Thursday, February 14, 2013

Legacy of Learning: Louise Watson and the Evolution of the District's Education Program

Louise and LEAP Frog at WaterFest
By Louise Watson

In January 1994, Minnesota became the 8th state in which I've had the opportunity to work on environmental issues. In the western states (CO, NM, UT, ID, CA, WA, and SD) where I worked, issues included water supply versus conservation, environmental and social effects of energy extraction, uses of geothermal, water demand conflicts of the Columbia River basin, national atmospheric deposition and its impacts, natural resource management for the Oglala Sioux Tribe, and erosion and water quantity issues from national forest management activities. 
Once in Minnesota I worked briefly for the Washington County Soil and Water Conservation District planting trees, with a St. Croix River citizen network and with a McKnight Foundation report about the Upper Mississippi River.

The Twin Cities stormwater management issues became a new adventure in August 1994 when I started work for the District. I approached my job with the same curiosity as always with a zest to share with others what I learn. Thus my first task of pulling together the 1997 Watershed Management Plan (WMP) became a sharing of my discoveries about the District with the potential readers and users of the Plan. Integrated resource management was a relatively new concept in the urban stormwater world, as was human dimensions of water resource management
. These concepts I gladly embraced, given my diverse background of work and diverse studies in urban and regional planning, ecology and forest/prairie/water resources studies. Since the 1997 WMP called for an education program, I researched other citizen involvement and education programs nationwide, discovering features which appeared in long lasting programs. I designed these features into our new program to provide relevance to people's lives and interests, give opportunities to explore and experience watershed issues, and to offer encouragement to teach others and influence their favorite organizations in support of water stewardship. In 2003 I received the MAWD (Minnesota Association of Watershed Districts) Program of the Year Award.

Louise and the rest of the staff at the RWMWD
Office Groundbreaking in 2005.
During these early program development years I served on the WaterShed Partners Steering Committee and co-led an ad hoc Education Committee with Jerry Spetzman (then at the Department of Agriculture) and served on the WaterShed Partners' Science Museum Exhibit Development Team which resulted in four exhibits and a loan program--some of which remain in use at the State Fair and at District events such as WaterFest and our recent Maplewood Mall Project Grand Opening.

Then there was the era of debates on phosphorus in fertilizers: I was very engaged in that arena, developing a close working relationship with the University of Minnesota Soils Department and helping the District conduct a soil phosphorus content survey. Once the law was enacted I surveyed, monitored and educated all the fertilizer store outlets in the District and worked with cities revising their fertilizer ban ordinances.

Also in the early years of the Public Involvement and Education (PIE) Program, teachers were my foremost target audience because they are in a position to teach and inspire many others of a wide age, ethnicity, and economic range. The District began working with Cairn & Associates to invite 176 teachers from dozens of schools from Woodbury to Roseville and St. Paul to White Bear Lake, school districts and private schools alike. They completed six workshops for 190 teachers and administrators, and stewardship activities at Battle Creek, Carver, Centerpoint, Little Canada Central Middle, Cowern, Eagle Point, Farnsworth, Hayden Heights, Highwood Hills, North High, Oakdale, Tartan High, Otter Lake, Richardson, Roseville Area Middle, Skyview, Sunrise Park, Weaver and Willow Land schools, as well as at Maplewood Nature Center's Jim's Prairie, Postal Credit Union (PCU) Pond, and the North St. Paul Urban Ecology Center. Over time schools have gradually allowed expenditures and teacher/class time for watershed bus tours, maintenance staff training as well as
collaboration on schoolyard stormwater control projects.

I met Sage Passi at Farnsworth School in 1998 leading Eco Education’s Phalen Stewards--A Watershed Awareness Project involving sixth grade teacher Mara Coyle, Sue and Rich Cairn and Jerry Spetzman. Together we launched the Phalen Stewards Education Project to test the assumption that schools can be useful in educating the general public, including non-English-speakers.

In 1999 I used a Board of Water and Soil Resources (BWSR) grant to fund myself, two teachers and Ron Struss from University of Minnesota Extension to attend an Adopt-a-Watershed Leadership Institute that included launching a 10-month program to test the use of the environment as an "integrating context for learning" at the teachers' schools. The project finale was a workshop we put on for 34 teachers and agency educators.

Louise presents a certificate of appreciation to Dorothy Lynch at Waterfest.
In 2000 I sought the assistance of Sage Passi (due to her many contacts with teachers and an avid interest in using the environment as her context for teaching), and fortunately the District hired her as the Watershed Education Specialist. Many of her accomplishments over the years are well documented in our monthly newsletters and website.

I created WaterFest in 2000 to celebrate the District's 25th anniversary and the completion of the Tanners Lake improvements projects, and designed the event to feature the teachers and students we had worked with for several years, knowing they would bring with them family members, neighbors and friends, and assuming they would enjoy meeting each other. This event gave the teachers and students a chance to "show and tell" the event visitors what they had learned about water resources. It's a thrill to see students and teachers explain their discoveries to WaterFest visitors each year. In 2012 WaterFest expanded to include St. Paul Park and Recreation's National Get Outdoors event, which easily doubled the best WaterFest attendance (in 2000) to 4000. During its first year of design and planning I succeeded in developing a working relationship with the 3M Foundation and environmental staff; 3M donated $4000 each year through 2002 and staffed the WaterShed Exhibit Tent with their staff. WaterFest was held at Tanners Lake in Oakdale for two years, and then moved to Lake Phalen Park in 2002 to help publicize the District's shoreline restoration project (planned and executed by District staffer, Bill Bartodziej). Residents, churches and schools in the area were directly invited to attend or volunteer. WaterFest has become widely known, exceptionally diverse, very energetic and uniquely branded to the District. WaterFest 2012 was embraced by the Phalen Stewards as they volunteered, provided new activities and requested that we hold the newly restored Phalen Park Stone Arch Bridge Dedication at WaterFest, thereby bringing the State Senator and Representative, the Maplewood Mayor and the City of St. Paul Mayor's Office staff to WaterFest. What will WaterFest 2013 bring? As Debbie Meister takes over the WaterFest tradition, I am sure it will expand as it did in 2012 when her contract to run the event began.

Of course WaterFest success relies on our very successful K-12 program, based on the same principles of engagement, relevance and opportunities to explore, share and promote favorite and exciting watershed discoveries. The pinnacle of the K-12 education program is the implementation of schoolyard improvements for water management, aesthetic and ecological value. Schoolyard projects serve as field projects with lasting educational value. Churches have also been an effective target audience for the education program. Watershed Education Specialist Sage Passi has worked exceptionally hard to bring to fruition these concepts of institutional support from school and churches in furthering watershed stewardship. With Sage's assistance the Ramsey County Master Gardeners began to ease into the watershed stewardship arena as they learned how to restore private lake shores and guide private, school and church rain gardens.

Direct engagement with staff of public works at city and county levels is another hallmark of my education program. Citizen calls about street dirt and clogged catch basins led me to investigate city street sweeping and catch basin maintenance programs. By 1998 I had developed inventories of sand use and street sweeping practices that led me to call public works staff to learn about our water quality concerns and to share ideas, issues, questions and answers to street management effects on city and county budgets as well as effects on water resources. With the assistance of public works expert Joel Schilling, I held annual meetings about how road systems and maintenance practices strain budgets and impact stormwater facilities as well as water quality. Eventually our workshops featured Jay Michels (Erosion & Sediment Control Specialist at Emmons & Olivier Resources Inc.) talking about National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), Phase I, Phase II and the Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems (MS4) permit programs and in 2003 the group dubbed itself the Public Works Forum, began meeting monthly and became focused on meeting the new MS4 permit requirements and winter sanding versus salting practices. I was presented the Environmental Leadership Award at the first state-wide Road Salt Symposium. In 2005 the District asked Joel to survey cities nationwide to find out street sweeping frequencies. In 2007 I was approached by University of Minnesota Extension with the offer to centralize my public works training sessions for metro-wide participation. In 2009 I began a 319-grant-based series of 4 annual workshops on winter road and parking lot maintenance and series of 3 annual workshops on turf maintenance for public works, contractors and maintenance crews of many other entities including churches, private and public schools, hospitals, 3M, H.B. Fuller, colleges and the VA campus.

Outreach and education for other city staff and officials has been less intense and has involved a variety of approaches. Follow-up from the adoption of the 1997 Watershed Management Plan required visits to each City Council in the District, and coordination with each city as they updated their Local WMPs. Various staff and I worked with city environmental advisory commissions, and in 2008 I collaborated with the University of Minnesota Extension Nonpoint Education for Municipal Officials (NEMO) program to conduct a boat tour of the Mississippi River along St. Paul's shorelines for local elected officials.   

The numbers of people involved in all these efforts was gratifying, but I was always interested in where the people lived and to learn their names and interests. Since that quickly becomes overwhelming, a mapping system was created to show who lives near a water resource and where there are concentrations of involved people. An updated map would be useful as well as informing if time would allow.


The Watershed Advisory Commission in 2007
(and the sliding cake!)
Specific target audiences are far easier to educate than the general public. It has taken a wide variety of partners, strategies, and opportunities to reach out to the general public. Public meetings about projects and plans along with Citizen Advisory Committees were frequently used since the beginning of the District. Then with the advent of the Metro WaterShed Partners, expensive advertising campaigns have been cost-shared amongst the member organizations. In 1994 the District created the Natural Resources Board to develop an integrated resource management plan for the Phalen watershed and eventually the entire District. With the support of the District Natural Resources staff Bill Bartodziej and Manager Jack Frost, the brochures, signs and Landscape Ecology Award Program they created proved very useful. In 2007 the Watershed Advisory Commission was created from combining the Natural Resources Board with volunteers that I invited from various other District education efforts; Master Gardeners, teachers, WaterFest volunteers and representatives from other government agencies participated to varying degrees of commitment, along with the LEAP Team which still continues to lead a very strong program thanks to the leadership of Dana Larsen-Ramsay of H.B. Fuller.

Staffer Simba Blood developed and maintains the website, while I created the email-delivered newsletter in 2005 to drive readers to the website; its distribution has reached nearly 800 with the promise of many more readers now that we have launched an online version starting in 2013. Many thanks to staffers Carrie Magnuson, Sage Passi and Simba Blood for strong support, knowledge and influence in that transition as well as for their constant improvements to the newsletter and takeover of responsibilities over the years.

Louise gathers the masses at a
Tamarack Nature Preserve tour.

Other outreach efforts to the general public include my 2005 experiment with setting up Hamline University Center for Global Environmental Education (CGEE) computer kiosks at local libraries; a disappointing venture. However the Tamarack Swamp Nature Preserve tours I started in 2004 were so popular (thanks to our expert guide Jason Husveth and support staff Carrie, Sage and City of Woodbury staff Sharon Doucette) as to attract over 100 participants and many repeats every year, with the eventual take-over of the tours by the City of Woodbury in 2012. Tours of the Lake Phalen restored shoreline have proven very popular also. In 2006 the BMP Incentive Program and District Office Site tours and signage served to attract many curious people. Our Capital Improvement Projects and BMP Cost Share projects are visible examples of effective stormwater controls; the District has increased its use of signage at such projects. The most amazing set of features and signage are at the Maplewood Mall parking lot which has recently been retrofitted with over 300 trees, a mile of tree trenches, and 55 rain gardens.

The last public event that I had the privilege of organizing was the Grand Opening of the Maplewood Mall project on September 15 2012. In an effort to maximize public awareness of the District's recent spectacular accomplishment at the Maplewood Mall, I involved the Phalen Stewards group to explore and support the Maplewood Mall project and Grand Opening. As I leave the District, some volunteer stewards are discussing with various staff the concept of a water trail education program from the Mississippi to the Mall.

It is with great reluctance that I pass my baton on to the District Education Team, as they begin the exciting process of developing the 2013 Maplewood Mall public education program and the new system of QR Codes and website support to explain the many stormwater features at the Mall as well as perhaps along the water and walking/bike trails from the Mall to the Mississippi River. Although I will miss the excitement of developing these new tools for public education, I do plan to enjoy them and promote them as I will remain a devout advocate of the District's efforts.

Last but not least I extend my gratitude to District Administrator Cliff Aichinger and the Board of Managers for the privilege of serving the District these 18 years.




  1. Louise,

    Congratulations on your retirement. It was a pleasure to work with you on numerous education projects over the years. You were always the consumate professional, and your record of accomplishments speaks for itself!

    Best wishes,

    Jeff Ledermann

    1. Thank you Jeff. Very nice surprise to hear from you!

  2. Louise,

    You are a gem! We are going to miss you.

    Congratulations on your retirement!

    Jay Michels

    1. Hey Jay! What a nice surprise to hear from you. Thank you!

  3. Louise,

    Thank you for your ever-ready help to anyone who asked. I will miss you in the watershed world and hope to see you more on rivers, in parks, and on the dance floor! Congrats on a successful career.
    Dawn Doering

    1. Hey Dawn! It was great to connect with you on all the above. May there be more opportunities. Thank you for your greeting.