A program that improves local water quality one property at a time is making its way into the west metro.

The Master Water Stewards program is finishing its debut year in Minneapolis and will extend its reach in 2014 to Edina, Hopkins, St. Louis Park and other western suburbs that line Minnehaha Creek.

The program trains and certifies 25 volunteers each year to advise their neighbors about rain gardens, rain barrels and other ways to protect local lakes and streams from stormwater runoff. It is modeled after the Master Gardener and Master Naturalist programs and includes 50 hours of training, mostly in three-hour evening classes, and a capstone project that puts their training to the test.

Many of the projects reduce stormwater runoff, which carries fertilizer, bacteria, pet wastes, salt, dirt, litter, leaves and other pollutants directly into creeks, lakes and wetlands. Rain barrels and rain gardens capture the water to feed plants and shrubs instead of flushing into streets.

The program began accepting online applications last week for next year’s class at www.masterwaterstew ards.org.

“It’s not just about getting a certification and then talking to neighbors,” said Peggy Knapp, director of programs at the nonprofit Freshwater Society, which organized the classes. “We’re asking people to take action, which we think is really attractive to a lot of folks.”

That was evident recently when stewards and others worked on a project near the corner of 42nd Street and Nokomis Avenue in south Minneapolis during a rainy afternoon. Volunteers planted a rain garden on part of a yard on private property that had been excavated earlier. Rain gardens are shallow basins that collect rain from roofs, driveways and sidewalks so it doesn’t run off into streets.

At the bottom of the garden where water can pool, volunteers planted sedges, bee balm and black chokeberry — “wet feet” plants that can tolerate a certain amount of standing water. Further up the slope they installed blazing star, liatris, black-eyed susans and purple coneflower — all perennial native plants.

The rain made for muddy work, said Roxanne Stuhr, one of the stewards who organized the project, but it didn’t dampen the workers’ enthusiasm. “The rain itself became a teaching tool,” she said, “because people could watch how the water moved into the rain garden and where it settled like it was supposed to.”

Knapp said the first class of master water stewards has designed about a dozen projects with volunteer homeowners that will be installed this fall and next spring. The Freshwater Society partnered with the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District to develop the training program. The District received a $321,000 grant from the Clean Water Legacy Fund to set up the three-year pilot project.

Homeowner help

In exchange for the free training, the water stewards also will volunteer 50 hours over the next year — and 25 hours in subsequent years — to remain certified. Their activities will include talking with their neighbors and others about how to prevent urban pollution and improve water quality in their yards and neighborhoods. In addition to projects, they might answer questions at farmers markets or community fairs, respond to e-mail queries on the program’s website, or talk to church groups or townhouse associations.

“We’re kind of a conduit between the homeowners and everybody else that they need to be in touch with to get projects done,” said Erika Spande, another member of the first watershed stewards class. Spande said she learned not only about basic hydrology and horticulture, but also about where homeowners might seek matching grants to help defray costs of a project, and how designers and contractors can help get projects in the ground.

Spande said neighbors are noticing rain garden projects and the “Clean Water Starts Here” signs that are posted near some of them. “There’s great potential for this [water stewards program] in the future,” she said. “Because this is the kickoff of it, we’re kind of learning as we go.”