Hamilton County's Love-Hate Relationship With the White River

Do you know how the White River got its name? When Hamilton County was founded in 1823, the White River was so clear that when sunlight hit its surface, it shot through the water and reflected off of white limestone pebbles and sand on the river bottom. This wide, white ribbon cut 25 miles through Hamilton County from Strawtown and on through Clare, Riverwood, Noblesville, Fishers and Carmel before spilling south to Indianapolis.


If the river were to get a new name today, “white” wouldn’t be an obvious choice. It’s too polluted with sediment that creates more shades of green and brown.


As we recognize Earth Day on April 22 and think about how our history relates to our local environment, we can look at the White River, which Hamilton County pulls from for the vast majority of its drinking water and relies on for agriculture and industry. The action — and inaction — of past residents have impacted the health of the White River as we know it today, but we can use these lessons to become better stewards of our natural resources.


The White River flows under Potter's Bridge in Noblesville.

Strawboard factory fish kill of 1896


While many people know about Guide Corp.’s devastating 1999 fish kill, Hamilton County Historian David Heighway writes about earlier ill-treatment of the White River on the Hamilton East Public Library blog.


“The White River at Noblesville had pollution problems from the earliest days of settlement,” Heighway writes. In the 1800s, waste from Cogswell’s tannery and the livery stables along Conner Street flowed straight into the river. The 1887 gas boom and subsequent industrialization made matters worse.


“One of the first factories that sprang up was the American Strawboard Company plant, which made a type of cheap cardboard from straw. The straw would be broken down with muriatic acid and re-formed,” Heighway writes.


The circa-1890 facility was said to be one of the largest strawboard plants in the world. Despite complaints about the site impacting water quality by March of 1891, it continued to run full throttle. When the plant finally agreed to cease operations long enough to carry out reservoir upgrades, citizens were upset that 150 men were without jobs. And still, stories about pollution kept the newspaper black with ink.


“The long-feared event finally happened on May 30, 1896. The levee between the refuse ponds and the river washed out, releasing an enormous amount of toxic waste. From Noblesville to Broad Ripple, the shore was lined with dead fish. People thought at first that poisons killed the fish, but a scientist later explained that a chemical reaction was taking oxygen out of water and fish were actually suffocating,” writes Heighway.


Eventually, a fine was levied against the plant for $250 and costs. There wasn’t much else the court could do, Heighway says, and by October, the strawboard company had purchased more land to build larger refuse ponds.


Society's love-hate relationship with water


Many years later, the 1972 Clean Water Act made it a lot harder for polluters to pollute. The Act established the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States and regulating quality standards for surface waters.


Executive Director Jill Hoffman joined the White River Alliance in 2007.

And then we fast forward even further to the present day, where policymaking is still critical, says Jill Hoffman, Executive Director of the White River Alliance and the person everyone mentions when you want to talk to an expert on the White River. The mission of the White River Alliance is to improve and protect water resources throughout Central Indiana.


While scientists like Hoffman have more fun getting their hands dirty in biology and environmental science, public policy or “people science” expertise is just as important.

Findings from the 2021 Central Indiana Water Study, funded by the Indiana Finance Authority, made this clear. One major finding: The demand for water in Central Indiana is expected to increase by more than 100 million gallons per day by 2070. Meeting that demand will require serious policymaking. But it won’t come easy.


“We have a love-hate relationship with water in Indiana,” says Hoffman. “Historically, we’ve treated it like more of a nuisance than an asset.”


Consider this dichotomy. For farmers and people doing construction, too much water can be bad, so wetlands are drained, which can lead to issues related to flooding and poor water quality. But manufacturing facilities and farmers also need water to produce products and raise crops and livestock, so there is great demand for it.


Also, as communities have grown, more and more wastewater and stormwater pipes have been laid and integrated into an increasingly complex system. All this “progress” has led to a higher density of pollution loads and more pipe discharges — conditions ripe for problems.


“It’s death by 10,000 paper cuts. Over time you start to feel the impact of those 10,000 paper cuts,” says Hoffman, things like sediment buildup, fish consumption advisories and degradation of the ecology and potential uses of the river. The average bystander can see the ill effects in the form of changes in clarity, algae blooms and erosion.


Atoning for the river pollution of our forefathers


But this glass is half full. After centuries of mistreatment, work is being done to take better care of the water. In 2019, officials unveiled the White River Vision Plan to enhance nearly 60 miles of the White River focusing on environmental and ecological health, equity, public safety and activation.


Hoffman says The White River Alliance has seen increases in volunteerism to monitor waterways, investments in monitoring, and state and local government involvement. Greenspaces are being planted. Farmers are seeding cover crops to prevent erosion and runoff. And people with different interests in the water issue are talking to one another.


The White River Alliance is also helping cities and towns like the City of Noblesville meet IDEM requirements to do outreach.


Tim Stottlemyer is the City of Noblesville’s MS4 coordinator and an avid kayaker.

Tim Stottlemyer is the City of Noblesville’s MS4 (municipal separate storm sewer system) coordinator. His job is to develop and help launch structural and societal best practices to protect water quality in Noblesville. As an avid kayaker, keeping the White River in great shape is also personal.


Just as the CWA requires industrial facilities to meet standards in how they move waste through their pipes and to a final destination, cities have to do the same, he says. But on this much larger scale, cities deal with pet waste, engine oil, lawn fertilizer, fast food trash and whatever else people toss out or don't realize can be swept away by the stormwater.


In the distant past, rainwater and wastewater flowed together all willy-nilly into the White River with no treatment at all. The CWA led to far-reaching improvements in water treatment plant efficacy, waste disposal by factories, and combined sewer overflow practices. Stottlemyer said the city is just now finishing 20-year combined sewer overflow projects.


The annual White River Cleanup in Hamilton County brings to the surface a portion of this pollution. The event debuted in 1995 among a group of friends who rolled up their sleeves and paddled out to remove trash from a stretch of White River in downtown Noblesville. Since that time, volunteers have pulled out over 500 tons of trash, including hot water heaters, cars and thousands of tires.


“The stuff we can see is not nearly as dangerous as the stuff we can’t see,” says Stottlemyer. “Society has become more complex in general and so has the amount of modern chemicals that have given us our modern lifestyle.” It’s these chemicals and compounds, like those in Teflon — forever chemicals — are just the most recent example of dangerous chemicals making their way into our waterways.


“Those are the things that continue to challenge us on our end. The technology that we are creating to make life easier is outpacing the technology to deal with them.”


Changing people’s minds and behaviors after many years of treating stormwater runoff rather indifferently is tough. According to a community survey administered several years ago, Stottlemyer says over 50% of people don’t even know where the water goes once it flows into a storm drain.


“We have to get society to understand how they are connected to this precious resource. Nothing lives without water. Making that connection has been one the biggest challenges — and then turning that into action items,” he says. A resource the City of Noblesville shares is the Clear Choice Clean Water pledge program.


Use the Bicentennial to feed your passion!


Looking back on our history isn’t always comfortable, but it can open our eyes to ways to make our world and Hamilton County in particular a better place to live. How can you bridge Hamilton County’s history to our present and future? How can you use the Bicentennial to draw attention to your passion or cause? We’d love for you to plan an event!