It’s 6:30pm on a Tuesday night and a small group is gathered inside the Scandia Pizzeria to hear neighbor Tom Furey talk about water quality in Bone Lake. Ten years ago, Bone Lake was considered to be one of the worst lakes in Washington County. The water was murky, phosphorus and algae levels were high, and the Metropolitan Council gave the lake an “F” on its annual report card. Now, thanks to several large projects led by the Comfort Lake – Forest Lake Watershed District, the lake is on its way to better health and has inched its way up to a grade of C+.
When Furey bought a home on Bone Lake a few years ago, he wondered what he could do to help protect and improve the lake. After learning about cost-share grants to restore shoreline habitat, he began working with the watershed district and Washington Conservation District (WCD) to re-design his lakeshore landscaping. He also volunteered to join a new program – Master Water Stewards – that trains and empowers volunteers to work on water issues in their communities. Through the program, Furey learned about watersheds, stormwater management, water policy, strategies for engaging friends and neighbors, and landscaping practices to reduce runoff pollution in urban and rural settings. This summer, for his capstone project, he is helping a neighbor with a native planting on her property and is also organizing a series of informative gatherings for people living on Bone Lake, including a pontoon tour and the pizza night in town.
The Master Water Stewards program was developed by Freshwater Society as a way to help amplify the impact of conservation districts and watershed management organizations in Minnesota. Stewards receive 50 hours of free training through a combination of on-line instruction, in-person classes, and hands-on, outdoor activities. After becoming certified, Master Water Stewards provide 25 hours per year of volunteer support to their watershed organizations, helping to support outreach, education, and community engagement efforts.
Currently, the Washington Conservation District has funding from a Minnesota Clean Water grant to train and certify 20 stewards in Brown’s Creek, Carnelian-Marine-St. Croix, Comfort Lake – Forest Lake, Middle St. Croix, and South Washington Watersheds. Grant funding is also available to help stewards complete their capstone projects – projects such as raingardens, shoreline plantings, and rural lands habitat improvement. The first cohort of stewards will be certified in November, and the WCD is currently recruiting 12-14 new stewards for the 2018-19 program, which will begin in October.
Though Master Water Stewards all share a passion for protecting water resources, their interest areas, capstone projects, and volunteer efforts are quite diverse. Down the road from Scandia in Marine on St. Croix, steward-in-training John Goodfellow is working to develop a weed cooperative that could help local landowners manage invasive species such as buckthorn and garlic mustard. In Woodbury, Joan Nichols and Susan Goebel are creating a planting plan, and helping to design interpretive signs and lessons for two new outdoor classrooms at Lake and Middleton Schools. Meanwhile, Nichols’ husband Nathan Zerbe has developed a habitat improvement plan for Marsh Creek Preserve and is recruiting volunteers to help remove buckthorn during the summer. In Lakeland, Sally Arneson will be planting native plants to stabilize an eroding ditch near the St. Croix River and, down in Cottage Grove, Cole Williams is restoring a piece of shoreline property on the Mississippi River.
In addition to helping local partners to stretch limited resources, the Master Water Stewards program offers area residents a meaningful way to make new friends and get involved in their communities. Since 2013, Freshwater Society has certified 141 stewards in the Twin Cities area, and there are another 70 currently in training.
To learn more about Master Water Stewards or register on-line, go to: https://masterwaterstewards.org. Apply now to begin classes in October.