Tu Agua Project Builds on WATER Project’s Community Engagement Framework

Wisconsin EcoLatinos logo

Situated near the low point of the Lake Wingra watershed, the Arboretum receives millions of gallons of stormwater each year from surrounding neighborhoods and commercial areas. Challenges include erosion, impacts to infrastructure, and pollutants (salt, nutrients, trash, etc.) getting picked up in the stormwater and carried through Arboretum lands and into Lake Wingra. Yet these challenges are not at all unique to the Lake Wingra watershed and the Arboretum. Impacts from urban stormwater are widespread and affect community members in different ways.

From 2021 to 2022, the Arboretum facilitated an Environmental Protection Agency grant–funded community engagement program called the WATER Project (Water Action to Encourage Responsibility). The WATER Project trained community ambassadors in water stewardship outreach and provided mini-grants to support neighborhood-based stormwater mitigation projects in the Lake Wingra watershed.

Water Action Volunteers logoThe current phase of the WATER Project, known as the Tu Agua Project, is supported by a Wisconsin Idea Collaboration Grant. Members of the Arboretum education team are working with Wisconsin EcoLatinos and Water Action Volunteers to engage the Latino community in Dane County in water science and addressing the causes and impacts of stormwater pollution.

In fall 2023, the project team hosted two bilingual community listening sessions with live translation support from Division of Extension’s Office of Access, Inclusion, and Compliance. During the listening sessions, participants learned about watersheds and stormwater pollution from local experts. Then they responded to questions about how they interact with local waterways, their concerns about water quality, and what more they would like to learn. From both listening sessions, the project team learned that participants:

  • Mostly interact with local waterways from the shoreline.
  • Were very interested in family-friendly, field-based, hands-on opportunities to learn more about local waterways, what animals live nearby, and how to monitor water quality.
  • Were generally not concerned about flooding as an issue but were concerned about pollution and toxins in surface water, especially as they relate to safety for family members and pets.
  • May be getting information about waterways from potentially unreliable sources and wanted to learn where to get accurate local information.

In the next phases of the Tu Agua Project, the project team will host a two-session, hands-on, family-friendly Water Guardian / Guardián del Agua training guided by the feedback from the listening sessions. At the first session, The Science Behind Tu Agua, participants will learn about watersheds, aquatic ecosystems, stormwater, and causes and impacts of pollutants (e.g., nutrients, salt, E. coli bacteria). Participants will also visit shoreline areas affected by stormwater and see example projects that can help address stormwater challenges (e.g. rain gardens, storm drain murals). By the end of the session, participants will have some familiarity with a broad range of issues that affect our waterways and will be encouraged to think about what they might do to help identify and address a challenge in their community.

A two-image Instagram post @wi.ecolatinos about how salt pollutes freshwater (from January 2024).

The second session, Leadership and Tu Agua, will deepen participants’ understanding of the challenges they could address and provide tools and resources to take action. Participants will practice communicating about stormwater to different audiences (e.g., family members, neighbors, elected officials). They will also work with the project team and each other to draft action plans to carry out a water stewardship or outreach project. Participants who complete the training will be invited to apply for a mini-grant to financially support their projects.

Beyond the Tu Agua Project, the Wisconsin Idea Collaboration Grant is supporting additional stormwater outreach by Arboretum education staff. In the past year, we’ve developed new Visitor Center exhibits, hosted stormwater walks at the Arboretum, brought water-themed “Exploration Stations” to City of Madison Parks Alive events at Penn Park and Allied Park, and hosted summer day camp and family nature program sessions focused on water. As we continue to address the challenges of urban stormwater at the Arboretum through land management and research, we also look forward to continuing to support water stewardship learning opportunities and projects across our community.

—Anne Pearce, education program manager