In the United States, impoverished populations, especially urban and rural communities of color and Native American tribes, often bear the worst effects of environmental degradation. Disinvestment and a history of marginalization mean that communities may be forced to live in impaired, unhealthy environments for decades or longer. Those who can afford to move away, do—further shrinking the tax base and the community’s ability to help itself.
NOAA’s Office of Habitat Conservation is helping to advance environmental justice in underserved communities through grants funded by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act. In Benton Harbor, Michigan, NOAA is supporting a collective effort to revitalize the city by restoring Ox Creek. The creek—which runs through the city center—was once a place to fish and play. Now, it has largely been abandoned by residents due to pollution and other damage.
With $1 million in funding, NOAA’s partners, in collaboration with the city, will:
- Create a restoration plan for Ox Creek
- Complete a pilot restoration project
- Fund a new city position to manage restoration and cleanup projects and engage the community in planning efforts
Project partners are supporting the city to create plans, obtain community input, and find collaborators and additional funding to advance restoration efforts and other city improvements. This effort is part of the federal government’s Justice40 Initiative to invest in disadvantaged communities overburdened by pollution.
“It is so important for NOAA, and ecological restoration professionals in general, to explicitly incorporate environmental justice into our work,” says Greer Harewood, NOAA Great Lakes Habitat Restoration Specialist. “By investing in environmental justice, we’re investing in a future where swimmable, fishable waters, green spaces and parks, and healthy places to live, are readily accessible to everyone. Conversely, if we are not considering environmental justice, then we run the risk of widening the divide between those who have access and those who do not.”
- Southwest Michigan Planning Commission
- Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy
- Department of Housing and Urban Development
- Army Corps of Engineers
- University of Michigan
Legacy of Neglect
Benton Harbor was once an affluent city with about 19,000 residents and abundant jobs in auto parts manufacturing and other industries. By the late 1960s, however, factory closures and racial tensions caused many citizens to abandon the city. Today the majority African American city has only about 9,000 residents and a per capita income of $15,629. Most Benton Harbor residents are out of the workforce, with the majority being 18 or younger, older than 65, or on some form of disability.
With a dwindling tax base, the city has twice been under emergency financial management by the state. In order to get out of debt, decisions were made to break 30-year water contracts, sell off assets, cut services, and eliminate city jobs, including the entire parks department. Without investment, Ox Creek and the adjacent Hall Park, the city’s oldest park, fell into disrepair.
“We consider the restoration of Ox Creek to be one of the most critical keys to the revitalization of the city,” says Assistant City Manager Alex Little. “It’s important from a community health perspective and for attracting new residents.” Little and other city officials want to restore the creek and create a recreational corridor with a bike path, creek crossings, and outdoor gathering places. They also hope to build new homes and upgrade housing for current residents, many of whom live in rental properties owned by absentee landlords.
“In the city, the creek is actually in a beautiful ravine with wooded floodplains and wetlands,” says Marcy Hamilton, Deputy Executive Director of the Southwest Michigan Planning Commission. “We’ve even seen evidence of beavers in the area—you’d never know you were in the city. Every time I go to a meeting about Ox Creek and Hall Park, the community just has such fond memories of both.”
Much work is required to bring the creek back to conditions where the community can enjoy it again. “Ox Creek has been polluted and degraded for at least 75 years,” says Little. “There’s fertilizer and other run-off from agriculture coming into the watershed. There was a nickel plating operation and other industries along the creek that fed chemicals and heavy metals into the ground for years. Those industries are long gone but their legacy contamination remains.”
As a result of development upstream, the creek also floods city parks, including a baseball field where the famed House of David barnstormers played in the early 1900s. Commercial retail areas along the creek have thousands of acres of impervious surfaces like parking lots and roads. When rain hits those non-absorbent surfaces, the water is directed into Ox Creek, causing the flow to rise rapidly. This erodes the creek banks and churns up sediment that smoothers aquatic life. Illegal dumping has also become a problem.
Creating A Better Future
In 2021, the city passed a resolution to prioritize the restoration of Ox Creek. At the same time, the state and federal governments made more funding available to support environmental justice initiatives. Project partners reached out to NOAA for assistance in applying for a grant for the city.
“I’ve worked here for more than 20 years and this is really the first time I’ve seen Benton Harbor be able to apply for some of the grants because a 25- or 50-percent community match isn’t required,” says Hamilton. “It’s been great to have Greer Harwood as our NOAA technical monitor,” says Emily Finnell, Great Lakes Senior Advisor and Strategist for Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. “She’s very encouraging and is helping to connect us to other resources and ensure we’re mindful about how gentrification could affect the community.”
While the city hires the NOAA-funded project manager position, the partners and the city have included the community in the planning process through public meetings and volunteer events. “People here are really passionate about improving their community and they have these very personal connections to Ox Creek,” says Finnell. “There’s a real opportunity to harness that energy and bring more people to the table so that the restoration plan reflects the values of the community.”
“A huge part of our program at the NOAA Restoration Center is working alongside communities to develop and implement restoration projects that are in line with community goals,” says Harewood. “Through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act funding and the Justice 40 Initiative’s focus on underserved communities and environmental justice, we’re able to remove some barriers to allow more people to engage, to implement their shared vision, and to sustainably benefit their local habitat and communities.”
In addition to restoration planning, NOAA funds will cover:
- Outreach efforts to educate the community about the project
- Develop outdoor education programs and recreational activities for children and adults
- Create volunteer opportunities to help with cleanup and restoration efforts
The team is working with GEI Consultants and the Army Corps of Engineers to collect data and develop models that will inform the restoration plan. This will include repairing instream and creekside habitat and addressing flooding issues and other impairments. They will seek additional funds to carry out additional restoration work, build the recreational corridor, and clean up polluted sites. A pilot restoration project will build off previous efforts to repair the creek channels and banks near Hall Park.
“This is hopefully the beginning of an incredible story about transforming a community that has been neglected for decades,” says Finnell. “It could serve as a model for collaboration between all levels of governments, diverse stakeholders, and community-based organizations in cities around the Great Lakes and the rest of the country.”
“Improving the health of the creek can improve the physical health and mental well-being of community members,” says Little. “As people become healthy and whole again, they will again become contributors to the larger society. Doing this work is a critical piece in helping them to heal themselves.”