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Our History

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We all hope to leave a legacy to our children and grandchildren of a healthy marine environment as defined by diverse natural ecosystems and sustainable human communities.

History of Sound Water Stewards of Island County

Sound Water Stewards of Island County came into existence January 1, 2016 as a Washington State 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation.  SWS evolved from Island County Beach Watchers, a program under the Washington State University Cooperative Extension Service.  Don Meehan, WSU Cooperative Extension Director for Island County, reasoned that residents needed to better understand the marine environment in order to protect it. 

Grant funding in 1989 enabled Don to create the Beach Watchers program, based on the successful Master Gardener program, to recruit, train, and support volunteers to steward the Salish Sea marine environment that surrounds Whidbey and Camano Islands.  This ambitious training program continues using the same principles and ideals established in 1989 when this 100 hour training was offered to 16 candidates.  More than 800 volunteers have now been trained and deployed on many projects in and around Whidbey and Camano Islands.

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Jim Somers & Don Meehan

Program funding depended on grants for most of the Beach Watcher years.  Program expansion to other coastal counties received federal support until economic declines forced most to close.  Lighthouse Environmental Programs was created in 1995 as a nonprofit benefitting Island County and Puget Sound.  Grants and contributions can come directly to LEP to support programs at the lighthouse without going through WSU.  In 2004, LEP was granted permission to benefit from the specialty lighthouse license plate sales.  These LEP funds continue to support SWS and other lighthouse programs.

Over time, WSU priorities shifted with increasing financial constraints.  By late 2014, Beach Watcher volunteers agreed to split away from WSU to create a new independent non-profit to continue this program following the principles in place since its inception. 

With the formal transition from WSU in 2016, SWS volunteers trained new classes of stewards and continued all existing 2015 projects under the new entity.  A Board of Directors elected by the members is now responsible for the program.  With few funds, the new volunteer led SWS continued in Beach Watcher tradition to address the challenges facing the Salish Sea and its inhabitants.  Part-time staff were hired as funding allowed to support SWS volunteers in pursuit of projects and programs.  Expansion of staff support continues, and an Executive Director now leads the program.

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Early Beach Watcher projects included educational displays at major events, workshops, and guided tours of the natural environment.  Other accomplishments include partnering with Washington State Parks to reopen and refurbish the Admiralty Head Lighthouse, a partnership that continues.  This lighthouse continues to be the home to SWS. 

Today there are 23 active projects that touch the lives of thousands of people each year through education, science and stewardship.  Education efforts include beach and forest walks, workshops, and Sound Waters University, a one-day university for everyone, that was first offered in 1997 and has been offered every year since to as many as 700 attendees each year (shifting to a virtual platform for 2021 and 2022). 

Publications that help Puget Sound residents become better stewards include Getting to the Water’s Edge, a guidebook to beach access throughout the county first published in 1994 as a small booklet.  In 2006, it underwent a major revision, and in 2020, SWS published a completely revised 208 page third edition.  Both newer editions included not just beach access information but essays about our history, the nature that surrounds us, and how we can better steward our islands. 

Science projects include more than 20 years of beach monitoring, juvenile salmon and forage fish research with federal agencies and the tribes, partnerships with the Northwest Straits Commission on projects they fund through local Marine Resources committees, monitoring water quality, providing help to state agencies doing field work, collecting data that no agency has time or resources to collect, and developing specialized tools for data collection.  Stewardship efforts have included beach clean-ups, including removal of fishing line, creosote logs, abandoned tires, and plastics from our shores and waters. 

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history photo of Beach Monitoring at Sunny Shores

Our volunteers give back to our island communities more than 20,000 hours each year.  People who become Sound Water Stewards do it because it allows them to give back to this place we call home. 

We all hope to leave a legacy to our children and grandchildren of a healthy marine environment as defined by diverse natural ecosystems and sustainable human communities.