MUNCIE -- The presence of smallmouth bass, crane flies resembling giant mosquitoes, mussels and other species sensitive to pollution indicates the White River is cleaner today than in the early 1970s.
Back then, raw sewage and industrial discharges turned the river red, green, yellow and brown; tires and refrigerators lined the banks, and two feet of industrial/sewage muck covered the bottom of the river instead of sand, gravel and bedrock, according to the Muncie Sanitary District.
"When compared to the past with the industrial pollution, we have improved, but agricultural pollutants and sediment are the big concern now," said Jarka Popovicova, an assistant professor of natural resources and environmental management at Ball State University.
The sediment, which turns the river a muddy color like coffee with cream during wet weather, is contaminated with nitrogen and phosphorus.
The problem with that, Popovicova explained, is that it contributes to hypoxia, or low levels of oxygen, in the Gulf of Mexico. The size of this year's dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico was 7,988 square miles, the second-largest dead zone in that water of body since measurements began in 1985, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The White River is part of the problem in the gulf because it eventually drains to the Mississippi River, which empties into the gulf.
An overabundance of nutrients coming from polluted storm water runoff, soil erosion, fertilizer and sewage can cause excessive algal growth, which results in reduced sunlight, loss of aquatic habitat and a decrease in oxygen dissolved in the water.
The effect is being felt not only in the gulf but in the White River.
Philip Tevis, a coordinator of the White River Watershed Project, quoted from a U.S. Geological Survey study that reported the existence of 158 species of fish in the White River in 1875.