Here we go again. Another group of state legislators are trying once again to abolish the Soil and Water Conservation Districts statewide.
House Bill 783, sponsored by Lake County’s Rep. Keith Truenow, and the companion Senate Bill 1078, sponsored by Volusia County’s Sen. Travis Hutson, aim to transfer the functions, assets and liabilities of the SWCDs into other state agencies, primarily the Water Management Districts.
On the surface, this might make some sense to consolidate efforts, but much will be lost.
As elected officials, we members of Volusia County’s Soil and Water Conservation District board answer to no one but the voters.
It is our purpose to bring science to the public, and to speak out and educate the general public about environmental issues, particularly as they pertain to soil and water — including the risks of climate change, the impacts of development, and the loss of biodiversity, for example.
Funding models and programming vary by county. In the past, the Volusia SWCD had annual funding from Volusia County to support paid staff to administer various programs the board oversaw (e.g., fuel-tank removal, agricultural-pond permitting).
That funding disappeared a few years back, and the board has relied solely on fundraisers like tree sales and grants to generate the cash to help support high-school extracurricular educational events like Envirothon.
What’s the history of our efforts? The Soil Conservation Service was first established in 1935 by the U.S. Congress after the Dust Bowl of the 1930s threatened to undermine agriculture and food security. The federal government established a science-based agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture to advise farmers on best practices for … you guessed it … conserving soil and water.
A “board of supervisors” for each district — who were locally elected officials (often, other farmers) — would serve as liaisons between the district conservationists (the scientists) and the farmers. Every county in every state had a USDA Soil Conservation Service (later renamed Natural Resources Conservation Service, or NRCS) district conservationist, and a locally elected Soil and Water Conservation District board of supervisors. Most, including Volusia County, still do.
The districts remain distinct and relevant in two important ways: First, SWCD boards are still, by federal law, the link (like a switch in an electrical current) that allows substantial federal dollars to flow into counties through the USDA-NRCS to fund significant soil and water conservation projects for primarily rural landowners.
In 2021 in Volusia County, NRCS programs funded $785,000 million of soil and water conservation projects for 24 landowners — with many more grants in the hopper for 2022.
Our district conservationist, the affable and brilliant George Johnson (who, I lament, just retired at the end of the year), would report each month to the SWCD board his activities to facilitate and administer NRCS program grants on behalf of these landowners. We didn’t technically “supervise” him (he had bosses within the USDA-NRCS), but the local board of supervisors fulfills the federal mandate to exist to keep that money flowing to benefit the county.
In addition, the real and present-day value of these SWCD boards is that we are elected officials elected in countywide, at-large races. We are the only elected officials in the state who have the sole purpose of protecting the environment. We are not staff who can lose their jobs as political landscapes shift. We are not political appointees like those on the Water Management District boards.
This past year, with exactly $0 of taxpayer funding, our unpaid, elected board members mostly partnered with other organizations to deliver educational programming about Low Impact Development practices in urban development plans, which are a set of tools to conserve soil and water.
We are also planning in 2022 to reinstate a program to facilitate more tree plantings in public spaces, including parks, schools and trails, which we also know protects soil, water and wildlife, and mitigates global climate change and tempers local climate patterns.
So, right now, our existence is helping educate the public, moving the needle to get better urban-development standards, and maintaining the flow of millions of dollars of federal funding for rural landowners’ efforts to protect natural resources.
Why would the Florida Legislature want to abolish that?
— Elected in 2020, Anderson, of DeLand, is chair of the Volusia County Soil and Water Conservation District. She is a professor of environmental science and studies at Stetson University, and has been promoting sustainable community development for 20 years.