Joan Nichols, right, helps prepare a tree for students to plant at Middleton Elementary School.


[Editor’s note: The Washington Conservation District is looking for more residents from northern Washington County to participate in the Master Water Stewards program.]

When Susan Goebel moved to Woodbury a few years ago, she began looking for opportunities to make friends and get involved in her new community. Back in West Bend, Wisconsin, where she had lived for years, she had been a town clerk and a town supervisor. She worked as a volunteer coordinator, taught classes at a nearby technical college, helped to establish the first ever land use plan and recycling program in West Bend, and was an organic gardener and an avid traveler.  Now, as a retiree, she was looking for ways to stay engaged and help support local environmental efforts. 

Like Goebel, Joan Nichols is a Woodbury resident with a background in education, years of volunteer experience, and an interest in local environmental issues. She is a Minnesota licensed teacher and has spent over a decade teaching adult education and English as a Second Language (ESL) classes in Minnesota, in addition to traveling the world as an educator earlier in her career. She also enjoys gardening, and grows produce to donate to people in need through a partnership with Minneapolis-based nonprofit Urban Ventures. 

Last year, Goebel and Nichols joined the inaugural cohort of Master Water Stewards in Washington County through a program developed by Freshwater ( in partnership with Washington Conservation District and the Minnesota Clean Water Fund. Five other county residents, including Nichols’ husband Nathan Zerbe, signed up to become stewards as well.  

Freshwater developed the Master Water Steward program in 2013, as a way to help support local governments around the state that are working to protect lakes, rivers, streams and groundwater resources. “The staff at these watershed organizations know the science,” says Peggy Knapp, the woman who launched the program, “but what they lack is time to do all the work that is needed.” The Master Water Steward program trains local residents to act as “super-volunteers”, providing support for watershed projects and acting as a bridge between scientists, policy makers and the communities that they serve. 

Through on-line and in-person courses, Master Water Stewards learn about watershed science, stormwater management, water policy, strategies for engaging friends and neighbors, and landscaping practices to reduce runoff pollution in urban and rural settings. They also complete a capstone project with help from their host organizations. Example projects include raingardens, shoreline plantings, habitat management plans, and neighborhood outreach efforts. After the coursework and capstone are complete, stewards are officially certified and continue to volunteer in their communities on a wide range of water-related projects and efforts. 

For their capstone project, Susan Goebel and Joan Nichols worked together to design educational signs and create a planting plan for two new outdoor classrooms that will be built at Middleton Elementary and Lake Middle Schools in Woodbury. The outdoor classrooms are part of a Campus Greening project with South Washington Watershed District and South Washington County Schools that converted 15-acres of non-active use turf to prairie and native plantings, with 200 new trees. The transformed school campus will use less groundwater for irrigation, capture more rainwater on-site, create habitat for birds and pollinators, and provide unique learning opportunities for the students. In addition to their work on the outdoor classrooms, which will be installed this summer, Goebel and Nichols also helped students to plant trees at the schools last spring. 

Since the Master Water Steward program began as a pilot effort in 2013, 277 people in the Twin Cities metro area have become certified as stewards and have contributed 2542 hours of volunteer service. Though the program is popular, however, it has traditionally required a big time commitment from potential volunteers. 

This fall, Freshwater will offer a new, streamlined “mini-training” that will allow interested people in Washington County to become Master Water Stewards more easily. Stewards will be able to do the majority of their learning online at their own pace and schedule, and will attend just two in-person sessions: Mon., September 16: 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. and Sat., October 5: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Washington Conservation District offices in Oakdale. They will still learn the same important information and get technical support and funding from their host organizations to complete their capstone projects. Deirdre Coleman, a program coordinator at Freshwater, hopes that the mini-training will be easier for people to fit into their busy schedules and says it could also be appealing to “snow birds” who aren’t in town to attend classes over the winter. 

When asked why she decided to become a Master Water Steward, Goebel puts it simply, “I believe in clean water everywhere and for everyone, including wildlife. To preserve it for generations

to come will take advocacy and hard work.”

To learn more and apply for this fall’s Master Water Steward mini-training, visit

Angie Hong is an educator for East Metro Water - - which includes Brown’s Creek, Carnelian Marine - St. Croix, Comfort Lake – Forest Lake, Middle St. Croix, Ramsey Washington-Metro, Rice Creek, South Washington and Valley Branch Watersheds, Cottage Grove, Dellwood, Forest Lake, Grant, Hugo, Lake Elmo, Newport, Oak Park Heights, Oakdale, Stillwater, St. Paul Park, West Lakeland, Willernie and Woodbury, Washington County and the Washington Conservation District. Contact her at 651-330-8220 x.35 or

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.