Voters in Wake, Orange and Chatham counties are electing members to a board most of them likely have never heard of. Unless you're a farmer or a soil scientist, you may never have come across the non-partisan post of Soil & Water Conservation District Supervisor.
"We've been called one of the best-kept secrets," says Don Cox, secretary and treasurer of the Board of Supervisors for the Orange County Soil & Water Conservation District.
Cox, one of the founders of the Eno River Association, is a 30-year board veteran and an active participant in the statewide association of conservation districts. He is one of two appointed members of the board of supervisors. Three members of the five-member boards are elected.
The district board is charged with crafting short- and long-term conservation plans and the administration of an array of state and federal programs—mainly in the form of parceling out loans and grants to reduce erosion and preserve water quality. The main vehicle funding in North Carolina has been an agriculture cost-share program, in which the state picks up 75 percent of the cost for improvements.
"That takes up a good amount of our time," Cox says. Farmers and landholders submit plans for projects to the boards, which review the plans and prioritize the projects. In Orange County, for instance, annual funding for cost-share projects can range from $100,000 to $200,000, depending on the year and the state's priorities, Cox says. The amount varies from county to county.
Every Soil & Water Conservation District has three elected members and two appointed members. There are more than 3,000 districts nationwide and 98 in North Carolina, including the nation's first, Brown Creek in Anson County—home to Hugh Hammond Bennett, the "Father of Soil Conservation." During the Dust Bowl era, he became the chief evangelist and architect of the soil and water conservation system, and his life's work made clear the link between economics and conservation.
The system that emerged from the crisis of the Dust Bowl was a New Deal program, but hardly the kind you hear bashed for being socialist. The strategy behind the programs that supervisors administer is a sweeping recognition that most of the land is and will be privately held, and to have the greatest impact, landholders play the central role.
"They're like a separate government entity," says Bridget Munger, spokesperson for the state's Division of Soil & Water Conservation, of the soil and water boards. They are, by law, meant to ensure that decisions on projects are made on a local basis.
Each district receives $4,000 in annual funding, Munger says. Beyond that, funding depends on how proactive the board is in seeking grants from federal and state agencies.
Because it is a low-tier elective office, some people might see it as a first rung on the ladder for a political career. In North Carolina, district supervisor has been a favored office for Libertarians, who once boasted roughly a dozen members on boards around the state. But Munger says the job is inherently apolitical. "It's very important they know what they're doing and that they're using facts and science."
Dave McNaught, a senior policy analyst with Environmental Defense, says the abilities of the office holders is important because the way the federal systems are set up, the local boards have a great deal of latitude.
"Soil and water boards have a big say in what funds they do get and how they're spent."
Cox says the 70-year history of the program has had a fairly consistent goal. "The central focus for a long time hasn't changed; it's water quality," Cox says. The methods and the priorities, though, have gone through a transition. They started with helping farmers manage runoff from croplands—changing tilling practices, improving drainage and encouraging implementation of no-till farming. In the 1980s, with the explosion of the state's hog and poultry industry, districts began focusing on projects meant to keep livestock and livestock waste out of streams, such as alternative water supplies, fencing and other infrastructure to reduce nutrient-rich runoff.
As North Carolina becomes a less rural state, you might think these programs are winding down, but conservation districts are broadening their boundaries outside the traditional agriculture community with the same goals in mind.
If you look at where the majority of land disturbance is happening, Cox says, it's not in agricultural lands, but in the sprawling suburbs. And stormwater runoff is the No. 1 threat to water quality in the state.
"Right now, for instance, the only impaired waters in Orange County are those that come out of Chapel Hill," Cox says.
Last year, North Carolina launched the Community Conservation Assistance Program, a pilot program that allows financing for urban and suburban runoff projects through soil and water boards. So far, much of the focus of the program is on helping retrofit older neighborhoods to better handle stormwater.
Though the state didn't provide any funding for the program, a variety of organizations came through with grants, including $557,000 for projects in 20 counties from the Clean Water Management Trust Fund.
Bill Holman, executive director of the Clean Water Trust Fund, says Triangle counties are among those taking the lead in setting up programs that reach beyond the traditional role.
"As the state urbanizes, some districts like Wake are beginning to do 'community conservation' and work with urban as well as rural landowners on such things as rain gardens, rain barrels, etc.," Holman says. The trust fund has also provided money through Durham County's soil and water board for stream restoration in the Falls Lake watershed.
The conservation districts and their state representatives plan to lobby hard this year for funds to expand the program.
McNaught, of Environmental Defense, says he hopes that other boards in areas of the state just starting to urbanize will get involved in similar efforts now so they don't have to play catch up later.
Urban and suburban projects aren't the only area for expansion of the conservation districts' role. McNaught says Environmental Defense has worked with local soil and water boards to preserve Piedmont prairie habitats in the Uharrie National Forest and improve stream protection along a stretch of the Cape Fear River native to the endangered Cape Fear Shiner.
McNaught says the local ties the districts have with farmers and landholders are important. The key to any program is the implementation, he says, and the districts are at ground level.