Pennsylvania Legacies #154: Mastering Watersheds

The mission of Penn State Extension is to bring the scientific and practical expertise of PSU researchers and faculty throughout the Commonwealth. But even with offices in every county, extension staff can’t be everywhere at once. That’s where master volunteers come in. PSU Extension’s Master Gardener program is familiar to many, but did you know you can also train to become a Master Watershed Steward? We talk with program coordinator Erin Frederick.

Local watershed associations and their volunteers are the lifeblood of water conservation efforts in Pennsylvania. They’re the people who identify the needs, find the funding, and take on many of the important watershed projects in their own communities. 

However, many groups have a problem: program participants are aging out, and they’re not being replaced fast enough. So the folks at Penn State Extension — home of Pennsylvania’s popular Master Gardeners program — started the Master Watershed Stewards program to train a new pool of dedicated volunteers. 

Almost a decade later, Master Watershed Stewards are in 30 counties, organizing cleanups, planting riparian buffers, and growing local volunteer networks. The Penn State Extension program provides training in watershed management to volunteers who, in return, share their stewardship knowledge with their own communities. 

Around 20 people are selected for the program each year. People from all backgrounds are welcome to apply for the program. According to Erin Frederick, Statewide Master Watershed Steward Coordinator, they’ve had everyone from engineers, to grocery store clerks, to retired teachers participate in the program. 

Ultimately we want to know that whoever goes through our training really wants to help the community.

“It’s a mix and that’s really what we want. We’re hoping to bring new faces into conservation,” said Frederick. “Anyone who has the slightest interest in the environment can participate in our training and get involved.”

Most importantly, program applicants should have a strong interest in volunteering. 

“Ultimately we want to know that whoever goes through our training really wants to help the community. If they just want the knowledge, they just want the 40 hours of training and that’s it, we try to steer them to some of our workshops or our partners’ workshops,” said Frederick. 

Master Watershed Stewards are required to give a minimum of 50 hours of volunteer service during their first year, and then 20 hours of volunteer time and 10 hours of continuing education each subsequent year to maintain their status as an active volunteer. 

The training program covers a wide range of topics, including properties of water, natural landscapes, human impacts, soil geology, climate change native, invasive plants, and environmental education and communication. While some watershed issues like protecting riparian buffer zones and managing stormwater are common throughout the state, trainings may differ from county to county. 

Learn more about the program and how to become a Master Watershed Steward here.