History of Beach Watchers
In the late 1980's, Island County WSU Extension Director Don Meehan developed a program focused on protecting the marine waters of Puget Sound. Observing and borrowing parts and pieces of the Clallum County Bay Watchers watershed program, Don devised a program that would attract people who loved the beach. He named his program the WSU Beach Watchers with the hope that it would attract those who walked on the beach. The program he devised would be more than a watershed program, it extended into the depths of Puget Sound. He built an advisory group to help him think through the processes of how this program might work and keep it out of the hot water of environmental activism. He included members of Audubon, local farmers, citizens, the conservation district and local government.
Don wrote his first grant request to the Department of Ecology Centennial Clean Water Fund to fund the new program. With a small grant of $16,000, Don hired Susan Berta to help him create a new organization based upon the principles developed with the WSU Master Gardner program.
The first hurdle was to recruit the Beach Watchers class of 1990.This involved a publicity campaign to explain the new program and attract volunteers. But the local papers created their own story that perhaps this program was going to recruit Beach Police. Fortunately that interpretation did not stick; the program recruited about 25 - 30 candidates; and selected 16 to go through 100 hours of training.
In each subsequent year, 15 to 20 volunteers have been trained and applied to significant projects.
Early projects included: 1) educational displays at major events about water quality, 2) a major workshop called Living on the Edge: Bluffs, Beaches, and Bulkheads, 3) a self guided wetlands tours of Whidbey Island, and 4) helping create the Outdoor Classroom on Maxwelton Creek on South Whidbey.
Today there are close to 40 active projects of the Island County Beach Watchers that touch the lives of 50,000 people each year:
Volunteers conduct beach walks, tours, workshops, beach monitoring; perform juvenile salmon research with NOAA and the tribes; work in partnership with the Northwest Straits Commission on projects they fund through local Marine Resources committees; provide help to state agencies doing field work; collect data that no agency has time or resources to collect; create programs like Shore Stewards for those who live on shorelines; develop specialized tools for data collection; and create publications that help Puget Sound residents become better stewards.
In 2003, Don Meehan spearheaded an effort to extend the Beach Watchers program to an additional six counties around Puget Sound. He brought a team of state and federal legislative people together with state agency partners and his local team to discuss how best to expand. Following that meeting of joint interest, WSU asked Don to write a federal request for the University. This request was fine tuned and submitted in the fall of 2003. In March of 2004 Don and WSU Beach Watcher volunteer Rudy Deck were sent back to Washington D. C. to promote the WSU Funding package that included the WSU Beach Watchers expansion proposal. Senator Patty Murray adopted the program and pushed it through appropriations as a special appropriation. Helpful in this process was Jill McKinney, aide to Murray. Congressman Rick Larsen pushed it through the House. This effort was successful in allowing six more Counties to begin growing this program.
A special thanks goes to those who have provided leadership to make this program great. First thanks goes to Susan Berta who dedicated ten years to building a team with the highest of training standards and performance in the field. Second goes to Sarah Schmidt who guided the rapidly growing team for three years and improved so many aspects of an already great program. Third was Dot Irvin who brought her marketing skills to the team and helped it grow in new and helpful ways. Fourth was Kristen Cooley, who was a new spark of life in a seasoned program and who re-energized the hundreds of volunteers. Fifth, and our present coordinator, is Sarah Martin. She teams with Kylee Allen. In the past, leadership on Camano Island has been provided by Scott Chase and before him Brittany Stromberg.
Clearly the biggest thanks must go to our wonderful volunteers who have in some cases given much of their daily life to this program to help make it successful. Since 2003 volunteers have given back to our island community an average of 20,000 hours each year. At $12 per hour that is worth $240,000 in one year. Some of our hardest working volunteers do not turn in their hours. Their value is not included in this number. Obviously these numbers will grow as the six new counties grow their programs.
In the end, people who become WSU Beach Watchers do it because it is an avenue that works. It is a wonderful learning opportunity, and it enables them to give back to a great country and place: Puget Sound. It is about leaving a legacy to their children and grandchildren.