Landscape + Planning as the lead firm for a year-long master planning effort for the 58-mile White River corridor from downtown Indianapolis to Noblesville. [PDF]

“We’re no longer just thinking big about the White River,” he said. “We’re acting big.” The assembled team of nationally recognized landscape design firms – such as DAVID RUBIN Land Collective, and local firm Ratio Architects – would collaborate with the public on crafting a blueprint for the White River’s future. “Their task will be to transform the White River from a natural asset to a true community asset for generations to come, creating an ideal destination for all people and enhancing the surrounding area’s quality of life,” he said.

Hogsett called the master planning effort, “Our legacy. Because we are moving forward as a united front to guide our regional growth, Central Indiana will be defined as a healthy, inclusive, and connected community through the 21st century and beyond.”

Along with the Nina Mason Pulliam Trust, Visit Hamilton County and the City of Indianapolis, Visit Indy, is helping to fund the master planning effort. Chris Gahl, Senior Vice President of Marketing & Communications said the city’s tourism agency sees the White River corridor as being the kind of attraction that would get people to extend their stay. “Research shows that visitors want to interact with water and be on water,” he said, “And we have this natural asset but it’s not fully being utilized.”

Gahl points to the recently completed Tourism Master Plan that describes where Indy tourism should be by 2025. “We spent two years asking key stakeholders their thoughts on how could Indy tourism benefit by 2025. Armed with two years of research and feedback from 2,200 people, we emerged with a handful of key priorities that both tourism, philanthropic, government and non-profits thought we should steer in same direction. One of the handful was better activation of White River.”

That’s why the White River is a top priority for Visit Indy. “Our visitors spent on average 3 days and with better activation of White River year-round we could also increase the length of stay and the share visitors with counties north, south, east and west.” Moving the White River from the background to the foreground of the city’s efforts to improve local quality-of-life and attract both residents and visitors is not limited to downtown. We don’t want to set boundaries to activation of White River,“ Gahl said, “We want to inspire a better way to activate the River.”

A series of public meetings will be scheduled to solicit public input. Details and updates are available at: mywhiteriver.com


Rendering of Broad Ripple Park river bank cross-section by Context Design for IndyParks. CLICK TO ENLARGE

Midtown neighborhoods are ready to help activate the river and the timing of two recent efforts couldn’t be better.

In March, Context Design, a Fortville-based planning firm, was hired by the City of Indianapolis Department of Parks and Recreation to lead a master planning effort for one of the city’s signature parks: the 62-acre Broad Ripple Park. A series of public meetings, one-on-one interviews with key stakeholders, and a community advisory committee contributed to the process. On May 23, the firm unveiled the proposed Master Plan that sketched out a four-phase guide for the next 20 years of the park’s evolution.

The Park’s beloved dog parks could be split into two separate areas based on canine size. The 18-acre woodland area could grow to 23 acres which would expand the parks’ substantial tree canopy. An outdoor aquatics center could provide both a splash pad and a “lazy river” amenity next to a reconfigured and expanded community center. A proposed “event street” through the park could accommodate Broad Ripple’s popular farmers market –

With the White River defining the Park’s western border, that aspect came in for close scrutiny. Riverfront enhancements like overlooks, terraced river edges, bank stabilization, boat access and launch, and pathways could occur in the first eight years.

If every aspect of the vision is implemented, the cost could be upwards of $65 million. As IndyParks director Linda Broadfoot said, “These plans don’t come with a checkbook.” The consultants also contributed a business plan for park operations to help defray expenses. Both the Friends of Broad Ripple Park and the Broad Ripple Village Association expressed support for the plan and hope that it will be adopted by the Parks Board and eventually added to the City’s comprehensive plan. View the entire plan at broadrippleparkmasterplan.com

Plans for the park also included accommodation for the Broad Ripple RiverWalk, a 30-year long aspiration to strengthen the connection between the park and the Village proper. In May, the Broad Ripple RiverWalk Task Force (of which this writer is a member) met with representatives of the City of Indianapolis Department of Public Works to discuss a project agreement as part of the Indy Neighborhood Infrastructure Partnership. The novel grant program was established by DPW in December. 2017 to award nonprofit community-based organizations matching funds for feasible neighborhood infrastructure projects that enjoy community support.

DPW has conditionally awarded the Task Force’s fiscal agent, Broad Ripple Village Association, $774,800 for the project. In order to receive the grant, matching funds must be raised and other conditions must be met. “This grant is for the “basic” needs in re-configuring Broad Ripple Avenue to accommodate a safer, pedestrian/bicycle pathway between Broad Ripple Park and the village,” said Task Force co-chair, Brad Warnecke. “The estimate for a trail, as the task force and the community have envisioned, will be closer to $3 million.” He added that the short-term goal is to raise $127,000 by August 1 to begin more detailed engineering work to finalize cost estimates, as required by DPW. “We have a big job in front of us,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the June/July 2018 issue of the magazine.