By Angie Hong
Beneath the clear brown water the mussel paused, resting softly on the sand. Behind it, a long arcing trail unfurled. Puff. The mussel exhaled, sending a small burst of water out of its body, and in doing so, it traveled one centimeter further across the river bottom. Rest, exhale, repeat. The water lapped gently against the sandbar and a heron glided across the water to perch on a snag. Rest, exhale, repeat. Overhead, the sun slid slowly down the sky and into the horizon. Hour by hour, the ribbon grew longer as the mussel in the river slowly, ever so slowly, traced its circles in the sand.
The first time someone suggested that I write a weekly newspaper column about water, I smiled, nodded, and mentally filed the suggestion away in the corner of my mind where I store mindless chatter and bad ideas. How much could there possibly be to say about water, and who would want to read about such a mundane topic?
A few months later, after having been persuaded otherwise, I sent my first few articles off to the Stillwater Gazette and other local papers. Did you know that you live in a watershed? Did you know that dog poop carries E. Coli? (Ho hum, I’m already yawning.)
After a couple of weeks, however, I began to find my groove. I wrote about gardening, riding my bike, local volunteers, and recently completed watershed projects. The more I wrote, the more the words flowed, and I began to realize that water really does connect everything and everyone.
This year marks my fifteenth year coordinating the East Metro Water Resource Education Program and my fifteenth year writing weekly news columns about water—that’s roughly 780 articles about anything and everything related to water, for anyone keeping track.
A multi-pronged approach to water education
When the East Metro Water Resource Education Program (EMWREP) was formed in 2006, the founding partners had three main goals: (1) educate the public and raise awareness about local water issues; (2) share resources to get the most value out of limited funding; and (3) improve collaboration between governmental entities in Washington County, Minnesota. The program launched with 6 local government partners and has since grown to 25, including Washington County, Washington Conservation District, all 8 watershed management organizations in the county, and 14 cities and townships.
EMWREP uses a multi-pronged approach to water education that includes information and awareness-raising for the general public; guidance and motivation to help landowners complete clean water projects on their land; professional training for businesses, contractors, and municipal staff; and workshops for local decision-makers such as city councils, county commissioners, and watershed board members.
Weekly newspaper columns are just one of many education strategies we employ, but they serve as a consistent connection that helps to amplify our educational messages and reach new people around the county.
More than one way to tell the same story
“Before I had grandchildren,” says Nor Olson, “all of my pictures were of our prairie.” We are standing in her kitchen, and Olson has just finished giving me a tour of her property, located in Stillwater Township just north of Silver Creek. When the Olson’s bought their home a few years back, the land included an old farm field gone to weeds, as well as a rather large area of lawn surrounding the house. Having previous experience with prairies that she knew and loved, including 50 acres of land elsewhere in the township, Olson decided to bring the prairie to her new house as well. Now their home sits nestled between woods, a wetland and a few acres of prairie – a microcosm of the habitats found in the St. Croix Valley.
The best advice that I can offer to environmental professionals, volunteers, and advocates is to continue looking for new ways to connect with the public. The vast majority of Minnesotans care deeply about the health of our lakes, rivers, and drinking water, but people connect with water and nature in different ways.
Over the course of a year, my weekly news column usually includes a variety of different story types:
- Informative: Information about local topics of concern, such as stormwater pollution, lake water quality, and groundwater contamination
- How-To: Guidance on household best practices, including gardening, lawn care, and invasive species management
- Success stories: Individuals taking action to protect water, and partner-led projects
- Promotions: Info about stewardship programs and upcoming events
- Nature recreation: Stories that highlight local destinations and outdoor activities
- “Deep thoughts”: Contemplations on our spiritual and emotional connections with nature
In addition to thinking of creative ways to package our water stewardship messages, we’ve expanded our virtual communications to adapt to the changing media landscape. Four of our local newspapers have gone out of business in the past five years, leaving an information gap in the most populated portions of our county. Meanwhile, social media platforms have surged in popularity. Publishing my weekly newspaper column on a WordPress blog site (www.eastmetrowater.org) makes it easy to include multimedia components, such as photos and video, and share the content via Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and email.
I no longer think of a newspaper article as a stand-alone outreach tool. Rather, these articles are part of a comprehensive education package that might also include an in-person workshop, direct mailing to high priority landowners, a short video on TikTok, and a series of posts on Facebook and Instagram.
Being brave enough to share myself
My job is to teach people how to keep water clean, and at times, that feels like a minor concern in the jumble of all that is happening. And yet, it occurs to me also that one reason we work so hard to protect our water and natural resources is to ensure that they are there to douse the flames when the world begins to smolder.
When I meet local residents, they often tell me that they feel like they already know me after reading my column for years. Though it can sometimes feel scary to share pieces of myself in a publication going out to so many strangers, I know that these personal stories also help me to connect with people who might not otherwise be interested in working with local government or reading about environmental issues.
As I look back at articles I’ve written over the years, it is as though my column is a personal journal, interspersed with links to cost-share grants and upcoming workshops. Among these tips and tales, there are stories that make me laugh, and others that make me cry. They track the changing seasons from one year to the next and mark our progress as local partners continue working to protect and restore lakes and streams throughout the county.
The mussel’s journey is both slow and long. As the curving path in the sand grows steadily longer, years turn into decades, and sometimes even a century. Answering machines give way to cellphones, and typewriters to computers. Past the river bluff, a prairie becomes a farm becomes a subdivision. Still the mussel carries on, carving circles in the sand. Rest, exhale, repeat.
Hong, Angie. 2021. “Water? I’ve Got a Story About That.” Open Rivers: Rethinking Water, Place & Community, no. 19. https://openrivers.lib.umn.edu/article/water-ive-got-a-story-about-that.
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