John Dawson fought a weeklong battle with the dense layer of clay that lurked beneath the surface of his front yard.

"It was red, and it was thick. The colonists could have made bricks from that stuff," he said.

Dawson discovered the clay while trying to reduce the flow of stormwater runoff from his home in Severna Park, MD, to local waters and ultimately the Chesapeake Bay. He was replacing his lawn with a rain garden designed to collect and absorb stormwater close to where it falls. But clay isn't very absorbent. For the rain garden to work, the clay had to go.

Dawson rented a dumpster and began digging. "The neighbors asked, 'Are you building a moat?'" Dawson said.

But the neighbors asked other questions, too. In the end, the excavation not only improved the rain garden but gave Dawson a terrific opportunity to use his recent training - as a "master watershed steward."

"The neighbors would all stop and talk to me," Dawson said. "I found out that most people are familiar with the term 'rain garden,' but they don't really know what the purpose is. So I was able to explain that to my neighbors, and I'd see the light bulb go on."

Dawson is among the 70 volunteers who have completed the Watershed Stewards Academy of Anne Arundel County, which trains and coordinates volunteers to promote clean water in their own neighborhoods.

"These people know the community and will be there for the long haul," said program coordinator Suzanne Etgen. "They know the perceptions and barriers, and come with a unique perspective that will help them engage their communities in ways that an outsider could not."

The Watershed Stewards Academy was launched in 2009 as a partnership between the county's Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center and the Anne Arundel Department of Public Works. The program aims to create a large network of volunteers who can be neighborhood resources and are backed by a consortium of more than 80 professionals who are on-call to assist with their efforts.

"We wanted to connect communities to the idea of a watershed, and to especially take ownership of their stormwater," Etgen said.

In Anne Arundel County, approximately 64 percent of the land area is privately held, and it contributes 46 percent of the nitrogen and 39 percent of the phosphorus load from stormwater to local rivers.

"There is no way we can make a difference in reducing pollutants without the privately held land. It sets the county up for failure to expect that they could do it themselves," Etgen said.

Similar to the master gardener programs offered through many cooperative extension offices, the Watershed Stewards Academy includes intense training and a commitment to volunteer service.

"These are really active people, not your causal volunteers," Etgen said.

Trainees pay $250 to attend 12-14 classroom and field sessions over approximately five months, which cover a range of pollution reduction strategies, community outreach, site assessments for neighborhoods and individual homeowners, and fund-raising.

Volunteers then complete a "capstone project" that puts their learning to work in the community. The capstone project has three components: community outreach, a neighborhood stormwater assessment and a rainscaping project..

To keep their certification, master stewards commit to continuing education and volunteer service.

In 2010 alone, 50 stewards gave more than 3,000 hours to the program. Their efforts delivered more than 7,700 square feet of bio-retention areas to capture rainwater along with 3,600 square feet of conservation landscaping and the installation of approximately 4,600 native plants and 270 native trees.

Stewards range in age from the mid-20s to nearly 80. Most are employed full time, but some are retired or stay-at-home moms. They include landscape architects and designers, and several who work in environmental fields. Others have backgrounds in computer science and finance.

Etgen said that the social nature of the program keeps people motivated.

"We get together every other month for networking and continuing education. When they come into the room, you can't hear yourself think because people are so excited and busy talking to each other," Etgen said.

The concept for the Watershed Stewards Academy was cooked up by Stephen Barry, who directs the Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center, and department of public works director Ron Bowen.

The two were regular partners on projects that provided real-world restoration projects for students, and they sought ways to extend their reach.

"We started talking about how to engage communities to a greater extent," Barry said. "We found that everyone wanted to do the right thing but didn't know where to start. The county couldn't possibly have the resources to do it."

Grants from the Chesapeake Bay Trust, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Keith Campbell Foundation for the Environment have supported the first three years of the program. The grants provide staff and curriculum, as well as scholarships and some materials for capstone projects.

Arlington Echo provides training space and educational expertise, while the department of public works provides watershed data and project advice. The program also creates continual opportunities for students to participate in real-world projects that protect their local environment.

"It's gone far beyond our expectations," Barry said.

Howard, Baltimore, Queen Anne's, Calvert and St. Mary's counties in Maryland are in varying stages of duplicating the program. Etgen has responded to inquiries from New York and Virginia and shared the Anne Arundel model with a nationwide audience through webinars.

A new Watershed Stewards Academy has already begun to serve the National Capital Region. The program is sponsored by a coalition of conservation groups in the Potomac, Rock Creek, Anacostia and East Patuxent watersheds, roughly covering Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland and the District of Columbia. Boosted by a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the first trainees have completed their coursework and begun capstone projects.

"Not only do we have support from our program partners, but we're finding an extraordinary enthusiasm from all of the agencies in the different jurisdictions for partnering with us on supplies, expertise, resources for projects and even equipment," said co-director Kit Gage.

To Gage, this suggests that government agencies understand the purpose of the stewards program, which is to expand their reach.

"All these agencies are under the gun for mind-boggling amounts of changes in the way stormwater is handled," Gage said. "We don't know how it will happen either, but we'll try to help."