Four hundred-forty tons of sand with Indiana palm trees will turn parking lots into beaches along the St. Joseph River on Saturday at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne's campus.
But the third annual IPFW RiverFest is more than a beach party. It's a celebration for Hoosiers to promote the local environment and stimulate the local economy.
“It's about preserving, promoting and protecting our rivers, and it exposes people to the rivers like never been before,” said Project Manager Sarah Payne.
As part of an initiative to attract younger generations, this year's RiverFest will feature extreme activities, such as bungee jumping, life-size hamster balls on the water and a beach party with two sand volleyball courts for open play and organized tournaments all day. There will also be a sand play area for children.
Despite low rainfall, Water Activities Coordinator and river advocate Dan Wire says there will be plenty of water for the festival's pontoon, canoe and kayak rides and floating bonfires along the St. Joseph River. There will also be four educational stations teaching residents about the rivers and how to use and conserve them.
“We want people to know they can canoe and eat fish out of the river,” Wire said. “We try to help them not to be fearful of pollutants in the water and tell them things they can do that will help.”
New at RiverFest this year, IPFW art teacher Sayaka Ganz is creating a sculpture made entirely of scrap materials and river debris to represent efforts to clean the rivers. The sculpture will be unveiled at 10 a.m. Friday at the east end of the Venderly Family Bridge on IPFW's campus.
But litter is not the only thing polluting Fort Wayne's rivers. In the last 18 months, a new issue has arisen.
“Our No. 1 problem in all the rivers is sediment,” Wire said.
According to the Indiana Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, sediment is loose soil carried by runoff water that settles at the bottoms of rivers, lakes, streams and ponds. A process called nutrient loading occurs when nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus attach themselves to the sediment. In the rivers, these nutrients become food for some harmful blue-green algae blooms called cyanobacteria.
“Somehow in the recent past, our nutrient loading is spiking, and we're getting blue-green algae growing in our rivers that is choking out what little life is left,” Wire said.
According to the state's website, www.in.gov, some blue-green algae species release toxins that can cause death in mammals, birds and fish, as well as illness in humans.
Wire says the blue-green algae threat is greatest in the St. Marys River which flows from Grand Lake St. Marys in Ohio — a lake pronounced dead in 2010 because of blue-green algae blooms.
He hopes RiverFest will help educate locals about reducing dangerous runoff and inform them that the St. Joseph River is safe to enjoy.
“The more information we get out there, the more progress we make utilizing this natural resource,” Wire said. “The water has something for everyone, which is powerful.”