CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. — When asked why they were drawn to apply to the Master Watershed Steward (MWS) program, people often share a story that involves a favorite body of water, or a special outdoor place that, over time, was transformed, became polluted or was otherwise impacted. Other stories involve family camping, hiking, or fishing trips, spending time in or around water, playing outside as a child, or enchantment with trees or insects or birds.
These early life experiences with nature can prompt people into action, and the MWS programs provides the opportunity to do just that – act. Most applicants say they want to contribute to a solution, to make a positive difference. They want to help keep waterways clean for wildlife, future generations, or just because it’s the right thing to do and it really matters.
What is the MWS Program?
Modeled after the successful Master Gardener Program, the Master Watershed Steward Program was first launched in Lehigh County in 2013 to train a pool of volunteers to help protect water resources and educate residents. Since then, the statewide MWS coordinator, Erin Frederick, has been busy securing funding to expand the program into more counties, and recruiting and hiring coordinators. By the end 2021, 30 counties in Pennsylvania will have MWS Programs.
Applicants agree to participate in 40 hours of training and commit to 50 hours of volunteer work the first year to become certified as a Master Watershed Steward. To maintain certification during subsequent years, 20 hours of volunteer work and 10 hours of continuing education are required each year. There is a $125 fee for the training, which covers the cost of the manual, nametags, and other resources. Financial aid may be made available upon request.
In addition to general science topics, training session topics also include stormwater best management practices/green infrastructure, working with municipalities, education and communication skills, and equity and environmental justice. In a normal, non-Covid-19, year 12-15 of those training hours would be field trips to study local lakes or streams, tour water treatment plants or farms, or investigate riparian buffer planting sites.
What do MWS Volunteers do?
Master Watershed Stewards engage in projects such as organizing and leading stream cleanups, helping to install riparian buffers, rain gardens or pollinator meadows, leading rain barrel workshops for homeowners, educating school students about watersheds, engaging in water quality monitoring, writing newsletter articles, or conducting research projects. The volunteers help educate their community about how local waterways and the Chesapeake Bay become polluted, and what we can all do to reduce those impacts. Because the program attracts individuals with a variety of backgrounds, interests and skills, stewards not only put their talents into action, but also exchange knowledge and experience with their fellow volunteers.
The Collective Value
The Cumberland County MWS program was launched in 2019 with the first class of 24 trainees completing their training early last summer. A new class is currently being trained – eight trainees from Cumberland County log into to weekly statewide training sessions along with 250 other MWS trainees. The total number of volunteers in Pennsylvania is now more than 500. Since 2013, more than 50,000 volunteer hours have been logged, at a value of $1.5 million statewide.
Partnerships are the backbone of the MWS Program. Partner organizations help conduct the training classes as well as collaborate with program coordinators and volunteers on projects. In Cumberland County, partners include area colleges and universities, governmental (state, county, and municipality), and non-governmental agencies, area school districts, conservation non-profits, and local businesses. These are our go-to organizations for deeper training (such as riparian buffer establishment), expertise (such as in-stream engineering and structures), guidance, and resources.
Join the MWS Team!
The MWS program is expanding into Franklin and Adams counties in 2021! We will be seeking community partners, as well as individuals interested in being trained and volunteering to benefit their waterways, wildlife, and communities. Watch for more information to be distributed via Penn State Extension, area watershed associations, non-profits, conservation districts, and other channels.
To get a glimpse of Cumberland County MWS’s first year, check out the Winter 2020 newsletter here: https://sway.office.com/oS8hBcSMEZbRDEil. If you have any questions or wish to learn more, please contact Holly Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
–Holly Smith, Penn State Extension