OSU watershed education reaches communities across Oregon

March 21, 2003

CORVALLIS - In Tillamook County, a new water quality testing lab finds a home in a local school. In Klamath County, collaboration is replacing conflict despite a devastating drought.

Group of adults near stream participating in Watershed class.Throughout the state, neighborhood streams are cleared of invasive species and trash.

These are a few of the accomplishments of a growing corps of watershed stewards who spend their weekends slogging through neighborhood streams and learning about wetlands as part of the Watershed Stewardship Education Program (WSEP), a collaborative program of Oregon State University Extension Service and Extension Sea Grant.

The four-month program, taught by OSU faculty and local experts, focuses on eight different aspects of watershed stewardship, from soil erosion and water quality monitoring to building community awareness and cooperation. Participants who complete a 40-hour community project in addition to the education program become Master Watershed Stewards.

"The main purpose of the Watershed Stewardship Education Program is to provide people with principles that they can put into practice," said Derek Godwin, OSU Extension watershed specialist. "A community of watershed enhancement involves everyone from volunteers, to city representatives to landowners. This is the educational piece of a very big vision."

In just three years, more than 600 people in Oregon have participated in the program, including teachers, farmers, foresters, neighborhood groups and watershed council members, according to Tara Nierenberg, statewide WSEP coordinator. Of those, about 400 Master Watershed Stewards have completed community projects, donating 16,000 hours toward watershed stewardship across the state.

WSEP has received international interest and inquiries from Texas to Pakistan.

Group of adult people sitting around table looking at map."The Watershed Stewardship Education Program adds tremendous value to what watershed councils can accomplish," said Ken Bierly, deputy director of the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board. "It provides a common scientific background for council members and a common base of understanding for enhancement projects undertaken by private or public groups."

"I'm impressed that despite the political noise surrounding water issues, volunteers from this program have waded in and quietly accomplished things, working together without a huge amount of money or political uproar," said Beth Lambert, OSU Watershed Management Extension Agent for Tillamook and Clatsop counties.

In Tillamook County, for example, water problems can come in floods, when bacteria-laden pollution is washed into streams and estuaries. For years, a watershed council volunteer named Gale Ousele collected water samples throughout the Nestucca-Neskowin watersheds and drove the samples to a distant lab for analysis.

"I realized that if water sampling and analysis were more visible, it would be more meaningful," said Ousele, who became a Master Watershed Steward through the OSU program. Ousele is now the driving force behind setting up a water quality testing lab in a local school, where students and residents can be a part of monitoring local water quality.

"The lessons of water will be in local hands for local teaching," said Ousele.

Harder to measure but equally important is WSEP's ability to increase tolerance among people with different values.

In Klamath County, for example, water issues can be divisive. In 2001, an ever-worsening drought heightened conflicts over unresolved water rights. With not enough water to go around, irrigation was curtailed for the growing season.

"It seemed like the timing was right for people to learn more about an issue that was a concern in the community at the time," said Denise Buck, watershed educator at the Klamath County office of OSU Extension Service.

Buck hosted the watershed program, thinking a handful of people might be interested. To her surprise, the program filled to capacity, with teachers, farmers, agriculture and tribal representatives, activists and skeptics. There was so much interest that Buck filled a second program later in the year.

Despite their eagerness, participants weren't speaking to each other at the beginning of the first class, divided by the polarity of their opinions. Ruth Mirth, Master Watershed Steward and coordinator of the local watershed council, described the transformation that occurred during the next four months.

"The single most amazing outcome, besides the high level of education, was that by the last field trip, everyone sat together and talked," said Mirth. "In learning about the health of the watershed, we found common ground. We learned the complexity of water use issues and why people have different opinions. We all came to recognize each other as part of a community."

The Watershed Stewardship Education Program is offered each year in several places throughout the state. For information, call toll free, 877-652-0302, or check the website at: http://seagrant.oregonstate.edu/wsep/.

For more information on "Watershed Stewardship: A Learning Guide," EM 8714, visit our on-line catalog. Our publications and video catalog at: http://extension.oregonstate.edu/catalog shows which publications are available on the Web and which can be ordered as printed publications.

Author: Peg Herring
Source: Tara Nierenberg, Derek Godwin