See more of the story

Terry Hammink used to look only skyward to view rain. Not anymore.

“When I walk around now, I notice all the water moving sideways,” said the retired social worker. Now he sees the rest of the story: sheets of rain rolling off roofs, streaming across parking lots, cascading across sidewalks and driveways, gushing down streets to spill into storm drains.

He’s one of two dozen volunteers getting a new perspective on water because of classes to become Master Water Stewards, the first program of its kind in Minnesota.

Modeled after the Master Gardener and Master Naturalist programs, it trains and certifies a cadre of people who can advise their neighbors about ways to improve local water quality, one property at a time.

Stormwater runoff carries fertilizer, bacteria, salt, dirt, litter, leaves and other pollutants directly into creeks, lakes and wetlands.

“What I never noticed before is just astounding to me,” said Mike McCabe, a retired librarian in the class. “I never stopped to think that the stormwater going into the drain is not getting treated anywhere, and it’s going straight from your sidewalk or street or driveway into the lake or into the creek.”

Water runoff is “a huge problem, and because [it] comes from everywhere, the solution has to come from everywhere,” said Peggy Knapp, director of programs at the nonprofit Freshwater Society near Lake Minnetonka. “What we’re trying to do is develop leadership at the neighborhood level and have those leaders reach out to their neighbors.”

The Freshwater Society partnered with the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, which received a $321,000 grant from the Clean Water Legacy Fund to set up a three-year pilot project. Knapp and others consulted with engineers, community organizers and water policy specialists to develop a curriculum. Knapp also drew from Master Water Steward programs in other states, especially in Maryland.

The program will train three groups of about 25 stewards over the next three summers, Knapp said, starting this year in Minneapolis and then moving west to the suburbs that line Minnehaha Creek. Members of the first class include community college students in water resource programs, undergraduates and recent graduates in environmental planning, retirees from social work, teaching and information technology, a woman who works in corporate human resources, a landscape designer and a landscape architect.

They signed up for 50 hours of training, mostly in three-hour evening classes from mid-April to August. The program also requires a capstone project in the fall to reduce stormwater runoff by building a rain garden or similar feature, and an outreach plan to educate neighbors about the work. The classes include basic hydrology and stormwater practices, and lots of technical details about how to design, construct, size and plant rain gardens.

Rainscaping at home

Rain gardens are natural basins in the landscape, or they may be shallow excavations planted with grasses, shrubs or flowers, Knapp said. The vegetation slows down and absorbs rain or snowmelt from roofs, driveways and parking lots. “The garden keeps the runoff out of the storm sewer system,” she said.

Landscape designer Erika Spande said she’s taking the class to “think about water on the forefront instead of afterwards.” Many designers install drains to remove water from landscapes as quickly as possible, she said, instead of trying to store and use it. And some in the industry steer clear of proposing rain gardens, Spande said, because of the mistaken impression that they need a lot of maintenance.

Roxanne Stuhr, a landscape architect who owns her own firm, said she’s taking the class to learn more about working with people to change behavior. That will be needed more in the future, she said, as climate change produces more intense rain storms that will further pollute lakes and streams.

“People experience big rains and there’s a great deal of runoff and people are wondering how we’re going to accommodate that,” she said. “I get a number of calls from people saying that water’s coming into their basements and it never did before.”

Neighborly advice

In exchange for the free training, water stewards agree to volunteer 50 hours over the next year — and 25 hours in subsequent years to remain certified — to speak to people about preventing urban pollution and improving water quality in their yards and neighborhoods. That might include answering questions at a farmers market or community fair or talking to townhouse associations, community leaders or church groups.

“Because they are literally a citizen volunteer, they can be seen as a citizen ambassador and leader,” said Leslie Yetka, education manager for the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District. “They’re not a government agency knocking on somebody’s door with a potential threat of some regulatory issue behind them.”

Several water steward candidates said before last week’s class at Pearl Park in Minneapolis that they’re already talking with friends and neighbors, and that many are concerned about water quality and eager to learn how they can help.

“Conversations are happening and people are very interested in doing something,” Stuhr said. “Something that’s responsible, not just responsive.”

Tom Meersman • 612-673-7388