Guardians of our freshwater

Minnesota Water Stewards connect over clean water


What thoughts or images come to mind when you hear “freshwater”? Do you see a sparkling lake, hear water lapping against the shoreline, feel it tickling your toes? Is it a gurgling creek winding through woods and meadows to an unseen destination?
The darker picture: Freshwater faces continual threat.
One huge threat comes from stormwater run-off. Salt laden roads and walkways increase the salinity of water more each year. Per the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency: “Chloride from de-icing salt and water softener salt gets into lakes, streams and groundwater that supplies drinking water. One teaspoon of salt permanently pollutes five gallons of water. Fifty lakes and streams have chloride levels too high to meet the standards designed to protect fish and other aquatic life; 75 more are nearing that level.”
So, is there a bright side?
What thoughts or images emerge when you hear the term Minnesota Water Stewards? Oft an unseen force, they are growing network of neighbors in the community. But who are they and what do they do?
In 2013 Freshwater, a non-profit organization dedicated to protection, conservation and restoration of all freshwater, created a program called Minnesota Water Stewards (formerly Master Water Stewards) in partnership with Minnehaha Creek Watershed District (MCWD) to train citizen volunteers to be leaders in their community. The goal: protecting freshwater. Water Stewards act as leaders, educating on ways to prevent water pollution and showing community members ways to conserve and protect waterways. Freshwater Society Education and Program Coordinator Alex Van Loh reported they are 470 strong, and growing.
As part of her daily work with landscape clients, Standish resident Roxanne Stuhr said she is painfully aware of how natural resources, particularly water, are routinely compromised by human activities. Keen to make a difference in her community, she considered the Water Steward program as an opportunity. Stuhr was among the first group certified by the program. Stuhr said, “One of my biggest rewards comes from guiding people through the process of creating their own individual take on an effective system and seeing them be proud and excited of their contribution.”
Former Freshwater Director of Programs, Peggy Knappb, explained the underlying program concept. “It starts with an assumption that everyone cares about clean water. Everything at every moment of every day depends on it, but most people don’t know how to act on that idea. We wanted to teach people behaviors, actions they could apply individually. People are more apt to trust information from someone they know, like a neighbor, rather than an expert who’s a stranger. So, the idea was to educate a core group who would teach their neighbor. And then it spreads neighbor to neighbor, building relationships into a locally-based leadership.”
Sue Nissen, of Edina, recounted growing up in the midwest with fond memories of summers spent at the lake. “The water is both energizing and calming,” she said. “It’s just part of me, and we are all made of water.” Nissen became a Minnesota Water Steward. “The training itself was really great,” she said, “not just knowledge, but the forming of relationships with others…many permanent friendships.”
Nissen completed a collaborative capstone project at Union Congregational Church in St Louis Park in 2015. “It was really a great experience and a wonderful success,” she said. “It’s funny,” she added, “as a water steward I thought I’d just be digging holes, working on little projects, but it’s become about educating and reaching out to others to help them understand how vital clean water is and how ridiculous it is to contaminate our fresh water.” Nissen is also a founding member of StopOverSalting (SOS) in Minnesota, working to support legislation aimed at reducing oversalting practices within the private sector.
A Minnesota Water Steward’s work is ongoing. They commit minimally 25 hours annually of outreach and educating their community about clean water practices. A steward represents just the tip of an iceberg, each connecting to many people in their own community, with effects far reaching. Knappb summarized: “From one small change you create over what you can control (like keeping storm water on your property) you see yourself differently, as a person who does things to protect water, and you feel inspired to take more want to share and it grows from there.”
Van Loh described the program’s ongoing focus: empowerment and engagement of the community to address local water pollution and increase public awareness, education and action on water quality issues. He explained that the program is evolving including a new branch called Water Conservation Advisor (WCA). And there is Art for Water, another way to reach the community. Following coursework completion, a public art installation furthers outreach and inspires yet more individuals to care for Minnesota’s water.
You don’t have to be certified as a water steward to make a difference. There are many ways that you can choose to be the difference, from simple to complex. Examples: keeping yard and pet waste off the street and out of storm drains, directing gutters to the yard instead of the street or adding a rain garden. Also, reduction or elimination of fertilizer and pesticides and switching from lead to non-toxic tackle. Their website provides a starting point to learning and considering your options.


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