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The Watershed Game challenges, informs decision-makers

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Angie Hong, East Metro Water Resources Education Program, facilitates the Watershed Game aboard a St. Croix riverboat.

When Angie Hong is reaching out with water education in Washington County, it doesn’t matter if she’s talking to people who are conservative- or liberal-minded.  “Everybody cares about water,” says Hong, who is with the East Metro Water Resources Education Program.

Hong would know. She has spent the last 12 years teaching communities about water. From invasive species to stormwater runoff to chemical pollution, there are many threats to water quality. One tool that Hong uses to bring people together is the Watershed Game.

Developed in 2006 by educators at University of Minnesota Extension and Minnesota Sea Grant, the Watershed Game provides a hands-on opportunity for policy leaders to learn about water management strategies they can implement in their communities. There is also a youth classroom version. An updated edition of the Watershed Game, incorporating new University knowledge, launched this fall.

Plain language, hands-on approach

John Bilotta, Extension educator, was one of the experts who developed the game. Twelve years later, he’s still involved. In addition to facilitating the game themselves, Bilotta and his Extension colleagues train natural resource professionals from other organizations, including Hong, to facilitate the game and reach a larger audience.

The Watershed Game is set up as a board game similar to Monopoly. Participants are challenged to use their resources to improve water quality and meet clean water goals. A trained facilitator guides participants through the game and a follow-up discussion.

The people making decisions and policies to protect and improve the health of our water are often local officials such as city council members, county commissioners and township officers. Their job isn’t easy—they are working to address a wide array of local priorities and water quality is only one of them. They may or may not have knowledge or training about watershed management, and their resources are limited.

Understanding laws and regulations about clean water isn’t easy either—they are full of acronyms and technical terms. Teaching these concepts in plain language, with a hands-on approach, keeps people’s attention. It also “provides a way to talk to people about issues without making them feel bad that they don’t already know this,” Hong says.

Every community and every watershed is different, so the Watershed Game introduces options rather than prescribing one particular plan of action. The game illustrates the importance of thinking holistically and working across different land uses. The goal is to help community leaders make informed—and cost-effective—decisions about how to best protect and improve public water resources.

Game leads to action

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John Bilotta, U of M Extension, is one of the creators and facilitators of the Watershed Game.

Once leaders understand what they can do to protect their waters, they put their knowledge into practice. For example, Bilotta, Hong and others have been working with leaders around the St. Croix River for nearly a decade. The Watershed Game taught area leaders new policies that they have adopted, and inspired them to apply for and receive more funding to preserve and improve water quality in and around the St. Croix River.

There are now 266 trained facilitators in 18 states. “Word spread beyond Minnesota pretty quickly,” says Bilotta. “The game was designed in terms of water features, not for a specific location, so it doesn’t need modifications to cross over our state line.”


What is a watershed? Why should I care? Extension has resources, such as the Watershed Game, that help individuals understand the connection between land use and water quality.

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