Martin Johnson works for the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District, but his days are not spent talking to cattle farmers about alternative watering practices or promoting buffer planting between fields and streams.
Johnson is one of an increasing number of “urban conservation specialists” employed by soil and water conservation districts in Virginia. Johnson’s work ranges from reviewing site plans for proper erosion and sediment controls to coordinating educational programs for a partnership of multiple stormwater permit holders in the region.
Seventy-five years after becoming the federal government’s key local ally in promoting conservation practices on farms, many of Virginia’s 47 soil and water conservation districts are reaching beyond farm fields into suburban backyards to help citizens preserve soil and protect water quality in local streams.
And these new roles may prove to be increasingly important for restoring the Chesapeake Bay. The new Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement calls for increasing “the number and diversity of local citizen stewards and local governments that actively support and carry out the conservation and restoration activities.” Though pollution from agriculture remains a major source of nutrients and sediment to the Bay, stormwater from development is the only source that is increasing.
“Many people think districts only are needed in rural areas, and that they advise about conservation practices only used on cropland and pastures,” said John W. Peterson, a member of the Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District. But the mission is gradually shifting, Peterson said, from a focus on agriculture to improving water and air quality across all sectors of the environment — rural, suburban and urban, agricultural, residential and commercial.
By the time Franklin D. Roosevelt entered the White House for his first term in 1933, soil erosion and the loss of productive topsoil had become a widespread problem. Under the leadership of Hugh H. Bennett, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Soil Conservation Service was installing demonstration projects around the country to encourage farmers to use new methods like contour plowing and crop rotation. But Bennett and others understood that local government support was required to effectively reach the thousands of farmers in every state.
Roosevelt wrote personal letters to each state’s governor in 1936 asking them to promote legislation in their states modeled on a “standard district law,” crafted by Bennett and others, that would allow for the creation of soil conservation districts.
The first state to adopt the legislation was Bennett’s home state, North Carolina, with other states, including Virginia (the first in the Bay watershed) following suit in 1938. Today, 3,000 districts cover all 50 states.
Originally called “soil conservation districts,” these volunteer boards were elected locally and were composed almost entirely of farmers — and provided the essential link between the farming community and the federal Soil Conservation Service that was promoting the voluntary adoption of conservation practices.
As farmland started to give way to housing and commercial development, some districts undertook small watershed projects to reduce property damage from flooding, mostly by building dams — many of which are still under district ownership today.
One of these, the Pohick Creek Watershed Project in Fairfax County, was a series of lakes that captured runoff from upstream development to protect downstream waterways. It was funded using federal dollars through the conservation district in a watershed being converted totally from rural to urban land use. At the same time, erosion and sediment controls were instituted upstream from the lakes.
The requirements guided the 1973 Virginia Erosion and Sediment Control Law, and cleared the way for a new role for districts. Many district boards began to hire staff to provide technical assistance to local governments, including help with local erosion and sediment control programs.
In 1983, the Chesapeake Bay Program ushered in a new era for SWCDs in Virginia, when the commonwealth began to allocate state revenues for agricultural cost-share to help address nonpoint source pollution from agricultural fields and farms. Districts became the conduit for state funds, and were no longer dependent on the federal cost-share funding still coming through the Soil Conservation Service (renamed the Natural Resource Conservation Service in 1994).
Since the 1990s, the task of administering Virginia’s agricultural cost-share has increased as the state-derived funding has grown to a high of more than $26 million in 2012. The state money is used to help land owners install stream fencing, plant stream buffers or implement any of more than 40 agricultural best management practices.
But as districts lose farmland, they have adapted the erosion control practices they’ve developed over 75 years, translating technical expertise into urban issues. Though land use has changed, “the foundations of the practices are the same for rural and urban nonpoint source management,” said Del. David L. Bulova of Fairfax County. And, the kind of one-on-one technical assistance that districts provide may be essential to Virginia meeting Chesapeake Bay cleanup goals.
“We’re still providing advice to homeowners on how to solve drainage and erosion problems, but now it’s on their 10th of an acre,” said Laura Grape, executive director of the Northern Virginia SWCD. This can be important in the urban setting, where county governments don’t necessarily have — nor want to build — conservation outreach programs. “We can deliver these services in a very cost-effective way,” Grape said. Her district, for example, is under contract to Fairfax County to provide the educational requirement of the county’s stormwater control permit.
Districts also have flexibility that local governments can’t have. “This allows us a bit more space to think creatively,” she said, and conduct demonstration projects to inform policy and regulations.
One such program is the “urban cost-share initiative” being piloted by four piedmont SWCDs: Hanover-Caroline, Culpeper, Piedmont and Thomas Jefferson.
“It began when several districts started to consider how there is no incentive for residential homeowners to do conservation practices on their property,” said Alyson Sappington, district manager of the Thomas Jefferson SWCD.
“Farmers have cost-share opportunities, and developers are, for the most part, regulated,” Sappington said. “But residential homeowners can have soil erosion in their yards that’s draining to the storm sewer system, or put as much fertilizer on their lawns as they want.”
The Virginia Conservation Assistance Program, has been designed to fill this gap, one that is essential, Sappington said, to meet the goals set out in the Virginia Watershed Implementation Plan for the Bay TMDL.
The program has been funded initially by grants and partnership programs with participating local governments, like Charlottesville, which uses the program in conjunction with its stormwater utility fee to help homeowners install conservation practices such as rain gardens and cisterns.
The pilot program has been used to develop a manual of practices that could be used if the program expands, as Sappington and others hope. To that end, Bulova has sponsored legislation for several years that would create a statewide urban cost-share program that would likely be administered by soil and water conservation districts.
Virginia soil and water conservation district boards consist almost entirely of citizens that are locally elected at the same time that county and municipal elections take place.
That’s one of the things that is so unique about districts, said Jack Frye, former director of the Soil and Water Division at the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation. “They are unpaid elected officials, giving of their own time. They are usually very committed, and many of them have put in as many as 30 years of service.”
But they do not wear the mantle of government. In fact, Sappington said, “most district directors and staff prefer the role of providing technical assistance, rather than taking the stance of ‘we’re from the government, and we’re here to help you.’”
Diane Hoffman, former district manager for the Northern Virginia SWCD (Fairfax County), agrees. “Districts always want to be that trusted neutral expert.” With more than 20 years of working for the northern Virginia district, Hoffmann said, her organization was involved in a lot of land use conversations, “but we never took sides.”
Since the 1940s, Virginia has lost more than a third of its farmland – from 8 million acres in 1940 down to just a little more than 5.5 million acres today, mostly because of urbanization. In that time, soil and water conservation districts have evolved to meet the changing requirements for protecting natural resources, on the ground, working with the public and promoting voluntary practices.
“Districts have two really powerful tools that are intertwined, the technical expertise and education and outreach capability,” Hoffman said. “When you are doing one, you are accomplishing the other.”