Our Bay: Training 'stewards' for bay's watersheds

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer
The Capital 2009.05.09

Pamela Wood — The Capital Ken Hatch of Annapolis works on a stormwater control project in the Cypresspointe neighborhood in Severna Park. He’s part of the first class of Master Watershed Stewards. The 32 members of the class are learning about how problems on the land cause problems in the water — and how to fix them.

Each time the county government teams up with the schools to plant shrubs and grasses at stream-restoration projects, officials get the same questions again and again.

How can I do this in my neighborhood? Can I do this sort of thing at my home?

"There's such great enthusiasm for people to do things," said Suzanne Kilby Etgen of the county's Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center.

Parents and neighbors, it seemed, want to learn the things the kids were learning about watersheds and how what happens on the land affects the water. And they want to get their hands dirty making improvements in their own communities.

It got educators and government types thinking.

"We started talking amongst ourselves, this problem is so massive, how do we educate people?" said Ron Bowen, Anne Arundel's director of public works.

The solution is a new program called the Master Watershed Stewards Academy, which is wrapping up its first series of classes.

Thirty-two people from across the county spent the last few months learning the ins and outs of how local streams and rivers are harmed by problems on the land, mainly stormwater runoff.

Stormwater runoff is a key problem in urban and suburban areas. When it rains, the water picks up pollutants such as nutrients and sediments on its way to streams, rivers and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay. Much of Anne Arundel County was developed without modern controls to slow and treat runoff.

The watershed stewards attended a series of information-rich classroom sessions and went out into the field to work on hands-on projects.

They planted rain gardens and installed rain barrels at Woods Memorial Presbyterian Church in Severna Park.

And last weekend, they planted native plants in a stormwater holding pond that wasn't working properly. Public works crews reshaped the topography of the pond in hopes that it would retain water and allow it to soak into the land, rather than to rush right out a pipe and ultimately into Severna Park's Cypress Creek.

With those experiences in hand, the watershed stewards are each developing their own "capstone" project in their own communities as their final assignment.

The program is loosely based on the Master Gardeners program, where gardeners are trained by university experts so that they can then have confidence in teaching beginning gardeners.

Or as Bowen put it, the idea is to "train the trainer."

The training has been done by scores of local experts including teachers, landscape architects, government officials, environmental advocates and more. The program is run jointly by the Anne Arundel County Department of Public Works and Arlington Echo, which is part of the public school system.

The first year of the Master Watershed Stewards Program was paid for with grants from the Chesapeake Bay Trust, the Keith Campbell Foundation for the Environment, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and a family foundation. The grant money - $153,000 total - paid for the classroom instruction, the two group projects and will pay for part of the individual capstone projects.

Wearing a yellow watershed steward shirt, Norman MacLeod paused while wielding a shovel last weekend at a restoration project in Severna Park. He's been impressed with what he's learned.

"I am interested in watersheds and I wanted to see what's going on. I've been amazed," said MacLeod, who lives in the Oyster Harbor community south of Annapolis. "It's been a huge information."

MacLeod said he hopes to use what he's learned to improve his community and possibly solve constant flooding problems.

As an environmental lawyer, Jackie Guild already was keyed into environmental issues. But the Davidsonville resident wanted to do more.

"I wanted to do something where I live," Guild said.

She said homeowners in her part of the county may not be as connected to their river - the Patuxent - as others who live closer to Chesapeake Bay. She said she hopes to educate neighbors about how their actions affect the river.

Ed Krause is inspired by the watershed stewards program.

He said he knows people are itching to help the bay if they just know what to do. As an example, he sent an e-mail message to his neighborhood association touting rain barrels, which collect rainwater from gutters and cut down on stormwater pollution. In no time at all, his neighbors bought 19.

"If we can get the community involved … we ought to help the creeks and eventually the bay," he said.

Eventually, organizers hope to offer one or two sessions of the watershed steward program per year in order to certify more people as stewards. The next session might be offered in early 2010.

"We want a master steward representative in every community across the county," Bowen said.

(Revised May 2009)