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Soil & water conservation districts build on Oregon's past

SWCDs continue to play big role in protecting the state’s natural resources

Since the 1940s, Oregon’s soil and water conservation districts have helped protect the state’s natural resources through a variety of effective on-the-ground projects and programs that continue to stand the test of time. Looking to the future, the tasks are large and the work has expanded to include several partners, including watershed councils. A statewide meeting next month will bring districts and councils together to more effectively address the chief issue of water quality.

“Successful on-the-ground projects made possible by funding and direction from the districts prove to all Oregon landowners that conservation is good business,” says Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Katy Coba. "There is a high public expectation for clean water, environmental enhancement, and watershed protection. Districts are conservation leaders in each of their communities."

ODA oversees the state’s 45 soil and water conservation districts (SWCDs).

“The districts are an essential component of the state’s effort to address conservation needs, whether it involves soil, water, or fish and wildlife habitat,” says Ray Jaindl, director of ODA’s Natural Resource Programs. “They have played that role for nearly 75 years and relish the opportunity to provide assistance to landowners.”

Oregon’s watershed councils only have about a quarter of the history of SWCDs, but share the role of improving watershed conditions in their local area. At a joint meeting of the Network of Oregon Watershed Councils (NOWC) and Oregon Association of Conservation Districts (OACD) scheduled for November 3, attendees will look for partnership opportunities.

“Oregon’s conservation districts and watershed councils form the base for voluntary, locally-led conservation work in Oregon,” says Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board Executive Director Tom Byler, whose agency provides grants for conservation projects. “More and more, we see these groups coming together to achieve conservation outcomes at a landscape scale. Through their work with multiple landowners on critical conservation projects, these groups create restoration jobs in their communities, and all Oregonians benefit from clean water and healthier forests and rangelands.”

Locally elected SWCD directors and staff implement natural resource conservation programs across the state, providing technical assistance and finding financial aid to implement best practices to private landowners. SWCDs have led the way in developing much of the on-farm infrastructure for Oregon’s irrigated agriculture, and work with private landowners, state and federal agencies, and interested organizations to protect habitats for threatened and endangered species. Through it all, SWCDs seek to protect and enhance Oregon’s natural resources while maintaining local economies. It’s a balancing act that recognizes the critical role farmers and ranchers play in resource management.

“Districts are always looking for opportunities to protect the soil, protect the water, and provide habitat while maintaining the economic viability of Oregon agriculture,” says Jaindl.

The Oklahoma dust bowl of the 1930s may not have produced agricultural crops, but it did spawn a national effort to dedicate resources for conservation. In 1937, President Roosevelt asked all state governors to promote legislation to form soil conservation districts within their states. These districts were to be local and to serve as liaisons between federal agencies and private landowners. The Oregon Legislature did its part in passing enabling legislation and on February 10, 1940, the South Tillamook Soil Conservation District was established. The 45 state approved soil and water conservation districts, which cover all parts of Oregon, include 289 elected directors, approximately 200 employees, and many hundreds of volunteers working to implement the latest science and technology, mixed with common sense, to protect and enhance Oregon’s natural resource legacy.

From the beginning, SWCDs in Oregon have helped landowners design and build water retention structures, and improve farm irrigation systems to increase water use efficiency. Districts help farmers and ranchers implement no-till farming practices to reduce soil loss from wind and water. They also help landowners plant and maintain grass waterways to collect and store any soil that moves from the fields before it can get into Oregon’s streams. SWCDs often help landowners with grant proposals which, in turn, pay for the design, installation, and materials used for a conservation project. Materials can include fencing, piping, shrubs, trees, or seeds. In other cases, SWCD funds are used for outreach and education– paying for workshops that teach landowners a variety of ways to take care of the land and water that sustains agriculture.

While it appears districts are mainly focused on rural landowners, SWCDs play an important role in urban areas as well. Districts in populous Washington, Clackamas, and Multnomah counties have provided a number of programs and projects that may actually reach a greater number of people than those in rural counties.

Every Oregon voter has a chance to help shape the future of their local SWCD. Next month, once again, it is likely that names will appear on the ballot as districts attempt to fill board positions. Many times, voters opt to leave that portion of the ballot blank, largely because they are not familiar with SWCDs or the candidates.

“Soil and water conservation district directors have been on the ballot for many, many years,” says John Byers, manager of ODA’s SWCD Program. “It’s important to note that the general public has a say in how conservation is conducted in their community. I encourage everyone to look at the issues and pay attention to the candidates running for a district position.“

Through the support of voters since 1998, Oregon is one of the few states in the country that provides base funding for some soil and water conservation districts and watershed councils to lead conservation work in their communities.

Each district has a success story to tell. Projects aren’t always visible to the public, but the list is growing as landowners take care of the land and water that takes care of Oregon agriculture and our way of life.

For more information, contact John Byers at (503) 986-4718 or your local SWCD.

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