2016 finalist

This project has been selected as a finalist in the Environmental Education category:

sauk river watershed district waterfests

Project Summary

Every 4th grader in a 1,200 square mile area participates in a learning experience on the fundamentals of environmental ethics and community involvement- that’s 2,500 students and over 350 volunteers every year. This innovative program offered by the Sauk River Watershed District (SRWD) combines in-class curriculum for teachers, classroom visits by District staff, and hands-on outdoor learning at WaterFests.

WaterFests bring students together with local environmental agency professionals and volunteers communicate with students on various water and natural resource protection related topics. The SRWD hosts five WaterFests each year and participates in four others. The most recent WaterFest February 18, 2016 at the College of St. Bens drew 522 4th grade students and over 50 volunteers. SRWD’s Public Outreach Coordinator Adam Hjelm runs the program.

SRWD’s Education Program and WaterFests target a young audience to build capacity for natural resource protection going forward. The benefits of environmental education for children are well documented. It integrates science, math, language arts, and history and helps students see the interconnectedness of social, ecological, economic, cultural, and political issues. It emphasizes specific critical thinking skills central to “good science”—questioning, investigating, forming hypotheses, interpreting data, analyzing, developing conclusions, and solving problems (Archie, 2003). It helps foster a new generation of informed consumers, workers, as well as policy or decision makers.

While SRWD staff work with both youth and adults within the watershed through a wide variety of programs and projects—by offering programing to every 4th grader in the SRWD (and now the neighboring Clearwater River Watershed District) we create an informed community to empower future residents to be stewards of the natural resources. By combining knowledge, energy and resources, the SRWD works with a variety of project partners and community residents to promote change and improvement to protect and improve the watershed.

The WaterFest focuses on fourth grade students as the audience, but high school and college level students also play a huge role in all the WaterFests. Older students throughout the District are asked to be presenters, bus greeters, and chaperones for the whole day of the WaterFest. College level students are also asked to volunteer and are able gain valuable volunteer and education experience for later careers. WaterFests also draw an array of environmental professionals including environmental engineers and environmental lawyers.

The SRWD offers a wide selection of free youth programming to schools, youth groups and communities across the watershed. They pride themselves on working with area educators to develop and provide the best materials, opportunities, and expertise to increase environmental resource education to youth of all ages. The youth education program targets students of all ages and contains year round activities.

“Every time I volunteer at WaterFest I come away with a renewed energy for natural resource protection and a healthy respect for 4th grade teachers.” ~ Rebecca, SRWD Engineer & Volunteer

Project Website


Project Partners

  • City of St. Cloud & other cities, townships & school districts in the 1200 square mile implementation area
  • Clearwater River Watershed District
  • Stearns County, Stearns ES, Stearns SWCD
  • Minnesota DNR
  • University of Minnesota Extension & Master Gardeners
  • Friends of the Sauk River
  • Stearns 4H
  • Regular volunteers: Wenck Associates, Rinke Noonan, SEH, Stantec, Minnesota Native Landscapes, Prairie Restorations,
  • Volunteers from Legions, all VFWs in the District, Lions Club
  • Regular volunteers: Third Street Brew, Brock White, Jennie O Turkey

How did the project partners work together?

College and high school age student volunteers from around the watershed participate as bus greeters and chaperones, and support presenters at learning stations. Teachers and their school districts across the watershed district consistently enroll their students because they see the value. Local colleges provide space for the events and greatly discounted rates. Environmental professionals (think water resource engineers & scientists, environmental lawyers, hydrologists, wetland ecologists, fisheries biologists, etc.) regularly use vacation time to volunteer as presenters. State and local environmental staff from townships, cities, county offer their time and expertise. It’s common to see area wildlife specialists, fisheries biologists and area hydrologists from the DNR manning teaching stations. The City of St. Cloud staff created an interactive teaching station where students could pretend to be water and crawl through a series of tunnels, and pools filled with balls to simulate drinking water and waste water treatment systems so kids can to better understand where their water comes from and where it goes. The creativity, quantity, quality and consistency of participation & volunteers for this program are simply staggering.

How is the project groundbreaking?

This project is innovating and groundbreaking because of its reach - by targeting every 4th grader in the watershed every year (2,500 kids every year), we ensure that we are creating a foundation for the future of natural resource protection in Central Minnesota. The consistent and streamlined collaboration of so many teachers, school districts, secondary education facilities, state and local government agencies and private entities is unique.

What are the project goals?

  • Provide every year 4th grader in the District an opportunity to establish environmental ethics and community involvement and learn the science fundamental to protecting great natural resources all around us.
  • Create engagement around environmental issues on many levels. Cultivate understanding and excitement in the 4th graders of the District and volunteers.
  • Provide the critical thinking leaders in natural resource protection for tomorrow.

What are the project outcomes?

  • Every year 2,500 4th graders attend a WaterFest to establish environmental ethics and community involvement and learn the science fundamental to protecting great natural resources all around us.
  • The program is so effective it has spread to neighboring watershed districts that share a border with the Sauk River Watershed District. Since the program is based on school district boundaries it naturally spills outside the borders of the SRWD. The adjacent Clear Water River Water River Watershed District (CRWD) recently funded expansion of the program to cover the Annandale school district meaning that the program now covers both watershed districts for a total of 1200 square miles covered.
  • The program creates engagement on many levels. In addition to cultivating understanding and excitement in the 4th graders of the District, the volunteers are energized as evidenced by the most recent WaterFest at which there were an excess of volunteers. Many of the Volunteers participate in multiple events per year, and once they register, they come back.

Event Details

Thursday, May 25, 2017
5:00 - 5:45 p.m. Registration & reception
5:45 - 8:00 p.m. Dinner & program
8:00 - 9:00 p.m. Dessert & reception 

Nicollet Island Pavilion
40 Power Street
Minneapolis, MN 55401

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Presenting Sponsors

Environmental Lay Group

Great River Energy

Reception sponsor

25th Anniversary Sponsors


Community Action

Critical Collaborator

Stoel Rives LLP

Emerging Leader


Energy and Climate

The Weidt Group

Natural Resources

Sustainable Business

Supporting Sponsors

Minnesota Power

partner SPONSORs

In-kind sponsors


CliftonLarsonAllen LLP

Consulate General of Canada

Rochester Public Utilities

Associate Sponsors

Bremer Bank
G & K Services
Nova Consulting
Smith Partners