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Urban Waters – Northwest Indiana Partnership

[photo:] Paddlers at Trail Creek.  Photo courtesy of Northwest Indiana Paddling Association.In the 20th century, the extraordinary natural landscape of dunes, marshes, and rivers in the Lake Michigan watershed of northwest Indiana was extensively modified for industry and other human uses. Rivers were dredged and channelized, marshes were drained and filled, and sand was mined from dunes for glass production. Today remarkable natural features remain, but the waterways continue to show the effects of industrial, agricultural, and urban uses.

Northwest Indiana is now one of 18 Urban Waters partnership locations across the country. Urban Waters is a White House-sponsored program that encourages federal agencies to work more effectively with each other and with local partners to reconnect urban communities to local waterways. Federal Urban Waters partners from 12 agencies have agreed to: work with local officials and organizations to leverage resources, stimulate local economies, and create local jobs; recognize and build on local efforts and leadership by engaging and serving community partners; and promote the economic, environmental and social benefits of urban waterways. The USDA Forest Service is a lead agency in this effort in northwest Indiana. The partnership builds on a long history of Forest Service involvement in the Calumet region of southeast Chicago and northwest Indiana.


Since 2011, local Urban Waters partners have chosen to focus the Northwest Indiana Partnership’s efforts on five waterways with wide-ranging regional impacts.

  1. The Grand Calumet River Area of Concern was once classified as “impaired” for all 14 possible human uses. In recent years, large-scale cleanup has been making the river cleaner and safer and nearby communities have begun to talk about visions for future use of the waterway.
  2. The East Branch of the Little Calumet River and Salt Creek together drain hundreds of square miles of Northwest Indiana to Lake Michigan. There is local interest in creating a water trail along the “Little Cal” through the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore but funding must first be secured for an environmental assessment.
  3. Trail Creek is an outstanding resource for paddling and nature watching but non-point source pollution threatens these activities. Local organizations are reaching out to residents about caring for and improving this resource. At the same time, federal partners are offering technical expertise for projects that aim to reduce urban and agricultural runoff.
  4. The Deep River-Portage Burns Waterway has great recreation potential but water quality is threatened by nonpoint source pollution. There is much local interest in designating portions of the waterway near the communities of Hobart and Lake Station as a water trail.
  5. Jeorse Beach Park on Lake Michigan in East Chicago, Indiana has chronic water quality problems because of a shoreline configuration that traps stagnant water. Urban Waters federal partners are working with Michigan State University to study water flow changes under different scenarios to help guide an effective remediation plan for the beach.


The Forest Service has partnered with many organizations to make these projects a success.


Waterways affected: The Grand Calumet River Area of Concern; East Branch of the Little Calumet River and the Salt Creek; Trail Creek; Deep River-Portage Burns Waterway; Jeorse Beach Park on Lake Michigan.
Acres of forest affected Urban forestry projects funded by USDA Forest Service State & Private Forestry are planting trees to help improve stormwater management in the northwest Indiana communities of Merrillville, Munster, and Valparaiso.
Established: 2011
Number of Partners:      40
Forest Service groups involved: US Forest Service Northern Research Station and State & Private Forestry are involved.
Forest Service Funding Provided (to date):  US Forest Service State & Private Forestry provided $145,000 to local partner Save the Dunes to hire a dedicated person to coordinate the Northwest Indiana partnership for 2 years. $75,000 in State & Private Forestry funding also went to three communities for urban forestry projects. $25,000 per year has been given in kind by Forest Service Research and Development.



Federal partners including the US Forest Service have been working with local agencies and organizations to help leverage resources and connect to funding opportunities for each of the targeted waterways. The US Forest Service, USEPA, and the National Park Service have taken a lead role in coordinating the Northwest Indiana Urban Waters Partnership activities and helping to connect local organizations and municipalities with federal agencies that can provide guidance and technical expertise for local projects. To date, the Urban Waters Northwest Indiana Partnership has:

  • Helped the communities of Merrillville, Munster, and Valparaiso secure $75,000 from US Forest Service State & Private Forestry for tree planting projects to improve stormwater management.
  • Provided input to the US Geological Survey (USGS) on how to construct an online mapping tool that would be useful to local municipalities and organizations.
  • Helped bring Minneapolis-based Wilderness Inquiry to northwest Indiana for annual paddling events. Wilderness Inquiry provides 24-foot canoes and gives residents an opportunity to learn about local waterways by exploring them firsthand.
  • Helped bring all three northwest Indiana counties (Lake, LaPorte, and Portage) to the table to discuss the impacts of residential septic systems on the region’s groundwater and surface water quality.
  • Helped federal agencies partner with Michigan State University to study possible solutions to the water quality problem at Jeorse Park Beach.
  • Brought together the US Army Corps of Engineers and the local non-profit Shirley Heinze Land Trust to restore a 38-acre wetland in Chesterton, Indiana. This project resulted directly from talks between the Army Corps and Shirley Heinze at an Urban Waters meeting.
  • Consulted on developing an outreach campaign about better managing septic systems.
  • Consulted on other projects and proposals


The Northwest Indiana partnership has boldly addressed longstanding waterway-related issues and invited input and ongoing participation from non-traditional partners in the region. Urban Waters-Northwest Indiana ensures that local organizations and municipalities have access to federal agency representatives who can provide guidance and make them aware of funding opportunities for local projects. It has also helped local partners cooperate across jurisdictional boundaries on mutually beneficial projects.

Lessons Learned

Federal agencies working at large geographic scales across several states may not be aware of waterway-related issues that are a priority at the local level. Local municipalities may be hampered by restrictions on working outside of their jurisdictions and inter-municipality cooperation can be complicated. Not-for-profit organizations and regional planning agencies can often work across jurisdictions but may be limited by the scope of their mission and available resources. Urban Waters Northwest Indiana has tried to address these issues by welcoming all interested parties to the partnership table and inviting them to make their capacities, priorities, and needs known. Funding is often the limiting factor in accomplishing local goals so the partnership coordinator has provided grantwriting support to help local partners secure needed funding for priority projects.

Partner Organizations

Last Modified: July 31, 2019