Community-based watershed stewardship programs, USA

Compendium Volume 2 Number 2 January 2019 r.1

From California to Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Washington DC, people are coming together in their communities to learn what river their watershed drains into, how urban stormwater management has impaired that river, and how to restore river-floodplain ecosystems through a grassroots approach.

A watershed is an area of land over which any rain that falls drains into the same river or water body. For example, all waters falling onto the eastern half of Washington DC flows into the notoriously polluted Anacostia River, while the western half of the nation’s capital drains into the Potomac River. Thus, the city is split into two watersheds.

The Anacostia River was once surrounded by forests, meadows and wetlands, which absorbed, filtered and slowed water on its way downhill to the river. Over time, urban development and industrial processes paved over these natural sponges. The area of tidal wetlands surrounding the Anacostia has shrunk from 2,500 acres in the 1800s to 150 acres today.  

Today’s stormwater catchment made up of asphalt streets, parking lots and rooftops leaves water nowhere to go but into storm gutters, gushing out to the river, sometimes flooding over its banks. Furthermore, in many of the older parts of Washington, DC, the infrastructure uses CSOs (“combined sewer overflow”) — where storm drains share pipes with the sewer system — and therefore the stormwater exacerbates water treatment issues. There is thus an added incentive to reduce stormwater runoff.

The Anacostia Watershed Society (AWS), a D.C. non-profit with a mission to make the river “fishable and swimmable by 2025,” engages school children and other community members in wetland restoration along the river. In addition, as in several other communities around the country, AWS partners with the DC Dept of Environment to train community members to be ambassadors for the river. Over the course of a several-week training program, Watershed Stewards learn how individual houses and buildings contribute to the problem with impervious surfaces and gutter downspouts directing rain water directly into storm sewers. Then they learn about absorptive green rooftops, and the possibility of redirecting water from a downspout to a rain garden or a deep-rooted perennial bed, where the water can percolate into healthy spongy soil, ultimately recharging groundwater.

Primed with knowledge, enthusiasm, and the camaraderie of fellow stewards, participants are expected to implement a project of their own, to teach their neighbors what they’ve learned, and to volunteer in related community projects focusing on watershed restoration. In Minnesota, watershed steward projects redirect rainfall from gutters into gardens, where it can hydrate plants and recharge groundwater, at a rate of more than 1 million gallons per year. According to the program website, this outcome is due to the efforts initiated in 2013 which now include 141 stewards working in partnership with seven watershed districts and one municipality. An Anne Arundel, Maryland, program started in 2009 boasts having planted nearly 100,000 native plants, trees and shrubs, led by some 200 stewards in 100 communities engaging 134,000 of their neighbors in watershed restoration efforts.

Minnesota :

Washington DC :

Maryland :, 

Pennsylvania :


For the full PDF version of the compendium issue where this article appears, visit Compendium Volume 2 Number 2 January 2019 r.1