Will the Legislature close our Soil and Water Conservation District?

Will the Florida Legislature, that reliable enemy of local government, take away our Soil and Water Conservation District this session?

A bill introduced by Republican Palm Coast Sen. Travis Hutson (SB 1078, HB 783) would remove county-based conservation districts. Florida has 58 such districts, each with an elected council. These were enshrined in Florida law in 1937. Volusia County has had one since 1943, when it was just a soil conservation district, the water portion was added later.

“They don’t do much,” Hutson said of the districts.

Following:What are lawmakers Volusia and Flagler proposing during the session?

And to be sure, the district is the most obscure organization in local elected government and is often a perplexity to voters at election time.

In 1996, for example, because no candidate qualified by the deadline, a district council seat had to be chosen entirely from registered candidates. The line on the ballot read, “Volusia County Soil and Water Conservation District (vote one).” The next line was a blank space marked “write-in”.

A large number of voters misunderstood these instructions. Many wrote in “soil”. Even more written “water”. Only votes for humans were officially counted by election officials, but the popularity of water should be noted.

And the Flagler County District was dissolved due to lack of interest in 2015.

mark the way

But even though few are aware of its work, the Volusia County Soil and Water Conservation District continues and has real duties. It is a local liaison for the US Department of Agriculture and a promoter of its programs to growers and ranchers. Its members are local advocates for sound agricultural practices and the protection of the environment and water resources in general.

As elected officials in the region, they have a platform to educate the public, growers and especially other government agencies about protecting our natural resources. In a territory that is becoming increasingly urbanized, these are the voices of agriculture.

For fiscal conservatives, one would think that soil and water conservation districts would be the best kind of local government agency; they have no salaried employees, no taxing powers, are locally based, and their board members are all volunteers elected by local voters.

Volusia County ended district funding and staffing in 2007 and transferred some of its functions to county staff. So it’s not as if disbanding the group would save taxpayers’ money. Instead, the county would lose money because the group would no longer be there to help with grant programs.

still have a role

Hutson argued that the state’s water management districts could take over the functions of these groups. But water management districts, whose funding and scope were drastically reduced during Rick Scott’s tenure as governor, are large, multi-county agencies covering large areas. They would not have the same local presence as conservation districts.

Members of district water management boards would certainly not be the same kind of visible community advocates for environmental protection, natural land preservation, water quality and sound agricultural practices. .

Soil and water boards are certainly not top offices. Members have no real power. The districts were founded during the Dust Bowl era to help out at a time when local government was rudimentary and the protection of natural resources was far beyond its reach. They rank among the mosquito district councils in terms of voter visibility, but they still provide useful information and local services.

You’re definitely not going to see a Soil and Water Conservation District march on the state capitol this session. Few Floridians – and very few city dwellers – know what they are for. And given the legislature’s anti-local government bias, members would no doubt be willing to knee-jerk yet another local government unit.

So maybe after 85 years, this will be the year conservation districts are erased from the law books and taken off the ballot. And that would be a shame.

Mark Lane is a News-Journal columnist. His email is [email protected]

Comments are closed.