Coming to a watershed near you!
Texas Watershed Steward program educates stakeholders across the state
Story by Leslie Jordan
One day a month, in communities all across Texas, groups composed of teachers, doctors, engineers, lawyers, students, and other interested citizens gather to learn about the local watershed and their role in protecting it. The Texas Watershed Steward program, implemented through a partnership between the Texas AgriLife Extension Service and the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board (TSSWCB), educates and empowers a wide range of stakeholders in communities with impaired or endangered watersheds.
"A lot of people don't know why their creek or river or lake is impaired," said Jennifer Peterson, AgriLife Extension program specialist in College Station. "They don't know what a watershed is, what is affecting the water quality, or why a watershed protection plan is needed. So the idea came about-how can we get the stakeholders knowledgeable and motivated to participate in locally driven efforts?"
This gap in stakeholder education led a team of AgriLife Extension water specialists to develop the Texas Watershed Steward (TWS) program, which held its first workshop in December 2007. In addition to Peterson, the group includes Dr. Mark McFarland, professor, state soil fertility specialist and state water quality coordinator; Nikki Dictson, AgriLife Extension program specialist; Matt Berg, AgriLife Extension program specialist; and Dr. Diane Boellstorff, assistant professor and AgriLife Extension water resources specialist.
The TWS team created the program in response to federal and state strategies regarding watersheds. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the most effective way to address current water resources challenges is through a watershed approach, implemented via either a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) or a watershed protection plan (WPP). TWS focuses on educating watershed stakeholders so they can help their communities develop and implement effective plans to improve and protect their water resources.
"We want to empower them to become the driving force in the planning process because really, that's the whole goal-it's not for agencies to write a plan and deliver it to the stakeholders; it's for the stakeholders to get invested, develop the plan, and get assistance from the agencies," McFarland said. "If that doesn't work, if we can't make it voluntary, then the only other option is regulation, which can lead to more strict limitations for certain activities and land uses in the watershed."
Although some workshops are in watersheds already implementing a WPP or TMDL, TWS works to present the one-day event in advance of planning efforts, so that a base of educated and equipped community stakeholders is established.
"Ideally, we hit a watershed where funding has been received and a plan is just getting started, and we try to target all stakeholders- farmers, ranchers, business owners, city personnel, teachers, youth," Peterson said. "So we try to teach them, give them a day of hands-on, applicable watershed education, and provide them with the basic knowledge they need to participate effectively."
The workshop includes interactive presentations and activities led by the TWS team tailored to each watershed. The team uses Google Earth™ to display the home watershed, discuss its aspects and impairments, and then zoom out to show how the watershed-like all in Texas-feeds into the Gulf of Mexico.
"That is often an eye-opening moment, and we get a lot of positive feedback about that segment where they see how their watershed affects other downstream watersheds and eventually drains into the Gulf of Mexico," McFarland said.
TWS has conducted workshops in 15 watersheds so far. Each has included videos, visual stations, and a demonstration of a simulator showing rainfall and runoff in different landuse types. The day's instruction covers topics from basic watershed knowledge to specific issues regarding that watershed. Participants from other areas still learn pertinent information and actions that they can take home with them, Peterson said.
"We've found that people have traveled from hundreds of miles away to come to these workshops," Peterson said. "So we do tailor it in such a way that people not living in that watershed find the information applicable."
Local county AgriLife Extension agents and other representatives from regional, state, and federal agencies, including the EPA, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and TSSWCB, participate in the workshops. At the end of the day, participants can share thoughts and ideas about their watershed and the upcoming planning process with each other and agency personnel.
"It's very helpful for people to see and interact with representatives from these agencies," McFarland said. "The agency becomes more real and accessible, and a partner in the process."
Funding from TSSWCB, as well as support from the Texas Water Resources Institute (TWRI), has enabled the TWS program to grow. TWRI and TWS have collaborated in several watersheds, including hosting TWS workshops in the Arroyo Colorado and Buck Creek Watersheds, where TWRI is working to develop and implement WPPs. TWS works in collaboration with and in support of water resource management agencies in Texas, which Peterson and McFarland agreed has been key to making TWS so successful.
To continually evaluate their efforts, the TWS team distributes pre- and post-assessments at its workshops and follow-up questionnaires six months later. Their results have shown a 31 percent increase in knowledge related to topics such as watershed function, nonpoint source pollution, and water quality protection. The team has found that participants are implementing their new knowledge as Texas Watershed Stewards back home in their communities.
"We are increasing knowledge, and people are doing what they say they are going to do, whether that be maintaining best management practices on their property, getting involved in local planning and zoning decisions, writing a newsletter or article, teaching a local school class about water quality, or participating in clean-ups," Peterson said.
"We bring this program into watersheds to educate and engage the local stakeholders, so they better understand that it is in fact their watershed, their surface water and groundwater, and they have both the opportunity and the responsibility for managing and protecting it," McFarland said. "They realize how very important it is to them and their children, and future generations, to get involved."