Posted: March 5, 2019

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 Steward 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 Steward 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."

Already, the volunteers have accomplished an impressive list of achievements:

  • Assisting the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection with water quality sampling
  • Assisting with stream cleanups and invasive plant removal, and planting riparian buffers
  • Taking the lead on inspecting and maintaining stormwater basins, reforesting areas, and creating nature trails
  • Designing and helping to install demonstration rain gardens at municipal buildings
  • Monitoring streams and ponds for mussels
  • 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

--Jeff Mulhollem