Soil & water: your land is my land

By Leslee Kulba

The Buncombe County Commissioners received a report celebrating the 75th anniversary of Soil and Water Conservation Districts. The first district ever was formed in North Carolina, and it comprised Anson, Union, Stanly, Montgomery, and Richmond Counties. The districts were created in response to the Dust Bowl in the Great Plains states and severe gullying in the Southeast. Although the need to let land lie fallow was well-known by farmers in the Middle Ages, soil was viewed as an “inexhaustible resource” by many experts in the Depression Era.

North Carolinian Hugh Hammond Bennett held a different view, and made great efforts to raise public awareness and educate public policymakers about sheet soil erosion. As a result of Bennett’s work, the Soil Erosion Service was formed in 1933 as a division of the Department of the Interior. The organization later became the Soil Conservation Service, and it was charged with education and outreach, mostly through demonstration projects.

Bennett did not feel the agency was doing enough to get people to actually practice soil conservation, so he formed local soil conservation districts. With pressure from Bennett, President Theodore Roosevelt sent to all state governors in 1937 a template for legislation to form the districts. Now, there are approximately 3000 districts, with at least one in every state. North Carolina has ninety-five. The Buncombe County Soil and Water Conservation District was formed in 1951. Board members are elected via general election ballots, and projects are funded with state and county dollars as well as numerous grants.

At first, the BCSWCD worked to create conservation plans. In 1958, it set a goal to have a plan in place for all 1800 Buncombe County farms. Its mission expanded to help farmers with tree planting and construction of irrigation systems. With increasing urbanization, the district grew to address water contamination from construction and impervious runoff.

Today, soil and water governance has become multi-layered. In addition to the local districts, oversight agencies include the North Carolina Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts, a district employees’ association, the Division of Soil and Water Conservation, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the National Association of Conservation Districts, and the Foundation for Soil and Water Conservation. Additional services include consulting, water quality testing, and surveying and engineering design.

For education and outreach, the SWCD visits schools, hosts conservation contests and field days, participates in events like the Mountain State Fair, and puts on an annual Envirothon. The last is a statewide competition of middle school teams that compete in a field day of environmental problem solving.

The presenters at Tuesday’s meeting, and the commissioners, were most impressed with the SWCD’s cost-sharing programs. The NC DENR’s Division of Soil and Water Conservation will, under certain circumstances, pay 75 percent of the cost of implementing best management practices on farmland, up to a cap of $75,000 per applicant per year. The state has published a list of qualified BMP’s that include construction of riparian buffers, windmills, wells, or livestock feeding areas; road stabilization; terracing; rooftop runoff management; animal odor control; and containment of harmful agricultural chemicals.

Persons farming on enhanced voluntary agricultural districts (EVADs) may participate in a 90-percent cost share program with a $100,000 annual cap. Parties placing their property in a voluntary agricultural district (VAD) agree to leave it undeveloped for the term of benefits, but they may opt out at any time. Parties entering into EVAD’s, however, are bound to refrain from developing their land for ten years.

State and local tax dollars support 119 cost-sharing technicians, who work with SWCD’s, providing technical support, research, and navigation of regulatory guidelines. Regulatory services include development of erosion control and stormwater mitigation plans, environmental impact analyses, and determinations of whether practices or structures are compliant with laws and ordinances. The program was designed to improve water quality. Since its inception seventeen years ago, 41,500 cost-sharing agreements have been signed, affecting close to 2 million acres of farmland. The state budgets $5.3 million annually for the program, estimating it will “save” over 6 million tons of soil in the next ten years.

During the 2007-2008 drought, $47,000 in cost-share funds were spent renovating pastures, building ponds, and drilling wells. The SWCD also oversaw the delivery of hundreds of tons of hay from Texas and eastern North Carolina. Helping with damages caused by the floods of 1977, 1982, and 2004; the SWCD spent $7.1 million repairing 190 devastated sites.

Closely related to the VAD’s and EVAD’s are conservation easements. The Buncombe County SWCD boasts entering into six conservation easement agreements, totaling 983 acres. Four property owners donated their land outright, and two agreed to create easements for partial compensation. The county spent $278,190 acquiring the lands, and grants totaling $1,085,000 made up the difference. An estimated $4.1 million of land was donated.

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