SALEM - When Jim Castle of west Salem bought his dream retirement home a few years ago, he acquired a nightmare in the back yard: a little stream that was fighting for its life amid a tangle of ivy and several year's worth of trash.

But thanks to Oregon State University Extension's Watershed Stewardship Educational Program (WSEP), everything is now flowing much more smoothly.

Essentially, WSEP is a series of workshops designed to help people like Castle manage Oregon's watersheds, no matter the size, and bring them back to optimum health where need be.

In many cases, WSEP students, who learn in the field as well as the classroom, know something about a particular facet of watershed ecology, but are seeking to learn more about all phases. Many of the students have also volunteered to be members of a local watershed council.

Watershed councils were enacted by the Legislature during the early 1990s as part of the state's watershed health program. The program is now a part of Gov. John Kitzhaber's Oregon Plan, which empowers local communities to take responsibility for watershed health in their areas.

OSU may be the first university in the country to offer a comprehensive educational watershed program and Master's recognition for the lay public, said Derek Godwin, one of three WSEP team leaders and one of the program developers.

Each workshop runs about six hours and is split between evening classes and practical instruction in the field. Individual workshops deal with different aspects of watershed management, such as erosion control and water temperature monitoring.

The first WSEP classes were offered on a pilot basis on the Oregon Coast in 1997 and 1998. Today, the program is operating throughout the state. "We've got classes running in Albany now for Linn and Benton counties and it's just packed," Godwin said.

This spring, five areas in the state will be offering classes: Linn-Benton counties, Coos County, Lane County, Clackamas County and Columbia County.

Those attending the instruction have two options, Godwin said. They can take any or all of the classes "just for the fun of it," or, they can complete all the classes and undertake an actual watershed improvement project. Those electing to go the latter route, as Castle did, are recognized as Master Watershed Stewards.

Projects take 30 to 40 hours, and may include work on a workshop participant's property or liaison with volunteer organizations like watershed councils.

"Like the OSU Master Gardner Program, watershed stewards are points of contact for the community to get help to work on stream enhancement," Godwin said.

There are about 60 major watersheds in Oregon, with most of those being fed by smaller tributaries that also must be managed. Godwin estimated the number of watershed councils at 85. "There's not much of Oregon not represented by a watershed council," Godwin said.

Castle, who is on the Glenn-Gibson Creek Watershed Council, is a vocal supporter of WSEP. "If anyone wants to understand all the factors that make up a watershed, it's by far one of the most challenging programs I've ever been in. It touches on just about everything."

Castle has spent countless hours cleaning up his little watershed and considers it an ongoing project. "I've cleaned it up, got a lot of debris out of it, cleared the ivy out of trees and off the ground. The two and a half acres is being transformed from an overgrowth, jungle type of environment to more of a natural one."

In addition to ridding the area of ivy and trash, Castle, a former school administrator, has planted several tree and grass species he learned about that grow well in wet areas.

He believes that if he hadn't taken action, the clogged-up stream would have turned the area into a soggy marsh and the trees would have been killed by the ivy.

According to OSU's Tara Nierenberg, who coordinates the WSEP workshops throughout the state, about 200 people have taken the courses to date.

"Our target audience is watershed council members, and also Soil & Water Conservation District employees and volunteers. Secondarily, our target audience is the community at large, anyone interested in watershed issues."

There is a fee for attending the watershed classes. "It varies from place to place," Derek said, "but generally runs around $60."

Those wanting more information on the WSEP classes can call Nierenberg at (541) 737-8715. There's also a website.

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Derek Godwin, 503-566-2909