As the sun peeked out on a muggy August morning, the leaves of Harsha Amin-Thom’s black-eyed Susans sparkled with raindrops from a shower that seemed to dissipate as quickly as it came.
“Just a few minutes ago, we saw this thing in action,” she said, gesturing to the skinny gray drain built into the concrete strip on the side of her garage. It’s hard to notice, but the stretch slopes ever so slightly — making the 28-foot trench’s route a calculated one, designed to divert rainwater into Amin-Thom’s blooming garden.
Amin-Thom, a 34-year-old software developer, constructed the trench drain and rain garden in her Fridley yard to prevent gallons of stormwater runoff from entering Minnesota waters. It’s part of her training to become a Master Water Steward, a title earned by more than 250 volunteers across the state.
Their mission? To improve local water quality, one yard at a time.
“Making people aware of how you keep your bodies of water clean is really important,” Amin-Thom said. “Especially with 10,000 lakes around.”
The Master Water Stewards program, launched in 2013, is a partnership between more than a dozen watershed districts and the Freshwater Society, a Minnesota-based nonprofit focused on the conservation of natural resources. Over the course of a year, participants are taught how to decrease the amount of pollutants — such as salt, litter, sediment and fertilizer — flowing into lakes, rivers and streams.
Since her training, Amin-Thom has paid attention to details about her yard that didn’t seem noteworthy in the past, such as the texture of the terrain, and the heights and depths of little peaks and valleys. Such qualities can help one understand where water flows and how well it’s absorbed by the earth, crucial factors to consider when contemplating how to minimize runoff.
Keeping water clean is especially important in Minnesota, Amin-Thom said, as home to the Mississippi River headwaters.
“You put a chemical in your lawn, that chemical will end up in the Gulf of Mexico,” she said.
That’s why, across the state, communities are investing in stewards with the hope that they will share their new knowledge and inspire others to make simple changes that can have a significant effect on water quality, said Deirdre Coleman, program coordinator for Freshwater.
“We’re building a water army,” she said.
Small changes, big difference
Michelle Natarajan paused for a second to wipe her brow, then grabbed her spade and continued to rip up all the sod in front of her house, a two-story abode painted white with blue trim around the windows.
To receive certification, stewards are required to complete a capstone project that measurably improves local water quality. A volunteer crew of six braved the summer heat to help Natarajan and her husband, Krishna, transform their St. Paul property into a bee lawn, a mix of fescue grasses and wildflowers that requires less mowing, less fertilizer and less water than traditional green grass.
Though Natarajan, 36, had a background in environmental science, the Master Water Stewards program led her to integrate her expertise into everyday life.
“I applied this knowledge in a way that I hadn’t really before, in a way that’s closer to home — literally,” she said as she shoveled piles of dirt just a few feet away from her front stoop.
Other stewards have installed permeable pavers, built rain barrels and led lakeshore restorations for their capstones. In all, the projects help more than a million gallons of water infiltrate soil each year, according to the program’s website.
“I think this is me trying to make that small difference and be conscious of how my everyday choices can impact water quality in the neighborhood,” Natarajan said. “And, hopefully, it’s inspiring others to do the same.”
A grass-roots movement
A couple in a car stopped in the street outside Amin-Thom’s house to roll down a window and ask what she was doing. Another inquisitive passerby couldn’t resist the urge to ring Natarajan’s doorbell — he just had to know why her lawn was covered in plastic tarps.
Stewards understand that, when there’s a lot of digging and dirt in the front yard, curious neighbors often stop by to check out the action. The stewards eager to answer questions and are expected to develop an outreach plan to educate others.
Partner organizations — usually a watershed, but sometimes a city or county — typically pay about $2,000 for each steward’s “tuition.” Depending on their sponsor, stewards may be asked to pay a one-time fee of up to $200 for access to what Darren Lochner, who works for the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, described as the “almost college-level” curriculum the program offers; that covers everything from basic water science to eco-friendly landscaping tricks.
After completing the course’s 12 in-person sessions and capstone requirement, stewards are asked to complete 50 hours of service in their first year of certification in return, and 25 hours each year after that.
Ultimately, stewards are meant to be resources for their neighbors, Lochner said, exemplifying some of the low-cost ways homeowners can effect change.
“All of those practices, added up, can make a difference,” he said.
The ‘water army’
In the back corner of Unmapped Brewing Co. in Minnetonka, a group chatted and flipped through pamphlets as they sipped on cold beers. Coleman spoke with a small crowd of eight prospective stewards gathered to learn more about the program, recruiting for her “water army.”
The next cohort of Master Water Stewards will begin training in October, and Coleman is hoping to add about 80 people to the program’s ranks. Those interested can attend one of Freshwater’s information sessions and fill out the steward application online at masterwaterstewards.org.
This year, for the first time, Master Water Stewards is expanding beyond the metro area. The program’s inaugural southeastern Minnesota cohort marks its first steps toward becoming a statewide operation, a shift Coleman said she hopes to see continue.
More than 70 percent of land in the state is owned privately, Coleman said, meaning that the options cities, counties and other units of local government have to improve water quality are limited.
A massive map of Minnesota covered the brewery wall behind her, speckled with blue splotches and squiggles representing the state’s many beloved lakes and rivers.
“We’re not going to actually have an impact on the health of our water unless we involve people that can do work on this private land,” Coleman said. “Actual citizens have to be a part of that work in order to be successful.”