What the heck is an SWCD?
October 27, 2023 by Darren Newville
Soil and Water Conservation District, Soils Office, Soil Conservation Service, Soil and Water, what….? What is a Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) other than a mouthful, and why should you care? I’ve been working for SWCD’s for over 25 years and I believe that 90% of the general public does not know what a SWCD is or what we do. So, what the heck is an SWCD?
Let’s start with a little history. The soil conservation movement began in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s in response to the dustbowl era. A large sustained drought combined with farming practices of that time created some very large wind erosion events that moved topsoil very long distances. One storm in that time carried dust 2 miles high and 2,000 miles from the Midwest to encompass D.C., where legislators were busy debating a soil conservation bill. In 1935, Congress passed several pieces of legislation that led to the creation the Soil Conservation Service and started a local voluntary system of conservation. In February of 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt sent letters to every state governor recommending the enactment of soil conservation district legislation. Later that year, Minnesota enacted state statute 103C, which allowed for a process for SWCDs to form as local government units in Minnesota. In 1938, the first SWCD was formed in southeast Minnesota. Over the next few decades, districts continued to be formed and now cover the whole state of Minnesota with a few exceptions in the metro area. In 1958, the Wadena Soil and Water Conservation District was formed to serve Wadena County.
Let’s switch to SWCDs today. The basis for an SWCD revolves around a locally elected board of supervisors. Yes, you get to vote on who represents you on your SWCD board! In Minnesota, the SWCD boards usually have 5 board members, each representing a nominating district. When elected, board members serve 4-year terms. SWCD Supervisor boards set overall policy and long-term objectives based on the local resource issues and work with their staff to achieve those objectives. Do you know who your SWCD Supervisor is? If not, you can find out by checking the “About Us” tab of the website.
Most, if not all, SWCDs will have some type of a mission statement. They may differ a little in wording but they all revolve around the conservation of local soil and water resources. I’d like to key in on the word conservation for a second. I think most of us have an idea of what it means to conserve, but to be sure, let’s define it. Conservation is defined as the wise use of a valuable resource to make certain it will be available for a long as possible. It comes down to this: SWCDs are here to ensure that we are using our local soil and water resources wisely to make sure they are here for our kids and grandkids.
So how do we determine where we’re going to work and what practices we’re going to use? With Minnesota being so big with vastly different resources from one corner of the state to the other, SWCDs use various local planning efforts to prioritize their efforts. You commonly hear these plans referred to as the Local Water Plans, or Comprehensive Watershed Plans, etc. These plans determine the local resources and concerns, and the SWCD uses those plans to build their programs based on local needs. For example, in the southwest part of the state resource issues may revolve around agricultural best management practices, and in the northeast part of the state SWCDs may focus on forestry practices.
How do SWCDs accomplish this mission of conserving those locally identified resources? SWCDs are the local boots on the ground that fill the niche of providing soil and water conservation services to owners of private lands on a voluntary basis. With privately owned lands making up 78 percent of the land surface in Minnesota, voluntary private land conservation efforts are very important if we want to ensure our soil resources are here for future generations.
To accomplish our missions, we start by providing educational information on our local resource issues and the programs we have to help address those issues. We do this through various efforts including presentations to schools or special interest groups, annual workshops, tours, field trials, landowner & producer meetings, posting information on our websites and social media accounts, and working one on one with interested landowners.
SWCDs are also known for providing technical assistance to landowners interested in doing a project. We do this by providing staff that are trained on the conservation practice they commonly work with. This technical assistance includes identifying what the resource concerns are on a property and working with the landowner to come up with a plan to address those concerns. That work may include the surveying and engineering of a practice, providing a seeding plan for native grasses, providing a forest stewardship or tree planting plan, designing a rain garden or shoreline planting, providing guidance on if and when to irrigate a crop, and assisting with the development of wildlife habitat. The technical assistance is tailored to the need of each individual landowner and the resource issue they want to address.
To go along with technical assistance, SWCDs also offer financial assistance. We have funding that is earmarked to help landowners cover the cost of specific practices, and we commonly cost-share between 50%-75% of the cost of an eligible practice. We also help implement a low interest loan program for farmers looking to improve and protect water quality on their farm. We know conservation isn’t always cheap, and we want to make it easier for you to protect the resources we all rely on!
To sum it up, SWCDs are a locally elected unit of government that works with private landowners on a voluntary basis to address locally identified resource concerns. We do that by educating and enabling the private landowners we work with. This is accomplished through our educational efforts, by providing technical assistance through trained staff, and offering financial assistance for eligible projects. If you have a concern you would like to address on your property, or if you would like to find out more about your local SWCD and their efforts, give us a call!
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