This story originally ran in January 2020. A new round of training for the Master Watershed Steward program will be held virtually, starting in March 2021. The Lower Susquehanna region covering Lancaster, Lebanon and Dauphin counties, will hold an online open house Wednesday, Jan. 13 at 6:30 p.m.

Pennsylvania has more than 86,000 miles of rivers, streams and creeks, second only to Alaska.

That’s a lot of freshwater streams and rivers to protect, repair and monitor.

The master watershed steward program hopes to train more volunteers to protect this vital natural resource. Launched six years ago in Pennsylvania, the program is now coming to Lancaster County. Organizers want to recruit about two dozen people to learn more about water and spread the word.

Water quality isn’t a new topic for communities surrounding the Susquehanna River. Pennsylvania has been pushed to do more to clean up the Chesapeake Bay for years. Just this week, Chesapeake Bay Foundation said it is considering suing to force the state to meet nitrogen-reduction targets. Cleaning up all of that pollution might sound like an overwhelming task, but change can start in our backyards.

Stephanie Lower, a master watershed steward, sees teaching moments even when she’s walking her dog in her Mountville neighborhood.

“If I see trash washed into the storm drain, I’m like, ‘Hello? Do you know where that’s going?’” she says.

Lower signed up for the master watershed steward program because she loves being outdoors. She’s planning to retire in a few years from her IT career and the watershed program sounded like a good volunteer opportunity. Lower signed up for the closest training and graduated with York County’s class of 2019.

She’s new to the program, but so far has helped plan a rain garden at a York city school. Lower will start monitoring a creek this month. She also joined a group of dozens of children and adults to plant trees along a tributary of the Susquehanna River.

Without master watershed stewards like Lower, it would have been difficult to make sure the trees were planted and planted properly, says Jodi Sulpizio , natural resources educator and the master watershed steward program coordinator in York County.

They’re also helpful in spreading the word on small steps people can take to protect waterways, such as adding native plants, putting up a rain barrel and disposing of chemicals properly.

How it works

Casey Clauser, master watershed steward program coordinator for Lancaster, Lebanon and Dauphin counties, will explain the program in an information session. Penn State Extension staff then will accept applications, conduct interview and select a class of 20-25 people from the three-county region.

While the program is geared to adults, it is open to teens under age 18 but they must be accompanied by an adult, Clauser says. There is also a $125 fee for those in the program.

The group will meet weekly, Tuesdays from 6-8:30 p.m., from March through May. The location of the training will be decided after staff know where the class lives. There will also be at least one Saturday field trip to a local water testing company.

Each regional program partners with local groups and businesses to provide expert speakers on topics such as invasive plants, stormwater management, stream ecology and water recreation.

After the training students needs to pass a test, contribute to a group project and volunteer 50 hours through the end of the year to become a master watershed steward. Then, each steward must volunteer 20 hours annually and spend 10 hours on continuing education.

The training is educational. It’s also a way to connect with others over a common interest. Sulpizio loves to see people connect across generations and over a wide range of careers, from bankers to preschool teachers.

The program isn’t meant to compete with existing environmental groups, Sulpizio and Clauser say, but rather train more volunteers for the ongoing work of those groups.

Clean water and conservation is such a huge issue in Lancaster County and the region, Lancaster Conservancy is supportive of training to get people involved and engaged, says Fritz Schroeder, senior vice president of community impact.

While the first training has yet to start, Clauser says he would like to repeat the sessions annually for a few years.

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