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Stewards of the Bay: Trained Right Here at Home

Jul 20, 2012 04:26PM ● By Anonymous

They’re stewards. Learning and working to graduate from Arlington Echo’s Watershed Stewards Academy.

What started several years ago as a partnership between Anne Arundel County schools and the Department of Public Works has developed into a five-month program that teaches individuals in the area how to better their communities, and how to be better for their communities. During the initial partnership, the Dept. of Public Works built projects centered on plant ecosystem restoration, and Arlington Echo supported and utilized those projects by involving their campers, students, and visitors to help with mini projects, like growing plants for the Dept.’s garden projects, and so on. Parents and the community were getting more and more excited about the projects and wanted to get involved.

“We very quickly understood that there are not enough hours in the day to work with all of the communities and community members who wanted to do something real to help reduce pollution,” says Suzanne Etgen, Watershed Stewards Academy Coordinator. “So we thought, ‘Why don’t we duplicate ourselves? Teach other people what we know about?’”

In 2009, after founding, networking and fundraising, the Academy was born.

Each “class” is made up of about 25 students who range in age from 20-something to 80-something. In addition to pursuing stewardship, most of the students work full, some are retired and others are stay-at-home moms. Etgen says that most of them live on or near the water and are well-educated, and about half have some professional interest in the environment, like folks from the Environmental Protection Agency or in the landscaping industry.

But, as a component of such a community outreach program, the Academy reaches even further.
“In addition to the stewards, we have about 80 professionals and organizations in Anne Arundel County that come from nonprofits, water-keeping, soil conservation, etc., that have agreed to be part of this,” says Etgen. “Some might instruct classes, or mentor stewards, and help us to spread the word.” To recruit new stewards, the Academy also works with the Chesapeake Network, Etgen says, a professional network for people working on restoration projects across all six watershed states. Currently, the Academy is working toward recruiting more stewards from the northern part of the county, where there aren’t as many established watershed organizations, as well as more stewards of minority and underserved populations, Etgen says.

But what, exactly, do they do?

A lot, actually. The classes start in fall, typically in October, and go through March, when stewards are challenged to complete a capstone project, including a rainscaping installation. In total, stewards complete 64 hours of classroom and field training.

During the course of their classroom instruction, they meet roughly weekly to discuss and explore all aspects of pollution—how to prevent it, control it and clean it up—and how to influence others to guard our natural resources from pollution as well, including learning about and changing behaviors, and general community engagement.

watershedFor the capstone project, stewards work in small groups to complete a neighborhood assessment identifying pollutant sources and the opportunity for restoration, in addition to a social assessment of the neighborhood they choose to work in, including the demographics and characteristics of the “audience” in the neighborhood. From there, the group identifies a single behavior they’d like to help change, and creates a behavior change program. “They may try to change the way people handle pet waste, or try to keep the storm drainage free of leaves,” says Etgen. “It’s modeled after Doug McKenzie-Mohr’s community-based program…He wrote a book called Fostering Sustainable Behavior.”

Etgen offers her personal example of a behavior she’s had to change in herself: using reusable grocery bags. “For whatever reason, I just couldn’t remember to use them. I’m certainly motivated, so that wasn’t the issue, but I could never remember to take them in the store with me.” Etgen says she had to think about what her barriers were. To help encourage herself to use them, she started by storing them in the trunk, then in the car, and even on the passenger seat, to no avail. Finally, she says, she put a sticky note on her steering wheel. “That’s my prompt,” she says.

 “So these stewards decide what behavior [they want to change],” she says, and from there, they determine their outreach tool and their strategy. “Do [the community members] just not know what they’re doing?” she asks. Maybe they need education. “Do they just forget? They’d need a prompt,” she says. “Are they not motivated? Maybe they need a commitment tool.”

“Changing people’s behavior is a big, long process,” says Etgen. “And we don’t want to just tell people about the problems in the Bay… or educate for education’s sake… we want to change their behaviors.”

In addition to the behavior change component of the project, students must individually complete a rainscaping project, such as the installation of rain barrels or rain gardens, or planting trees. Stewards have seven months to complete the projects.

“We want the end result of having these stewards in the community to be that those communities will reduce their pollutants and change their behaviors. If we don’t put as much pollution out there, we won’t have to clean it up,” Etgen says. “Changing our behavior is an unsung way of cleaning up the Bay that we hadn’t tried adequately… also, we want to change the landscape. Physical changes.”

Old-Mill-3And with 25 students per year each completing a rainscaping projecting, the Academy is certainly doing that.

Members of this year’s class planted a conservational garden at North County High School, built a living shoreline in the Ben Oaks community of Severna Park, and hosted a boat launch dedication and environmental outreach event at High Point Community in Pasadena that included water testing and other educational activities. The list of the class’s productivity goes on.

So far in its three-year lifetime, the WSA has seen nearly 60 projects completed. And the work continues. In addition to new classes each year, established stewards are required to complete 40 hours of community service in the form of “Watershed Action” per year, plus at least 12 hours of continuing education per year to maintain their certification.

“The stewards… continue to empower their community to make changes [behaviorally and to] the landscapes, and we hope they will continue to help their community,” says Etgen. “It’s amazing. The stewards are a long-term presence and an environmental resource for the community.”

The support is reciprocated back to the stewards from the Academy.

“It’s all about educating and supporting. Supporting certified stewards with continuing education, materials for outreach projects and restoration projects, and training new ones,” says Etgen. “It’s a grassroots effort.”

And with 64 percent of the land in our county privately owned (according to Etgen), it’s an important one.

“We want to empower the community to take control of their own watershed,” she says. “We need to take matters into our own hands to really reduce pollution.”

To learn more about becoming a Wastershed Steward for your community, visit The Academy is currently recruiting stewards for the 2012-2013 class.