White River and the people who have lived along its banks have influenced one another since the first humans arrived thousands of years ago. But it wasn’t until this past century that the issues of water quality degradation and racial inequality were woven together in this central portion of the river. The confluence of these issues gave rise to the historic Belmont Beach, but efforts underway to reclaim Belmont Beach today as a community asset remind us of the common resilience of people and the river—that despite decades of harm, both the river and people continue to thrive.
White River and Water Quality
Today the White River at the Beach site is generally safe to play along, dip your feet in, and even paddle on, but is not safe to swim in or have the water splashed in your face. Fishing is also safe, but if you intend to eat the fish, there are limits to the types and amounts of fish that are safe for different types of people (learn more from the Indiana State Department of Health).
Pollution comes from many sources. Many of the nastiest pollutants have been banned for decades but will remain in the river ecosystem forever (these pollutants, like Mercury and PCBs, are common reasons for fish consumption advisories because they accumulate in fish—and us when we eat them!). Much of the pollution today comes from two major sources: combined sewers and stormwater runoff, and both are reasons it’s not safe to swim at Belmont Beach.
Combined Sewer Overflows
Combined sewers are a type of underground sewer that collects both waste from our homes and businesses (sanitary sewer) and rainwater running off streets and parking lots (stormwater sewer) in one pipe. Under normal conditions this pipe sends all types of wastewater to the wastewater treatment plant for cleaning. But when it rains or the snow melts, sometimes the pipes fill up, and when they do, are designed to send sewage directly into urban streams like White River. This issue isn’t unique to Indianapolis—there are nearly 860 CSO systems in the United States—and modern-day development prevents it by putting sanitary and stormwater in different pipes. But for major developed cities like Indianapolis, and even older smaller communities like Noblesville, the costs to address the existing CSO systems are very expensive. In Indianapolis, Citizens Energy Group is in the middle of constructing 28 miles of giant storage tunnels hundreds of feet beneath the city that are designed to capture and store the overflows until the water treatment plant can catch up. When complete, the tunnel system is expected to reduce CSO pollution by up to 97%.
Much of the rain that lands in Central Indiana eventually makes its way to the White River. As this rain runs off our roofs, streets, parking lots, lawns, and farm fields, it picks up pollutants like fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, animal waste, oil, sediment, and more. While pollution from combined sewers may be move visible because you can see the giant pipes dumping into the river, stormwater pollution that is not part of the combine sewer overflows actually presents a much bigger and less obvious problem. It enters our waterways from smaller pipes and runoff from individual properties. Therefore, stormwater pollution is dependent on the choices of millions of people—choices to fertilize and spray lawns or farm fields, to landscape with native plantings, to pick up pet waste, or to keep their cars maintained to eliminate drips, to name just a few.
The White River, and its original indigenous name Wapahani, both refer to the white limestone sands that originally appeared on the river’s bottom and along its meandering stretches. After a century of pollution, however, the White River in the 1920s was anything but white, especially south of the Emrichsville Dam at Belmont Beach, where newspapers at the time lamented its “black scum” surface caused by dumping of industrial chemicals and slaughterhouse waste by downtown industries.
With such a polluted river, why did Belmont Beach emerge as a community swimming area? Racial segregation. In the 1920s the Indianapolis parks system (like many other aspects of life) was segregated, and while Douglass Park was built in the Martindale-Brightwood neighborhood specifically for black residents, the park was far from much of the city’s black population, including those living along Indiana Avenue and in the Haughville neighborhood. Decades of calls for additional public swimming pools open to black residents went unanswered, and city officials even worked to prevent a group of black entrepreneurs from opening a waterfront park with beach at what is now Municipal Gardens.
Belmont Beach became the impromptu answer to the need for water recreation for black residents, and it was only allowed by city officials because of the extreme pollution in the downtown stretch of the river. In the words of a community activist of the time fighting for desegregated pools, “The water kills the fish but our youngsters are swimming in it.” In this aspect, Belmont Beach was the epitome of environmental racism—black residents were only allowed to be in water deemed too degraded to be of use to white residents. The river was used to reinforce inequity.
That is true. And what is also true is that black residents built a community through Belmont Beach. Among a population long deprived of access to swimming lessons and safe swimming areas, Belmont Beach provided a scarce source of water recreation. Amidst the inequities of segregation, residents didn’t just make do, they made it their own. In the face of seemingly insurmountable hurdles, Belmont Beach emerged as just one example of how black residents remained resilient and continued to thrive.
While we wish to never forget how the river was used for evil purposes, it is this aspect of human resilience that today’s Belmont Beach strives to celebrate. Despite all the bad things that we have done to the river and to one another, the river still flows and black culture still thrives.