Things to Do in Fort Wayne and Beyond

Festival celebrates city’s rivers, Clean Drains

Storm drain muralists, Sweet Breeze honored at two-day event

37 city artists decorated storm drains for Clean Drains Fort Wayne.


Published September 21, 2022

Friends of the Rivers are fighting to make sure Fort Wayne’s biggest natural attractions don’t go down the drain.

Formed in 2017, the nonprofit has worked to raise awareness of the St. Joseph, Maumee, and St. Marys rivers, with their latest initiative getting local artists to paint murals at stormwater drains as part of Clean Drains Fort Wayne.

“Art speaks much louder than words, so we hired artists to paint our storm drains for visibility,” Clean Drains Fort Wayne co-chair Irene Walters said. “It’s sort of like a marketing campaign to help people understand that whatever goes down these drains, whether it’s trash, leaves, dog poop, gasoline, it all goes directly into our rivers untreated.”

The second year of the three-year Clean Drains: Be River SmART campaign wraps up with the Clean Drains Fest/Sweet Breeze Fest on Saturday-Sunday, Sept. 24-25, at Promenade Park.

Selecting artists

The first year of Clean Drains had 34 artists creating murals at stormwater drains around town, with that number increasing to 37 this year. The campaign was split into three sections, with the northern sectors covered in July, southern in August, and 15 around downtown this month.

“I think they are amazing, and these are not the ‘anointed and appointed’ artists,” Walters said. “Our artists are grassroots people, and there was a process of jurying them. Alex Hall of Art This Way was a part of that, and she’s wonderful. Artists had to submit drawings and their past work, then we chose the artists.”

The artists will be recognized in the park’s pavilion Sunday, Sept. 25, which coincides with World Rivers Day.

“We will always do something on that day,” Walters said.

Two-day celebration

The festival has expanded to two days this year, beginning Saturday with $5 rides on the Sweet Breeze, a replica of an 1840s canal boat, from noon-7 p.m. At 5 p.m., children’s activities begin, with a screening of Finding Nemo slated for 7:45 p.m. on the lawn, so bring a lawn chair or blanket.

“Nemo went down the drain and into the ocean, and we’re trying to make people understand that our Nemo would go down the drain and into our rivers,” Walters said.

The fun continues Sunday from noon-5 p.m. with food trucks, activities, $5 Sweet Breeze rides, and live performances from KC Ramone at 12:15 p.m., Fort Wayne Dance Collective’s Touring Company at 1:15 p.m., Chris Worth & Company at 1:40 p.m., and Heartland Sings at 3 p.m. This year’s mural artists will be recognized at 2 p.m.

River protectors

Along with the artists being recognized on Sunday, children and families striving to protect our waterways will also be honored in the pavilion.

“The whole idea is to develop river protectors,” Walters said. “Once kids feel it in their guts and they know it, then they influence their parents. So, if their parents want to do something like dump something down the storm drains, the kids will say, ‘No, no, no, no.’ ”

Friends of the Rivers has worked to create young river protectors by branching out.

“We have 23 schools that have become Drain Stormer Schools,” Walters said. “Instead of painting their drains, they use chalk in their schoolyards and neighborhoods. Then, they promised to adopt a drain and make sure no leaves or crud go into them.”

Raising awareness

The murals, Finding Nemo, and messaging in schools and neighborhoods are all part of a plan to clean up our rivers. With about 23,000 storm drains scattered throughout Fort Wayne, it’s easy to see the importance of keeping debris, gas, and waste out of them.

“If this critical water passage system is not protected, then pollutants, chemical run-off, and solid waste that enters any of the city’s storm drains will make its way directly into our rivers and will have a negative impact on this vital and precious natural resource,” Friends of the Rivers’ website says.

Friends of the Rivers had a Paddles Aweigh campaign in 2019, with artists painting paddles that were auctioned for scholarship money for students to ride the Sweet Breeze. Following that, City Utilities brought the idea of Clean Drains to the group. 

With the Clean Drains campaign coming to a close after next year, the group will be looking for another creative idea to raise awareness.

“For three years, we’ve been doing this, then we’ll come up with something else that’s creative,” Walters said.

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