A window into the work of your local soil and water conservation districts

In sitting in the last staff meeting for the Washington Conservation District, I kept hearing similar words and phrases across the board from staff: “ramping up,” “swamped, ” “inundated,” “very busy,” and “hard-pressed.”

It’s that time of year where people are thinking and planning new projects, and our office ‘busyness’ factor exponentially increases. All the work done in the winter months to attract people to our cost-share conservation programs generally results in a boom of spring site requests and full staff calendars. It’s fun and stressful and encouraging and overwhelming all at once.

I’m still relatively new to this world of local government, and in getting to know the work at the five soil and water conservation districts (or in the lingo – ‘SWCDs’) I work with across the Lower St. Croix basin, it’s been a really eye-opening experience. I had no clue of how extensively in tune these organizations are with what’s happening in their counties, and how much they are able to do with the resources available to them. They are super cool, and I’m continually amazed how little the general public know about them.

So let’s take a quiz!

How much do YOU know about SWCDs?

1. When were SWCDs first created in Minnesota?

A. 1890
B. 1938
C. 1974
D. 1996

Soil drifts on a Kansas farm in 1936. Photo Credit: Library of Congress

The answer is B.

SWCDs first came about as a result of the Dust Bowl. Intensive farming practices, coupled with years of drought in the 1930s, led to massive soil erosion and severe dust storms, devastating local farms and their families while amplifying the crushing economic impacts of the Great Depression. In response, the federal government initiated a series of actions to help address soil erosion issues. One of these actions was a recommendation from President Franklin Roosevelt to state governors to establish local districts to direct and manage soil erosion control programs, with the goal of engaging citizens to voluntarily adopt conservation practices.

The genius of this recommendation is the word ‘local.’ Local districts could determine and respond to local needs. District employees could forge strong connections and relationships with local landowners, which is critical when trying to convince people to voluntarily change their land management practices.

The first conservation district in Minnesota was created in 1938, and now you can find a SWCD in almost every county in Minnesota (with larger counties sometimes having two).

2. What types of services(s) do SWCDs offer?

A. Helping farmers address soil erosion
B. Selling and planting trees
C. Working with landowners to install rain gardens or pollinator plantings
D. Connecting landowners with a variety of resources to incentivize adoption of conservation practices.
E. Helping shoreline owners install vegetative buffers.
F. Working to identify and eradicate invasive species.
G. Regularly monitoring our lakes and rivers.
H. All of the above (and yet, still more).

Of course the answer is H.

While initially the SWCDs were primarily focused on working with farmers to address soil erosion, with population growth and development, SWCDs have evolved to encourage good natural resource management and stewardship across landscapes – developed, developing, rural, and agriculture. They are your local pulse when it comes to understanding what’s happening in the county and they work regularly in partnership with the county, state, and other watershed organizations (such as watershed districts and watershed management organizations) to bring in relevant programs and initiatives that will enhance, protect, and restore local natural resources.

With over 75% of the land in Minnesota privately owned, having a local resource to help private landowners voluntarily adopt practices that sustainably manage our natural resources is a huge plus!

3. Which of the following is NOT a mechanism for funding SWCDs?

A. SWCDs generate revenue from taxes.
B. SWCDs go after competitive grants.
C. SWCDs receive funding from the state.
D. SWCDs receive funding from the county.
E. SWCDs offer fees for service.

The answer is A.

SWCDs don’t have taxing authority, but generally receive funding for their operations generally through an annual allocation from their county board and whatever is allocated through the MN legislature (which is passed-though by the MN Board of Soil and Water Resources). They can also offer services for a fee and can go after competitive grants.

Another fun fact – while SWCDs can help support compliance with regulations, they have no enforcement authority either.

They literally exist to help provide their local landowners resources and funding to address any natural resource concerns.

4. How are SWCDs governed?

A. District Manager
B. County Commissioners
C. A board of five elected supervisors
D. State agents

The answer is C.

Yep, SWCDs are governed by people voted in by you! In Minnesota, counties are usually split into 5 nominating districts, with one SWCD supervisor coming from each district. These members serve 4-year terms and help set overall policy and long-term goals for the SWCD, usually based around resource management concerns identified in their areas. Boards meet monthly with the SWCD District Manager to discuss and approve budgets, grants, initiatives, projects, and more.

5. Who works for SWCDs?

A. Water resource professionals
B. Foresters
C. Educators
D. Engineers
E. Landscape specialists
F. Any (and all) of the above.

Another easy one – the answer is F.

I truly have enjoyed working with all the SWCD staff across my 5-county jurisdiction in the Lower St. Croix watershed. SWCDs can vary greatly from county to county in terms of size, types of expertise, and focus, but the tenor of their people is the same.

Aside from their incredibly varied technical expertise that can range from forestry, agriculture, soils, ecology, hydrology, and environmental engineering to education and science communication, these SWCD conservation professionals are dedicated to the cause and passionate about helping landowners find a good balance between conserving and using their land. They are smart, resourceful, and understanding.

6. What is the cost of a SWCD site visit?

A. $20
B. It’s free.
C. $5

Jacquelynn Kelzenburg from Chisago SWCD speaks to a landowner about a potential shoreline planting project during as site visit.

The answer is B. It’s free.

You’ll find that SWCDs all offer free site visits, so if you have a potential project in mind, you can call up your local SWCD (see links below) and arrange a time for them to come out and chat!

Caveat: They can get extremely busy so be prepared to be patient sometimes!

7. What are the benefits of working with your SWCD on a project?

A. They provide technical expertise throughout the process – from planning to full implementation.
B. They can provide significant cost-share for the project.
C. They can share your story to help inspire others to follow your lead!
D. All of the above.

We all know the answer is D.

Aside from their technical assistance, SWCDs usually have a variety of cost-share funding available (usually offsetting between 50-75% of a project budget) to help with costs of implementing different conservation practices. We know this type of work isn’t cheap, but we want to help you get across that finish line and get excited to share your stories with others!

So how did you do??

Regardless of this information is new or old to you, I challenge you go one step further than you have before. If you’re just learning about your SWCD, visit their website, follow them on social media, and sign up for any newsletter mailing list so you can stay in the know regarding programs and opportunities to plug in. If you’ve worked or had experiences with your local SWCD – tell people about it! So much of the work we get is because neighbors talked to one another and somebody was inspired. It’s the best and most effective way to help us move the conservation needle forward!

SWCDs in the Lower St. Croix watershed*:
Anoka Conservation District
Chisago Soil and Water Conservation District
Isanti Soil and Water Conservation District
Pine Soil and Water Conservation District
Washington Conservation District

*all of these SWCDs are partners supporting the Lower St. Croix Watershed Partnership, which looks to bring funding across political boundaries to help achieve water quality goals across the basin.