Anna Barker's eyes sparkle as she leaps to her feet and points to a display at the R.H. Stafford Library in Woodbury. "See those books?" she whispers. "This month, they are all green because of Arbor Day. Next month, I want the entire display to be blue for water."
She stops to introduce herself to a new librarian and then grabs a backpack from a shelf along the wall. The backpack is full of materials to help children learn about water and take action in their community—two books, a DVD, watercolor pencils, and a list of resources and activities. It's one of four water kits available for checkout that Barker helped to assemble for a project with Perpich Center for Arts Education and Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District in 2015.
Barker has a way of making projects happen, especially ones involving conservation and water protection. She became a University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardener volunteer in 1991 after spending several years battling to change landscaping ordinances in Cottage Grove. "I broke the law in the 1980s when I turned our backyard into a prairie," she says with a laugh. "The Star Tribune wrote a story about it and there were many council meetings, but eventually they changed the rules." Now, many metro-area cities encourage homeowners to plant native vegetation as a way to conserve water, reduce erosion and stormwater runoff pollution, and create habitat for birds and pollinators.
As a teacher at Crosswinds Art and Science School in Woodbury in 2008, Barker led an effort to install two large rain gardens near the school's entrance to prevent rain runoff from pooling on the sidewalk and carrying dirt and nutrients downhill into Battle Creek Lake. "I knew what I wanted," she says—a project to protect the lake—"but I also knew that the people in charge at the school might not have the same motivations." So she talked about the safety benefits of the project: A drier sidewalk would mean less risk of slip-and-fall injuries during the winter and fewer kids with soggy feet in the spring.
Three years later, Barker convinced her church in Woodbury, Trinity Presbyterian, to install a rain garden and a porous paver patio with a cistern to collect and reuse rainwater. Once again, she gained support by talking about the multiple benefits the project would bring. Using rainwater for irrigation helped to reduce the church's water bill, and the rain garden dried up a soggy lawn. In addition, the patio and garden became a landscape amenity. In fact, church members like the rain garden so much that they agreed to build two more this year with grant assistance from the Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District.
Most recently, Barker has turned her attention closer to home. When she learned about a Washington Conservation District grant to help homeowners' associations complete clean water projects, she encouraged the property managers at her townhome complex near Carver Lake in Woodbury to put in a rain garden. When the townhome association board decided against it, Barker found a neighboring association willing to do a project instead. "It's always a blend of politics, education, and networking," she explains. "You just keep talking to people until you find the right connections."
Last year, Barker learned about Minnesota's new Master Water Steward program, developed by the Freshwater Society environmental group. To become certified, stewards participate in 50 hours of in-depth training and complete a capstone project in their local watershed. The program appealed to her because it offered the opportunity to make new connections in her community and combine her love of gardening with her desire to protect local water resources. For their capstone, Barker and fellow water steward Stephanie Wang helped a homeowner in Woodbury to design and install a rain garden that captures runoff and prevents a hillside from eroding and washing sediment into Battle Creek Lake.
The Master Water Steward program has also allowed Barker to continue working with children now that she is retired from teaching. Throughout her career, Barker always pushed her students to look for connections—within the natural world, between science and art, and with other people they met. She embraced project-based learning that got the kids outside of the classroom. They built longboats, took Voyageur canoes down the Mississippi River, and got their hands dirty planting trees and rain gardens. Barker's students learned to "think like a raindrop" and find the connections between their school grounds and nearby lakes and rivers. Now, as a Master Water Steward, she has helped Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District educator Sage Passi line up rain-garden projects at several schools in the district and plan field days for the students.
Passi praises Barker as a "citizen catalyst who not only takes action herself, but also inspires others to do the same." During this Year of Water Action, Gov. Mark Dayton is asking all Minnesotans to take a water stewardship pledge to protect our water through actions such as building rain gardens or volunteering for a local watershed group.
Barker regards her water stewardship not just as a way to improve her community, but also as a gift to her children and grandchildren. "The way I see it," she says, "if this work is good for my kids, it will be good for all of the kids in Minnesota."