Monday, December 16, 2013

Conservation Districts Change their Position

At the just recently ended annual meeting in Williamsburg, VA, the Virginia Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts (VASWCD) passed a resolution reversing its previous stance on a possible transfer of oversight for the districts to the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) from the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR).  The motion to rescind the action of last year’s annual membership meeting and to instead support staying with the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) passed easily after passionate discussion.   The VASCWD had previously passed a resolution supporting a move to DEQ at its annual meeting in Roanoke in 2012.

However, over the course of the last year, seven area meetings were held in various parts of the state to discuss the possible changes and get feedback from directors, employees, and most importantly the farmers who participate in the cost sharing programs.  I attended the public meeting in Culpeper to discuss these changes and allow the various community members and stakeholders to express their concerns and support.

The soil and water conservation districts (Districts) were born out of the dust bowl days to prevent erosion and preserve the soil and manage the network of small damns that were built throughout the nation. Over the years their mission evolved as the connection to water quality, soil and conservation were more fully understood. Today the districts provide technical assistance to help farmers and landowners adopt conservation management practices. The districts also promote and encourage voluntary adoption of the approved storm water management, water protection strategies and soil protection and conservation measures that are known as “Best Management Practices” or BMPs. Part of the promotion of the adoption of the BMPs are various financial incentives known collectively as cost share programs that help farmers and landowners pay for the necessary improvements. Finally the Districts run a series of educational programs for both children and adults to further understanding of our watersheds, water quality and the seemingly small actions that can provide big solutions to our water quality if they are adopted by most people.

The Culpeper meeting which I attended was really characteristic of the state as a whole, a mix of opinions with all the farmers who spoke opposed to the transfer. Throughout the Commonwealth,  there continues to be mixed opinions; however, a majority of the districts, and more importantly a vast majority of the farmers were leery of moving an all-volunteer cost share program to a regulatory agency.  In order to achieve their goals the Districts depend on the cooperation and willingness of community partners and volunteers to work with them. The relationships and trust that the Districts have with their communities is their greatest strength. The Districts encourage participation using established relationships, technical help and financial incentives and now have 100% funding available for their livestock exclusion program to expand the reach of their voluntary conservation activities.

Over the last seven decades districts across the state have built relationships based on trust with farmers across the Commonwealth of Virginia.   Despite the changes over time with agricultural and livestock trends, the districts have been able to maintain their relevance and support the mission of assisting farmers with best practices because of the trust based relationships.  One of the greatest concerns expressed by directors and producers alike was the possibility that a move to DEQ, a regulatory agency, would damage the long standing relationships and result in a decline participation in the cost sharing programs.

According to Neil Zahradka of the DEQ Office of Land Application Programs, the consolidation of the Districts under DEQ is intended to improved oversight and implementation of Virginia’s plan to comply with the EPA mandated pollution diet for the Chesapeake Bay. The pollution diet is to reduce the nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that reaches the Chesapeake Bay carried by rainfall from farm lands, suburban yards, roads and released by sewage treatment plants and septic systems.  Virginia and the other states and the District of the Columbia whose rain fall and snowmelt ultimately drain into the Chesapeake Bay are all under a mandated pollution diet.

Virginia produced a plan to reduce the nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment that reaches the Chesapeake Bay that ultimately satisfied EPA that required virtually all farmers to implement resource management plans and BMPs on most agricultural acres which may include: 35 foot grass or forest buffers between cropland and streams; building fences to keep livestock (and their feces) away from streams; and implement plans to limit and carefully manage the use of fertilizers.

According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation 30% of the pollution in the Chesapeake Bay are from farming practices, the best money spent could be to implement agricultural nutrient management plans. The need to coordinate all the water pollution programs in the state to meet the EPA mandated pollution diet was the reason behind the DEQ consolidating the water programs under their regulatory control. However, it is DEQ’s view of programs as regulatory that concerned the Conservation Districts. Virginia needs virtually all the farmers in the state to implement BMPs and the Conservation Districts feel the regulatory culture of DEQ will impede their effectiveness and possibly sully their mission and effectiveness.   Though, how all these activities to reduce pollution will be paid for is still unknown. The state had cut the budget for the conservation districts over the past several years and the EPA has never had a budget for implementation of these programs that are estimated to cost billions of dollars. 

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