(This piece was originally published on July 27, 2017 in The Indianapolis Star.)

For what seems like decades, the White River has often come with a warning: look, but don’t touch.

Few even do that, overlooking what environmental groups and advocates say should be the region’s crown jewel.

But a new, first-of-its-kind initiative to the tune of nearly $5 million hopes to open Hoosiers’ eyes with projects that will not only work to restore the White River, but create a wave of support to protect it for years to come.

“This is very heartening because really the White River is the most significant physical asset in our region by far,” said Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council. “Historically, it has been overlooked and undervalued, and giving the river the concentrated attention it deserves is an amazing thing.”

The council is one of nine nonprofit organizations in Indiana receiving more than $4.9 million in grants from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust as part of a multiyear project focused on protecting and restoring the White River.

Known as the Partners for the White River, the groups will take on initiatives to improve the river’s water quality, protect it as a natural resource for wildlife and communities that depend on the waterway and increase its accessibility to the public.

Mark Kesling, director of The daVinci Pursuit another organization receiving funding said that people have become disconnected from the river, what they put into it and what they could be getting out of it.

“We have this huge potential and opportunity for recreation and beauty the White River is gorgeous but we have lost the ability to use it as a recreational asset,” said Kesling, whose organization uses art and installations to educate and engage with the public about science and the environment.

“We can’t live without the water,” he told IndyStar, “but we don’t understand how we affect it.”

Many of the initiative’s projects will strive to further educate Hoosiers on the importance of the waterway and the role it plays in the vitality of communities and wildlife.

Other organizations comprising the initial Partners for the White River collaboration are the Central Indiana Land Trust, Inc.,  Friends of the White River, the Indiana Wildlife Federation, Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, Reconnecting to Our Waterways, The Nature Conservancy, White River Alliance and the Pulliam Trust.

The trust has granted each group varying amounts of money to be used over a 3-year period toward various projects. The Wildlife Federation’s focus, for example, is on trail building, while the Hoosier Environmental Council will develop a runoff-reducing greenway, and the Land Trust will construct new canoe launches or improved infrastructure at three nature preserves.

“This is tremendously exciting, and the biggest piece for us is the education component and getting people more connected to the river,” said Wildlife Federation Executive Director Emily Wood. “Closing the gap between the reliance on the river and how poor water quality effects everyone, people and wildlife, is key.”

The White River has long drawn concern and criticism for the health of its currents, notably drawing national attention in 1999 when millions of fish died as the result of industrial waste and pollution. Many environmentalists say not much has improved and that the river has historically been treated as a dumping ground.

Still, the promise of the White River, as Kharbanda calls it, is palpable. “A cleaner, healthier White River,” he said, “will, ultimately, be transformational for our region.”

The various nonprofits will come together next week for their first meeting to discuss goals and lay out a plan so that everyone is working together effectively to best achieve those efforts.

Pulliam Trust President and CEO Gene D’Adamo said it has worked with the partners to set tangible and measurable goals that will help track progress and really show the public what has been accomplished. (Separately, the trust  also has provided a grant to IndyStar to support an environmental reporting project. IndyStar, however, retains all editorial control over the project’s content).

D’Adamo, along with the other White River partners, said they hope this initiative is just the beginning in what will spur wide investment and far-reaching ripples. After the initial 3-year period wraps up, the group will come back together, evaluate and determine what’s next.

“The time seems so right to really ramp up this focus on the White River,” D’Adamo said. “All this stuff seems to be happening, and all these major players, including the public, are ready to do something meaningful with the White River.”

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