Don Parker has often stepped up to keep Conn’s Pond looking nice and free of debris.
Since he and his family move to their Grant Street home in Elkhart 33 years ago, there is little that he hasn’t removed from the pond, which serves as a link between Puterbaugh Creek and the St. Joseph River on Elkhart’s north side.
He once dug up 2,000 invasive Loosestrife plants to help preserve part of the pond, and he’s pulled out a variety of natural debris and junk ranging from trees, beer cans, life jackets and even a few hundred beach balls.
He playfully refers to himself as “The Gopher” and “Mr. Muck.”
But the fight against an increasing amount of silt building up in the pond is taking a concerted effort by Parker, many of Conn’s Pond Preservation Homeowners Association members, the city of Elkhart and the state of Indiana.
Together, they helped pay for a $133,000 amphibious dredging machine that looks like a cross between a pontoon boat and a tank.
Parker, a former longtime president of the association, has worked with others on the project for nearly three years, lining up permits, developing a plan of attack and applying for grant money.
For Parker and others, he said, it’s a matter of stewardship.
Thirty years ago, part of the pond had a depth of four feet, but that’s been reduced to about 18 inches, Parker said.
Without action, the pond would become covered with weeds and lily pads that assist in the accumulation of silt and make it impossible to navigate. Eventually, it would become a wetlands and a small creek.
Two years ago, Parker said he noticed islands that emerged in the pond in the winter — when the water level is lowered — were getting bigger.
“Those islands were two or three inches (taller) than they were the year before,” Parker said.
Parker said he believes they’ve turned the corner with the purchase of the machine.
“We at least have the potential to get some good things done,” Parker said.
The machine was manufactured by a Swedish firm and is one of the few designed for dredging small bodies of water, Parker said.
Two tracks with flaps help it paddle across the water and climb onto shore. It has a series of attachments that cut weeds, rake debris and suck silt out of the water.
The dredging machine arrived in mid-June. So far, four people have been trained to use it and the group wants to expand the training.
The effort to remove an estimated 20,000 cubic yards of silt will take about five years and will likely happen mostly on weekends and holidays.
Parker admits he has more time than others since he’s retired.
He holds a doctorate in microbiology and biochemistry and closed out his career after a long stint with Bayer, where he was the head of clinical studies.
“Like anybody else, I want to understand what’s going on around me and enjoy the environment,” Parker said.
Kyle Hannon, a neighbor who enjoys kayaking, calls Parker a “champion caretaker of the pond.”
“In addition to Don’s physical labor at the pond, he has been a wonder with the paperwork for the grant and dredging application,” Hannon said.
Parker has already used the machine to clear weeds. It took about two days and gave the pond a new, pristine appearance.
The association used a $7,500 grant obtained last year to assess the silt problem and then applied again for money from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to purchase the machine.
The state provided $100,000 from the Lake and River Enhancement program. The award represented the second largest amount among the 19 recipients who received a total of $850,000 in 2013.
Property owners ponied up more than $40,000, and the city of Elkhart provided $8,000.
Parker credits the work of state lawmakers Tim Neese and Joe Zakas and Elkhart Mayor Dick Moore, all of whom spoke in favor of the grant request.
Neese, in fact, authored an amendment two years ago that redefined the definition of what types of waterways are eligible for the grant money, thereby indirectly opening the door for Conn’s Pond.
The city provided another $10,000 for the St. Joseph River Association.
In a letter to the city board of works, Moore outlined his rationale for assisting Conn’s Pond with the project. He pointed out that Conn’s Pond is not a private waterway.
Conn’s Pond land owners often use boats, canoes and kayaks to access the river, but the pond can be accessed by the public from a boat ramp under the Greenleaf Boulevard Bridge and from the St. Joseph River.
Puterbaugh Creek is part of a watershed that includes East Lake, Simonton Lake and Heaton Lake that feeds into the river.
The group plans to install a stilt trap along the north of Puterbaugh Creek, which will reduce the amount of silt coming into the pond.
Parker said they’ve submitted a plan to the state to place the silt along the shores of the pond. The project will entail the construction of a barrier made up of wood and glacial stone and a fabric liner that will prevent the silt from returning to the pond.