History of the White River in Indiana

About White River

River history

By John Winters

During presettlement times in Indiana, the West Fork of the White River ran clear and cool through a nearly impenetrable hardwood forest. Fish of many species were so abundant that accounts of the success of early fishermen sound like tall tales to modern-day anglers.

However, it wasn’t long before early settlers began to cut down the forests to build cabins and clear fields to plant crops and pasture livestock. In time, springs began to dry up, all-weather streams became intermittent, and the cool waters, now open to the sun, became warmer. Sediment from plowed fields ran off to waterways when it rained and settled on spawning beds and filled pools.

Invertebrates that provided food for many of the fish and other aquatic animals became fewer and less diverse. Animal wastes from pens and pastures were carried into waterways, polluting some of them near the point of entry and providing nutrients to support occasional blooms of algae downstream, which often cause fish to die.

As towns and cities along the White River became larger and industries moved in, pollution problems became more severe. Sewers were built to convey wastewater to the nearest stream without thought of the damage done to the fish and aquatic life that lived there. There was little regard for those downstream water users whose health and welfare were jeopardized. Over the years, cities grew and became more industrialized. Household wastes became mixed with chemicals used in manufacturing processes. New, more effective chemicals were developed to boost crop production. All found their way into the river and its tributaries, causing severe degradation.

Housing developments, shopping centers, and business and industrial parks seemed to spring up overnight. Former wooded areas and farm fields disappeared under roof and pavement, promoting rapid runoff of rainfall into ditches and streams that did not have the capacity to carry the increased flow. As a result, natural swales and drainage ways were turned into ditches, and streams were dredged and straightened, destroying natural habitat and degrading water quality.

In recent years, municipal and industrial wastewater treatment and control facilities in the White River Watershed have been repeatedly expanded and improved. Many of the larger facilities have been upgraded to incorporate the latest advances in treatment technology. Municipalities with combined sewer systems have been made aware of the need to minimize and eventually eliminate wet weather overflows. Some have made great strides in eliminating this serious threat to human health and fish and aquatic life.

As a result of improved water quality, an increasing number of Hoosiers began to recognize the West Fork of the White River as a valuable resource that must be restored and protected. The River Walk in Anderson, the White River State Park, and the White River Wapahani Trail are but three examples of a renewed interest in this historic stream.

Aquatic habitat is still being degraded and/or lost by dredge and fill activities, and non-point source pollution remains a significant problem in the White River watershed.

The outrage expressed by the public following a massive fish kill downstream from Anderson in December 1999 indicates the widespread interest in restoring the White River to a high-quality, multiple-use stream. Donations from many groups and individuals indicate that they are willing to pay their share to accomplish this.

Over the years, Friends of the White River has been concerned with the physical and chemical degradation of the White River. It works with governmental agencies to affect changes necessary to improve the river to the extent that it would be safe for area residents to engage in all of its potential uses.

The Friends endorse and support long-term efforts to restore the river and its tributaries. The group seeks funding from various sources, and creates partnerships with other local and regional organizations to correct identified problems, including non-point source pollution, erosion and habitat degradation. More help is needed to refine and expand restoration efforts.


John Winters is a Friends board member and retired scientist and biologist who refers to the White as “Indiana’s Jewel.”