"The Twisted Tale of Indianapolis’ White River"

"Once considered one of the most-polluted waterways in the nation, the White River has been neglected and abused for 200 years. Can it make a comeback?"

"First-time visitors to Indianapolis might look at the White River and see a natural oasis in a vast urban landscape. They could spend a day paddling through some of Indianapolis’ most populated neighborhoods, but not see another person on the water. Towering oak trees line the banks for much of its path through the city, in the summer offering some needed respite from the sweltering sun. Underneath the clear water, visitors might see dozens of carp, sunfish, and smallmouth bass dart beneath their boat as a blue heron stands in the shallows, waiting for its next meal.

This idyllic scene is just the latest chapter of the White River saga, which has almost as many twists and turns as the waterway itself: Historic blunders. Massive pollution. Unchecked environmental racism. A $2 billion infrastructure project called DigIndy promises to solve many of the problems facing the river. But as the pollution decreases, city officials’ desires to use the river as an economic driver and recreational amenity continue to increase. After years of living next to polluted waterways, the questions for the surrounding residents are now: Will they be able to afford to stay and enjoy the revitalized river? And with other contaminants continuing to flow into the water unchecked, combined with centuries of neglect and abuse, just how clean is the river actually?

Known as the Wapahani by the Indigenous Miami Nation, the White River was a major reason European settlers laid the foundations of Indianapolis here more than two centuries ago. After quickly realizing the river was too shallow for shipping goods, they found other, ultimately much more damaging, ways to utilize it."

Robert Annis reports for Sierra magazine February 4, 2024.

Source: Sierra, 02/05/2024