An Endangered Office: Soil And Water Conservation Districts Appear On Ballots But For How Long?

Oct 19, 2016

Credit Leon Soil and Water Conservation District / facebook.com

On November 8th, Floridians will cast their ballots for president. But voting doesn’t end with the nation’s top office. There are a slew of down-ballot races, including state senator, judges and Supreme Court justices, and state and local referendums. But way down on the ballot—are soil and water conservation districts. And there’s a growing controversy over whether that office is still needed.

Dust Bowl Sparks Conservation Interest

Back in the 1930’s over-farming devastated large swaths of land, causing the Dust Bowl. It led to massive displacement of people and a dearth of crops. Following that, President Franklin Roosevelt created soil and water conservation districts to promote sustainable agriculture. Today’s soil and water conservation district’s still do some of that—but their profiles have fallen and they don’t receive any state funding. In Florida, people elected to the posts are unpaid.

“I don’t even get reimbursed for my travel. But there’s a lot going on with soil and water,” says Leon Soil and Water Conservation District Chairman Bill Howell.

Today, the districts serves as a liason between the federal agencies with funding and small farmers and businesses that need the money. Howell has lobbied for clean water policies before the North Florida Water Management District, and has worked with his counterparts in South Georgia to create programs to steer more freshwater to the Apalachicola Bay. And Tallahassee’s anti-pollution TAPP campaign? It began as a project of the Leon conservation district.  But for the past eight years, Howell says his counterparts across the state have been under fire, so they’ve tried to keep a low profile:

“There was a real effort by some Tea Party people to get rid of soil and water conservation districts totally," Howell says. The problem? According to Howell, it's because opponents to the districts feel "they’re just another layer of government.” 

Do Or Die For Soil And Water Conservation Districts

"Either we do more, or it should be dissolved," says Bill Helmich, a candidate for Leon’s Soil and Water Conservation District. He's run for the office during each of the past three election cycles. Helmich contends the districts aren’t living up to their mandate. They’re too little known, he says, and he believes they need to be playing a greater role in local and regional policy making.

 “It should work with local government and local businesses, get money—grant money, and be a local education source for people about conservation. We’re a beautiful tree city," he says of Tallahassee, "but we haven’t been the smartest in conservation, proved by Hurricane Hermine, which was basically a tropical storm and knocked out power for several days.

Helmich believes a more active soil and water conservation district could have helped prevent the canopy catastrophe that brought trees to power lines and left most of the city dark after the storm. Now, he's  challenging incumbent Tabitha Frazier. And she says the commission has been trying to raise its profile—and expand its outreach.

“During my last four years, I have tried to meet this challenge and publish numerous editorials op-ed pieces discussing environmental issues facing the state of Florida," she said during a recent appearance on WFSU-TV's election show, Bandwagon

"There have been many concerning changes in Florida’s environmental regulation and permitting process. And I’ve tried to be a local voice educating the public and advocating for regulation that ensures the safety of citizens and the environment.”

But advocating is about all the districts can do. And the lack of power, coupled with perceived inaction in other parts of the state, has resulted in calls for the districts to be dissolved. Lee, Flagler and Polk County have all seen their districts go by the wayside.

**Correction: Hillsoboro County has not dissolved its Soil and Water Conservation District.