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Calling All River Heroes

Master Watershed Stewards may not have super powers, but they are cleaning up their communities

John Dawson and Megan Wickless install a rain garden as part of their hands-on-training.

Going down John Dawson’s street in Severna Park, you can’t miss the rain garden he’s planted in his front yard — and that’s exactly how he wants it.
    To his wife, Dawson is the official “house husband,” but to his community, he is the local Master Watershed Steward. Having been a part of the Watershed Stewards Academy’s third graduating class, Dawson now works with other local stewards to improve the health of his river, the Magothy. His rain garden shows his neighborhood how a small change in your yard can be a big change for local waterways when a storm blows through town.
    “The chief goal of a steward,” Dawson says, “is to try to do projects that reduce stormwater runoff.”
    Stewards work toward this goal in three ways: First, they assess their community, discovering the pollution sources in their neighborhood.
    Second, they educate their community. All the information out there can overwhelm the average citizen. Stewards are local one-stop shops of information and connections.
    Third, they coordinate action to reduce pollution.
    “That can be as simple as helping someone install a rain barrel,” he says.
    Or, for the particularly intrepid homeowner, the project could be much larger — involving landscaping for conservation or installing permeable pavement. For these projects, stewards can call on a network of contractors and landscape architects with the know-how and equipment to assist.

Doing Something Super
    Dawson was worried about his river. He wanted “to do something.”
    Anne Arundel County’s Master Watershed Steward certification taught him how.
    This time each year, Anne Arundel County Watershed Stewards Academy invites citizens to train as stewards.
    “We have had all different kinds of people take the course,” says coordinator Suzanne Kilby Etgen. “The most important thing is that the stewards have the desire to work with their community to affect change.”
    The certification takes about a year, with five months of classroom learning and field sessions, culminating in a capstone project. This final project challenges candidates to find a problem in their community, educate those around them and take action to improve the situation.
    For his capstone project, Dawson put two rain gardens in his front yard. In the process of excavating and planting, he met his neighbors and explained how this simple garden would catch the rain running off his house, keeping the most polluted water from reaching the Magothy.
    Since his certification, Dawson has taught pollution-reduction at local schools. Most recently, he helped an eighth-grade science class at Severna Park Middle School to create a conservation landscape on the school’s property.
    Support continues after graduation. Stewards become part of a larger structure that includes continuing education and a network of professionals, local governments and other stewards.
    Seventy active, certified stewards work throughout Anne Arundel, with another 20 about to graduate.
    You may not know a steward, but you have been touched by their work. In 2013 alone, these 90 stewards and candidates have planted 5,720 native trees and plants, removed over 6,300 pounds of trash from local waterways and taught more than 3,000 people how they can reduce pollution in their communities.
    “Stewards live in the communities where they do their service,” Etgen says. “The goal is to get the message into the mouths of every community across Anne Arundel County.”
    The program has been so successful in its five-year-life that it’s being copied in other counties, like Calvert and St. Mary’s, and other states — such as New York and Minnesota.
    A new class of 20 to 25 begins school in October. You can be one of them. Even better, join with a friend.
    Learn more at and attend any of six information sessions: Captain Avery Museum in Shady Side (August 4, 1pm); Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center (August 5, 6:30pm; August 20, 6:30pm; September 3, 6:30pm; September 10, 6:30pm); and Glen Burnie Town Center (August 12, 6pm).