Our Minnesota Water Stewards program is growing

by Sage Passi

We recently celebrated our new graduating class of community watershed volunteers who completed their training as Minnesota Water Stewards. The program is a partnership between the Freshwater Society and cities, watershed districts, watershed management organizations and non-profits. We now have 16 certified Minnesota Water Stewards doing great work in our watershed.

Master Water Stewards gathering
Many of our Minnesota Water Stewards gathered in January at a potluck with a new cohort of South Washington County Minnesota Water Stewards.


Joining the ranks

Each year, a new group of stewards are recruited in the fall to join the ranks of a growing cadre of volunteers who provide support for our education, natural resources and stewardship initiatives. They are truly a valuable set of eyes and ears on the ground who help us build relationships with their cities, communities and neighborhoods.

Early on in their training, we organize a tour for new Minnesota Water Stewards to see different examples of projects installed around the district. On one of their stops this fall they visited rain gardens at Prince of Peace Church, which are maintained by volunteers.

Master Water Stewards outside
Ramsey County Minnesota Gardener Roger Hintze and church member Anne Haugan (on right) discuss Prince of Peace church rain gardens with stewards.

Minnesota Water Steward Linda Neilson (on left in above photo), who joined the program in 2016, met the tour at the church stop. She helped Anne and her husband, Gus, get a curb-cut rain garden installed in their Roseville lawn as her capstone project.

At another stop the group visited Kristy Odland’s LEAP award-winning property in St. Paul with several lovely boulevard rain gardens, native habitat and pavers.

Chris Strong surveys rain garden
Chris Strong, a new Master Water Steward who is also participating in the Master Gardener course, checks out plant diversity in Kristy Odland’s gardens. Kristy’s yard also features a sitting area for passerby to admire the gardens and watch eagles soar above Beaver Lake across the street.

Training and graduation

Master Water Stewards at graduation
Our Minnesota Water Stewards show off the Governor’s proclamation. Top (L-R): Phil Plumbo, Phyllis Webster, Paul Gardner, Bill Cranford. Middle (L-R): Linda Neilson and Rachel Hanks. Front (L-R): Anna Barker and Chris Strong.

The training is intensive! In their first year, stewards get certified by participating in an online course and in person-classes over a six month period. Along the way, they meet regularly with a cohort of other MinnesotaW ater Stewards in-training from Capitol Region and Rice Creek watershed districts.

After this initial training, they complete an “in-the-ground” capstone project and an outreach project. Next, they are required to put in 50 volunteer hours in the first year. In subsequent years, the hour requirement drops to 25 hours to keep their certification active. They are also required to complete 8 hours of continuing education annually.

Once their training is complete, a graduation ceremony and project showcase is held for Master Water Stewards across the east metro area. It’s a good opportunity for participants to connect with other stewards and learn about their capstone projects. At this year’s ceremony, Rebecca Flood, assistant commissioner for water policy at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, read a proclamation by Gov. Dayton declaring this graduation date the state’s official Master Water Stewards Day.

After becoming certified, Minnesota Water Stewards work with us to initiate new projects that address watershed issues like stormwater pollution and habitat. They work on educational projects and demonstration sites, volunteer for District events, help us brainstorm new directions, and play the important role of being sounding boards. They can play a strong role precisely because they are based in their communities and have a unique vantage point to identify opportunities for local engagement.

Our new Minnesota Water Stewards

So who are these new Minnesota Water Stewards? Why were they interested in joining the program, and what do they hope to gain from participating? Let’s take a look!

Phil Plumbo, Maplewood

Shortly after he began the program, Phil helped out with a L’Etoile du Nord School field trip to Beaver Lake. He also assisted Stephanie Wang, a seasoned Master Water Steward, in improving a recently installed rain garden in that neighborhood. Phil is planning to do a shoreline restoration on Beaver Lake for his capstone project.

Why are you interested in being a Minnesota Water Steward?

I took a limnology course while at college and it sparked my interest in lakes. I have lived on several lakes and have witnessed their declining water quality.

What do you expect to gain from your participation in the program?

A better understanding of ways to improve the environmental health of our lakes, streams and rivers.

What changes are you hoping to affect in your community?

I would like to see wider adoption of rain gardens, and improved water quality in our area lakes.

Michelle Natarajan, St. PaulMichelle Natarajan

Michelle was introduced to us by an organizer in the Como Lake neighborhood because of her interest in developing a similar adoption and cleanup program around Lake Phalen where she lives. Two of our Minnesota Water Students and I met with her, and the next day she applied!

Why are you interested in being a Minnesota Water Steward?

I would like to be more involved in protecting water quality in my community. I work in an environmental lab, testing water quality and lake sediment samples. But because my undergraduate work was in an unrelated field, I feel that I could still benefit greatly from the scope of topics covered in this program. I would like to add to what I’ve learned in graduate school and my professional life in order to be a more effective advocate and steward of urban lakes, streams and rivers.

What do you expect to gain from your participation in the program?

I hope to refresh and add to my knowledge of basic hydrology. I hope to better understand how storm drainage systems connect with surface water in my community. I hope to learn about local laws regarding water quality and ways that public policy and community engagement can be used to enhance and protect our natural resources. I hope to learn about strategies that can be implemented by individuals and businesses to keep local lakes clean and I hope to complete a Capstone project that makes a measurable difference in my neighborhood.

What changes are you hoping to affect in your community?

I would like to encourage more community members to take ownership of and pride in our natural water resources so that we can work together for good policy, regular clean-ups, responsible landscaping choices, and regular water quality monitoring.

Chris Strong, St. PaulChris Strong

Chris Strong worked many years for a neighborhood non-profit that provides community rehabilitation services for persons with disabilities. She spent the last nine years working as an human resources director. She has skills in writing, policy development and training. She also has a strong interest in gardening and just retired last year.

Why are you interested in being a Minnesota Water Steward?

I live just off East Shore Drive, and for the past 30 years have enjoyed being close to Lake Phalen. Living in a city, on a lake filled with wildlife, is a real privilege – and I would like to see this preserved for perpetuity.

What do you expect to gain from your participation in the program?

Giving back to the community and using my skills in a meaningful manner.

What changes are you hoping to affect in your community?

A public appreciation of the natural resources that we have and an understanding of how personal actions impact the community as a whole.

Melissa Peck, MaplewoodMelissa Peck

Melissa recently completed a Master’s Program in natural resources science and management at the University of Minnesota. She now works for the Environmental Quality Board at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency as an environmental review planner. She is also a committee member of the community design review board for the City of Maplewood. She has training in civic engagement, public opinion and meeting facilitation.

Why are you interested in being a Master Water Steward?

I’m interested in improving water quality in my community and networking with water management professionals.

What do you expect to gain from your participation in the program?

Education, networking opportunities, skill building and a resume builder.

What changes are you hoping to affect in your community?

I hope to help increase awareness of impaired water and what causes it, as well as increase community involvement in improving water quality. I am also excited to participate in water improvement projects myself.

reviewing priority areas
Melissa Peck (right), Phil Plumbo and Watershed Project Manager Paige Alhborg discuss priority areas for stewardship projects in the the district.

Questions or comments? Join the conversation on our Facebook page, or drop us an email.