Penn State Extension's Master Watershed Stewards are making a difference in Pa.

Jeff Mulhollem
August 30, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In a state with more than 12 million people and robust agricultural and resource-extraction industries, the water quality in Pennsylvania's more than 86,000 miles of streams and rivers is always a dicey proposition. But a statewide volunteer group marshaled by Penn State Extension is starting to make a difference.

About five years old, the Master Watershed Stewards program — which was founded to strengthen the local capacity for management and protection of watersheds, streams and rivers by educating and empowering volunteers across the Commonwealth — is established in 13 counties and looking to expand further. With more than 300 volunteers trained in watershed management, the program was recently the recipient of the Governor's Award for Environmental Excellence.

In return for the training, those volunteers have donated nearly 23,000 hours to improving water quality, and the value of that time is pegged at more than a half-million dollars. Program administrators estimate that Master Watershed Steward volunteers have made nearly 250,000 educational contacts to inform their communities about watershed stewardship based on university research and recommendations.

Master Watershed Stewards

Master Watershed Stewards are helping the Watershed Alliance of York develop the  Codorus Water Trail, shown here. They created and installed interpretive signs about the history of the Codorus Creek and the natural history/ecology of the waterway. Volunteers also built a trail to the creek to provide easy access for residents to launch canoes and kayaks. The goal is to give them more direct contact with the stream that will increase appreciation of its historical, economic and ecological importance.

IMAGE: Tim Senft

Already, the volunteers have accomplished an impressive list of achievements, a few of which follow:

  • Assisting the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection with water-quality sampling.
  • Assisting with stream cleanups, invasive plant removal and the planting of riparian buffers. 
  • Taking the lead on inspecting and maintaining stormwater basins, reforesting appropriate areas and creating nature trails.
  • Designing and helping to install demonstration rain gardens at municipal buildings.  
  • Monitoring streams and ponds for mussels and reporting the data to the Partnership for the Delaware Estuary. (There are plans for the volunteer stewards to help reseed mussels into acceptable waterways.)
  • Building rain barrels and conducting rain-barrel workshops. 
  • Improving water trails and enhancing recreational stream access. 
  • Organizing educational projects that promote public awareness of water-quality issues.

Master Watershed Stewards Coordinator Erin Frederick noted that government regulators and environmental professionals need help.

"No matter how many paid protectors of water quality there are, they can't possibly accomplish all the one-on-one outreach, engagement and action needed to bring changes to so many sites, over so great an area," she said.

"Watershed Stewards help to bridge the gap in time and labor." 

Master watershed stewards

Artwork like this in York — which was created through a project the Master Watershed Stewards helped launch -—serves as an ongoing environmental education opportunity to teach people about stormwater and the negative impacts it can have on waterways.

IMAGE: Penn State Extension

One steward who is enthusiastic about the program and is enjoying volunteering is Matt Hartman, of York. For him, getting involved with the effort to promote water quality was only natural. "I just love water — I always have. I love it when it's flowing and when it's still. I love what it can do for us when we respect it," he said. 

"Storm runoff affects everybody and everything, and with me being in building construction, I have to deal with a lot of stormwater. We create impervious surfaces that stormwater runs off, and dealing with it properly is very important to the environment. The runoff needs to go somewhere without carrying sediment and pollution with it."  

Hartman values the opportunity to learn the science behind protecting watersheds and relishes passing on the knowledge to others.

"People need to understand the importance of controlling stormwater runoff, how we can keep clean, safe drinking water, and how to keep bacteria out of the water by the proper handling of our sewage discharges," said Hartman. "It feels right to me to help get the word out."

Most of the Master Watershed Stewards have similar feelings, Frederick believes. And — perhaps unexpectedly — she has seen the program benefit the volunteers almost as much as they help the program.

"We found that when we interview people for the program, they always have an interest in the environment, but they never felt like they had enough education, and they didn't know how they could plug in to the local environmental community," she said.

"So our training gives them that confidence and background to take on volunteer opportunities. A lot of our folks, the longer they have been in the program, the more effective leaders they become. That's what we're most proud of — these people previously were not involved, and now they are, for example, becoming board members of watershed groups, and they are able to handle projects on their own."

Frederick suggested that a key strength of the Master Watershed Stewards program is collaboration with local and state organizations, agencies and government, including the Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Trout Unlimited, Stroud Water Research Center, county conservation districts, Pennsylvania Environmental Council, Pennsylvania Sea Grant, conservancies and the Watershed Coalition of the Lehigh Valley.

The Master Watershed Stewards always are looking for more help, and Frederick urges anyone with a desire to volunteer to improve water quality to visit the website or contact her for more information at 610-391-9840 or elf145@psu.edu.

  • artist paints storm drain

    An artist paints a storm drain in York. The Master Watershed Stewards helped get a storm drain art project called "Street 2 Creek York" started. It replicates a growing trend in cities across the nation where contests are held for artists interested in painting environmentally themed murals above storm drains.

    IMAGE: Penn State Extension
Last Updated September 05, 2018