Watershed Specialist Training: Is It for You?

By Karen Terry

What does it take to be a strong and effective watershed manager? Obviously it requires a solid understanding of the science of water, such as the basic water cycle (hydrology), nutrient cycling (chemistry), limnology, best management practices to address issues (management techniques), geology, soils, and geography/cartography. But to be a good watershed manager requires a broader suite of skills because it’s not enough to understand the natural resources side of the equation: a good manager must also understand the human side of the equation and how the two realms intersect.

The Watershed Specialist Training is a semester-long online course offered fall and spring by the University of Minnesota’s Water Resources Center and Extension. It is designed for early-career watershed managers. Typical participants range from Soil and Water Conservation District staff to graduate students to state agency staff to watershed district board members. The course consists of weekly readings and resources, group discussions about the weekly content, webinars featuring content experts, and assignments to build skills and assess learning. A key component of the course is the richness of the discussion between the participants. Most assignments have a requirement of reading and commenting on others’ assignments, which fosters critical thinking as well as challenging them to write responses in a clear, professional, helpful way. Previous participants say they value learning how to be more deliberate in water resource management activities such as engaging stakeholders, planning communications, and weighing potential implementation projects.

The course is divided into nine modules:


  1. Introduction and Networking (1 week): becoming familiar with course expectations, the online course platform (Canvas) and getting to know one another.
  2. Water Institutions and Policy (1 week): exploring what authority lies where.
  3. Watershed Science for Managers (2 weeks): strengthening our understanding of how water moves across the landscape and how our land use decisions affect that. This is a review for many of the participants, but it generates good discussion and challenges them to raise their understanding to a level at which they are comfortable explaining the complex concepts to others.
  4. Civic Engagement and Water Resources (2 weeks): learning and practicing skills to authentically engage stakeholders in discussing, planning, and implementing land use practices. This module is often eye-opening for participants as they explore the differences between public participation and actively fostering civic engagement. This includes doing thorough stakeholder analysis and identifying appropriate levels of engagement and activities to engage.
  5. Communication (1 week): learning and practicing skills to effectively communicate the desired messages. This is an important subset of the skills needed for good civic engagement. Participants are required to create a communication plan and outreach items, such as a PowerPoint presentation and media release, to practice effectively reaching a targeted audience.
  6. Assess, Monitor, and Evaluate (2 weeks): using the “Discovery Cycle” – an iterative process for designing and implementing assessment, monitoring, and evaluation for clean water programs – participants conduct an information gap analysis as the foundation for designing assessment or monitoring plans.
  7. Selecting Implementation Activities (2 weeks): developing a strategy to select sound implementation activities. This includes creating SMART goals, listing and evaluating potential activities (structural and non-structural) and the corresponding cost-benefit analyses, prioritizing activities, and making final decisions about which activities to implement.
  8. Project and Program Implementation (2 weeks): using the skills and tools learned in the previous modules to develop a rigorous project or program plan.
  9. Tie-up (1 week): wrapping up the course by asking each participant to review their own learning and create a professional development plan for continued learning.

Are you interested in learning more about the course for yourself or your staff? Check out the website (https://wst.umn.edu/) or contact instructors Karen Terry (kterry@umn.edu) or Ann Lewandowski (alewand@umn.edu). The fall session will start right after Labor Day; class size is limited to 22 participants so reserve your seat early!