A proposal to abolish every Soil and Water Conservation District in Florida has been replaced with a much milder version leaving the organizations intact but requiring that their elected members be agricultural professionals.
That’s a step in the right direction, an opponent of the initial bill and its replacement said, but that’s still not enough.
Sen. Travis Hutson of Palm Coast has tossed most of the original content of legislation he and Rep. Keith Truenow of Tavares filed in November. In their early form, the bills (SB 1078 and HB 783) aimed to eliminate the districts, whose assets, liabilities and responsibilities would have fallen to Florida’s regional Water Management Districts and a handful of counties.
Hutson said farmers had complained that the Soil and Water Conservation Districts (SWCD) Board in his area did not have an adequate number of members from the agriculture industry. As a solution, they suggested that the districts be repealed. He complied.
Since then, however, Hutson said he has heard from members of other SWCD Boards who didn’t report such a problem. They convinced him not to do away with the districts after all. So, he amended his bill, overwriting nearly all the language of the original to require that SWCD Board members be “actively engaged in the business of farming or animal husbandry,” residents of the area their respective districts serve, and owners of land in the district.
Speaking with Florida Politics on Friday afternoon shortly after the amended bill was published on the Florida Senate website, Hutson said he did not mean for the land ownership requirement to be included. He vowed to remove it.
“That’s not the intent of the bill,” he said. “Based on our conversation, there may be a technical amendment coming out.”
Hutson later confirmed he had spoken with his staff about the issue and would make a technical change to remove the land ownership requirement. On Monday, the amendment was posted on the bill’s webpage.
The change is an improvement, but the bill is still bad, said Rob Long, chair of the Palm Beach SWCD Board.
“A lot of Florida counties don’t have a ton of agriculture,” he said. “In a decent amount of them, these districts do a lot to educate the public on water resource management. If you narrow the focus just to agriculture, you miss out on millions of dollars on cost-share programs and education, which benefit all residents and businesses. This requirement — in some counties, I don’t know if they’d be able to find candidates for all the seats.”
Because he’s an engineer, Long himself wouldn’t have been eligible to run for his seat if Hutson’s bill had passed several years ago. This year, the National Association of Clean Water Agencies is honoring Long for his work on water quality issues and PFAs, also known as “forever chemicals,” that are prevalent nationwide.
“I wouldn’t have had the platform to bring up a lot of water quality issues,” he said. “I don’t want to put these boards in the position where we’re limiting the ability for folks to bring up other issues about water quality, water scarcity, climate change. If they narrow it down to just agriculture, it creates problems.”
Hutson said Long’s assertion that SWCD board members are meant to advocate for climate change measures, among other things, is exactly what farmers in his district were talking about when they asked for the districts to be abolished.
“I don’t think soil and water should be focused on state policy that doesn’t deal with soil and water,” he said. “They’re not focused on the areas they should be focused on, and the intention (of my bill) is to get them focused back on that.”
Every U.S. state and the District of Columbia has SWCDs, amounting to some 3,000 nationwide. Their often broad duties, general Board makeups and processes vary from state to state.
The foundational work for SWCDs in Florida began in 1937 when the Florida Legislature enacted laws modeled after the Soil Conservation District Act, which later expanded to encompass water conservation. The legislation established a state and local partnership with the federal government to protect and restore soil and water resources and to assist private landowners in using conservation practices.
According to Florida Statutes, SWCDs are meant to provide “assistance, guidance, and education to landowners, land occupiers, the agriculture industry, and the general public in implementing land and water resource protection practices.”
In Florida’s nearly 60 SWCDs, five people are elected to unpaid Board positions with many responsibilities. They’re called supervisors, serve four-year terms and may only be removed by resignation or by action of the Governor. Some SWCDs have paid employees and an executive director. Everything the districts do is project-based and grant-funded.
No SWCD in the state is regulatory. Rather, they promote and encourage best practices for the use, management and general conservation of soil, water and related natural resources through a variety of state- and federally funded programs. Some of those programs are partnerships and events with local governments and nonprofits, including school outreach initiatives, environmental cleanups and grant assistance.
SWCDs work closely with the Natural Resource Conservation Service — a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture — as well as the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and local agriculture professionals. Among their many tasks is determining which local soil- and water-related conservation projects and programs deserve priority.
In Palm Beach County, Long said, the SWCD has in the last three years provided $615,000 worth of free agriculture services to growers, coordinated more than $206,000 in free environmental education programs for public school students and oversaw a water conservation program that saved nearly 474 million gallons of water.
He estimates about 1.9 billion gallons of water will be saved as a result of the district’s efforts through 2027.
“We’re not doing anything that’s really hurting anyone,” he said. “We can’t pass laws or do anything like that. At best, we can get an op-ed published once in a while, speak at County Commission meetings and reference we’re elected officials. But we’re able to set up all these educational programs and other things because we’re not just limited to being tied to agriculture.”