Sep 14, 2023 - News

The White River's turning point

A kayaker on a river

From a kayak, the White River through midtown Indy is calm and its banks largely undeveloped. Photo: Arika Herron/Axios

After years of neglect, the White River in Indianapolis is entering a new era of use and development.

Driving the news: Two major downtown redevelopment projects along the river have broken ground in the last year and the success of ongoing cleanup efforts made new recreational opportunities possible this summer.

Why it matters: Whereas other cities built along rivers often take advantage of the waterway for economic development, recreation and tourism, Indianapolis has not.

  • That's changing, and how it happens could have a significant impact on the river and the future of communities along its banks.

The big picture: A long-term plan led by officials from Indianapolis and Hamilton County calls for more recreational and economic opportunities along a 58-mile stretch of the river.

  • The White River Vision Plan released in 2019 calls for everything from new riverfront retail to quarry climbing and a floating stage.
  • The plan envisions more public access for paddling, fishing and even swimming.

Zoom in: Pieces of that plan, such as Elanco's new $100 million global headquarters on the former GM stamping plant property, are starting to come to fruition.

What they're saying: "It's a unique time," said Jill Hoffman, executive director of the White River Alliance. "It'll be one that people look back at and say, 'Remember when we thought we could make a significant shift in the way that this river serves our communities?'"

Indianapolis city skyline reflected in a river
The banks of the river are largely undeveloped today. Photo: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Between the lines: The river has a reputation (and sewage) problem to overcome before wide-scale usage, especially swimming, is accepted by the public at large.

  • For decades, the city's combined sewer system has regularly overflowed and sent untreated wastewater into the river.
  • Citizens Energy Group's DigIndy project, slated for completion in 2025, should prevent 97% of sewer overflows.
  • That project has already improved water quality in some parts of Marion County to the point that commercial recreation like kayaking and paddle boarding are taking off, whereas such activity had previously been limited to stretches in Hamilton County.

Yes, but: Runoff from urban and agricultural sources is another challenge to the river's water quality.

  • The White River Report Card gave the waterway a C grade.
  • Scott Salmon, executive director of Friends of the White River, said it's a fair grade for the state of the river today — better than it was, he said, with work left to be done.

The intrigue: The approach of future projects could help or hurt the quality of the river.

  • Responsible development can improve the watershed, Salmon said, ridding banks of invasive species and bolstering crucial wetlands.
  • For example, Back 9 Golf and Entertainment, which opened along the river on the south side of downtown last year was developed with the watershed in mind, Salmon said.
  • "Development along the river doesn't have to be bad for it," he said. "The problem is, it often is because those things are more expensive."

The bottom line: Taking more advantage of the waterway could be a huge win for quality of life and the local economy, if done responsibly, but we're still years away from the vision becoming a reality.


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