Understand How Conservation Districts Can Help Protect and Improve Sources of Drinking Water

WHAT ARE CONSERVATION DISTRICTS?

Conservation districts provide technical assistance, outreach, education, and links to resources for private landowners to plan and implement conservation practices to protect soil and water quality. Districts encourage active, voluntary participation from landowners to support the success of conservation work on private land. Conservation districts are well-connected at the state and local level and are effective partners in drinking water protection in many communities. If you want to partner with a conservation district, a good first step is to understand how your district is organized and who to contact. Since they are established under state laws, conservation districts vary in what they are called and how they are funded. This Toolkit can help explain their basic structure, and help you find your state or local contact. It also provides ideas on how to communicate your shared interests and goals.

The National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) is a valued Source Water Collaborative member committed to source water protection.

Click here to see an overview of how conservation districts are organized in your state and different terminology, depending on the state.

Conservation Districts offer:

  • Presence in 3000 counties across the nation and in US territories
  • Source water protection on the ground, through specific projects
  • Links to community leaders in urban, suburban, and rural areas
  • Good working relationships with local landowners, farmers and producers
  • Potential funding through the conservation district and their partners
  • Work on a range of issues (rural, suburban, urban) of importance to source water protection. Conservation district priorities can include: water quality and quantity issues, including assistance to private landowners to implement practices to protect and improve water quality, soil health, stormwater and forest management for water quality benefits.
  • Demonstrated measurable results from their work on the ground

Common Ground

  • Commitment to soil and water quality, and to community health and economic improvement, and protection of landscapes
  • Non-regulatory, voluntary approach to working with landowners and managers
  • Interest in providing educational material to the public about preventive steps to take to protect public health and the environment

Find My State or Local Conservation District Contact

This toolkit will walk you through an array of information to help you connect with conservation districts. If you want to know more about how conservation districts are organized within a state: click here for a sample organization chart. Already know where you want to start? Click here for a quick finder for your state or local level conservation districts contacts.

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Get Started

The general term “conservation districts” is used throughout this toolkit, but it’s important to know many states use different terminology. (A handy link below will help you find the correct name in your state.) Conservation district boundaries also vary by state: they could be along county lines or geography (e.g. mountain range, body of water, watersheds).

As you consider reaching out to conservation district staff in your area, take a moment to review these key resources to help orient you to their structure, programs and priorities so you’re better informed before your first interaction.

What You Need To Know to Get Started

  • Find the specific terminology for your state/area here.
  • Visit local conservation district websites to get a sense of their current activities. Click here to find specific conservation district websites.
  • Look for the conservation district’s annual workplan or report on their website to understand their priorities and programs and find opportunities to connect*. (Note whenever you see an asterisk “*” in this toolkit, put your cursor over the underlined word for a pop-up box with more information.)
  • Identify a specific geographic area or project to propose for collaboration, where systems of conservation practices could help protect and improve drinking water sources. If available, use the conservation district's annual workplan or report to help you identify an area to propose to conservation district staff. Know that they may be most interested in projects that help farmers with the bottom line of their operations, so consider discussing with the conservation district how to best make this connection.
  • TIP: Your state Nonpoint Source (NPS) Coordinator (who works in the state 319 Clean Water Act program) may already be working with the conservation district or other local partners on specific watershed projects. Click here to find your coordinator, then contact them to identify existing relationships. All state NPS management program websites are available by clicking on the online state map here. Look for the state’s Nonpoint Source Management Program to see your state’s priorities.
  • TIP: Project ideas for local districts could come from a district employee, the local Conservation District Board, USDA agency, local watershed planning group, county commissioners/council, or others. To gain broad support, it is helpful if the project idea is within the scope of the conservation district’s annual workplan or report.
  • TIP: Keep in mind that the Natural Resources Conservation Service has employees in nearly every county. Click here to find your local USDA Service Center.*

This infographic highlights what source water programs and conservation districts can bring to a collaborative effort to protect sources of drinking water. Click here to download the image below to use in your planning and to share with the conservation districts.

Click Here to Download Click to view larger image collaboration image
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Take Action

Based on feedback from the National Association of Conservation Districts (NACD) and source water professionals who have built successful relationships with conservation district staff, here are suggested actions, approaches, resources, and tips to help you collaborate. Protecting drinking water sources provides a rallying point for identifying a mutually beneficial set of actions.

These projects work best if they are engaged at multiple levels. For example, when a water system and a local conservation district work together, you can also leverage expertise, opportunities and resources if state and federal counterparts are also on the same page.

In my efforts to protect sources of drinking water,
I am seeking opportunities to work at the:



State Level

If you are interested in reaching out, here are two suggestions you can consider to get started. Both offer opportunities to gain useful information and contacts.

Schedule a Meeting View the NACD website to find which specific state contact NACD has recommended you contact. Click on this link, select your state, and look for the water drop symbol to find the recommended state contact. The state contact can help identify contacts in local conservation districts and can help you find the conservation district annual workplan or report, if not available online.

Since titles and positions vary by state, the recommended contact could be the Executive Director/President of the State Association of Conservation Districts, NACD Board Member, or Director of the conservation agency* responsible for conservation districts.

Ask your NRCS Assistant State Conservationist for Programs for an invitation to attend a State Technical Committee Meeting* (sometimes referred to as a State Tech Meeting). Some of your state’s NRCS District Conservationists might attend. This meeting is a great place to make a variety of connections with agriculture leaders in one place, to become familiar with their priorities and concerns, and to understand how the Committee develops recommendations for funding decisions made by the NRCS State Conservationist. Find the contact information for your NRCS Assistant State Conservationist for Programs here.

Resources to Prepare:

For State-Level Conservation District Meeting:

  • Check in with your state Nonpoint Source (NPS) coordinator* to identify the potential for coordinated work in priority watersheds and recommmended conservation district contacts. The State NPS Management Program Plan identifies priorities. Click here to find your state NPS Program.
  • State Conservationists* (USDA) often have agreements with conservation districts for specific projects. Ask your Associate State Conservationist for Programs if the state’s 3-5 year plan (developed in 2012 and available to partners) includes water quality language in the priority resource concerns. This might be helpful in making your case for source water protection projects

For State Technical Committee Meeting:

  • Each State Technical Committee meeting has a different dynamic. Some can be very formal so it is best to respect the process and observe more in the beginning, to develop your understanding. There may be a chance during a “round robin” part of the agenda to briefly describe your role in drinking water protection. If you have limited time, introduce priority geographic areas for protecting drinking water sources, and express your interest in working with conservation districts.
  • If you have more time to share information at the meeting, it may help to mention the Source Water Collaborative and NACD’s membership. Be sure to express your interest in meeting with conservation districts, and suggest a follow-up meeting with those interested.
  • If the next State Technical Committee meeting will not be held for a while, you may want to reach out first to schedule a meeting with the State Executive Director, or other recommended state contact listed on the NACD website.

Suggested Meeting Approach:

  • Be flexible in your approach: Depending on your timing, the scope of your project(s) or goals, dates of specific scheduled meetings, and availability of key contacts, there may be a number of different opportunities in your state. Suggested actions would vary by state (and according to current opportunities – e.g., if the next State Technical Committee meeting isn’t soon, schedule a meeting with the conservation District Manager or State Executive Director before the next meeting.). Having trouble scheduling a meeting? Ask if you can “piggyback” on another meeting such as the Local Working Group meeting or a county level ag meeting to get acquainted.
  • Agenda/Talking Points: A main goal of this initial meeting may be to consult with conservation leaders on tips for who to work with at the district level and discuss district priorities and upcoming opportunities.
  • What to Bring: Bring concrete information about what source water protection has to offer:
  • GIS maps, e.g. maps of high priority areas for source water protection
  • Source water assessment data
  • Source water protection plans, particularly in priority watersheds identified in the State NPS Management Program plan. Work in these watersheds is based on plans developed for the project area by the state's NPS coordinator. Watersheds are also identified through national initiatives. Here are two examples:
  • Mississippi River Basin Healthy Watersheds Initiative
  • Great Lakes Restoration Initiative
  • Proposed projects
  • Maps of high priority areas
  • Ideas for possible matching funds and potential partners*
  • Participate in tours, field trips & conferences organized by conservation districts: If you have trouble scheduling a meeting, meet them where they are. These present great opportunities to meet key leaders and understand their priorities and issues. Developing these kinds of informal working relationships is a key element of success. Those with long-term relationships say the power of time spent in the field with the district and their clientele cannot be understated.

Tips:

  • Many state associations of conservation districts organize annual meetings at the state level, where they provide an overview of the past year’s activities and training for their main attendees – conservation districts staff and Board Members. Conservation partners from USDA-NRCS and other state agencies also are participants. Many of the states have the information on their state association websites. There may be an opportunity to provide training on protecting sources of drinking water, including priority areas and important conservation practices.
  • You can also connect with conservation district colleagues by participating in their regional meetings. Check NACD’s online event calendar for meetings in your region.
  • Many state associations of conservation districts are engaged in project implementation with the state nonpoint source/Clean Water Act Section 319 coordinator, and are familiar with watershed protection and restoration projects. Demonstrating source water concerns that align with the state’s nonpoint source priorities and priority areas can provide an additional opportunity to involve the conservation districts.
  • State departments of agriculture can play a key role with conservation districts, and may have access to state funding sources. See state contacts here
  • Be persistent. It is important to “keep showing up” at agriculture meetings in your state. If conservation district staff and NRCS staff see you showing up regularly at their meetings, it will demonstrate that you are genuinely interested in working with them. You will start to receive other invitations and be afforded more opportunities to participate.

Local Level

The size of the staff varies by district. Some conservation districts have no staff – in that case, the conservation district Board Member would be the main contact.

Contact your local District Manager/Administrator or Board Member* to schedule a “get acquainted” meeting. Request a meeting at their office, since travel might be difficult, or have an introductory conversation by phone.



Resources to Prepare:

  • To find the district contact in your area, click here for the interactive link to the State Directory and all districts via NACD.
  • Each conservation district has an annual workplan or report, which can be a helpful resource to help you identify their priority issues and areas. Check the conservation district’s website to see if the annual plan is available. If it’s not on the web, you can contact their state office to request a copy.
  • The conservation district may be assisting landowners in developing conservation plans with practices that can help protect drinking water sources. Sharing your source water data and maps can help inform this planning process.
  • To get background on existing or planned watershed projects that may relate to source water protection interests, contact your state Nonpoint Source (NPS) Coordinator, who may already be working with the conservation district or other local partners. State NPS programs are typically located within the state’s water quality agency. If possible, plan to bring an ally (for example from NRCS or state agriculture department) with a connection to the conservation district with you to the meeting, or ask them to make a call on your behalf before the meeting.

Suggested Meeting Approach:

  • Be flexible in your approach: Depending on your timing, the scope of your project(s) or goals, dates of specific scheduled meetings, and availability of key contacts, there may be a number of different opportunities. If you are unable to schedule a meeting at their office, invite the Conservation District Manager/Administrator to your next project meeting.
  • Agenda/Talking Points: Your main goals for this initial meeting may be to:
  • Identify their priority areas and discuss specific geographic areas where you would like to make improvements in source water quality.
  • Identify the key drinking water pollutants and sources in the district.
  • Identify opportunities to include key partners, e.g. drinking water supply manager, conservation district partners, and Source Water Collaborative members represented in the area.
  • What to Bring: Focus on what you can do for them. Bring concrete information about what source water protection has to offer:
  • GIS maps, e.g., maps of high priority areas for source water protection
  • Source water assessment data
  • Source water protection plans (particularly in priority 319 watersheds)
  • Proposed projects
  • Ideas for matching funds
  • Help with identifying potential partners (State source water protection staff may have partners such as non-profit organizations who can assist with completing funding applications.)

Tips:

  • District Managers/Administrators are the key local contacts for conservation districts, and are potential participants in local source water protection teams.
  • District Conservationists are USDA/NRCS employees, and may be co-located in the same conservation district office.
  • Get to know the office administrator – as other staff may be very busy.
  • Remember that conservation district staff may require funding for work beyond an initial meeting on a project. Be aware that your request could significantly impact their staff’s workload. In some states, the NRCS liaison helps to do an assessment of new workload to decide if they need to bring in additional assistance and how to fund additional technical help. Big projects may need a project coordinator who might be a new hire or a contractor to perform the task.
  • The NRCS Local Working Group* meeting is a good way to meet local landowners and operators (farmers, ranchers) and district staff, and to hear their perspective on local issues “on the ground.” Recommendations for decisions about USDA-NRCS local funding distribution are made at these meetings. Depending on the state, the conservation district’s Board Member may chair the meeting.
  • Your State Source Water Coordinator may have data and connections with other potential partners. Find your state contact here.
  • Be persistent. It is important to “keep showing up” at agriculture meetings in your state or at the county level if you’re interested in a specific geographic area. If conservation district staff and NRCS staff see you showing up regularly at their meetings, it will demonstrate that you are genuinely interested in working with them. You will start to receive other invitations and be afforded opportunities to participate more.
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Funding Resources

Your project planning can be better informed if you’re aware of the key funding sources conservation districts use to manage and protect land and water resources. Keep in mind that because conservation districts are established under state laws, their funding sources vary by state. In some states, conservation districts are organized as special purpose taxing districts, eligible for loans and grants, and considered a municipal entity.

  • The Nonpoint Source/319 Program is often a funding source for watershed protection and restoration activities implemented through conservation districts. Most state NPS programs issue RFPs to solicit proposals from local projects.
  • Larger drinking water systems may have funds (or in-kind services) to provide a non-federal match for a nonpoint source/319 funded project
  • When the project is at the local level and the conservation district or watershed group is writing a 319 grant proposal, source water partners can offer to provide letters of support and/or provide guidance on how the proposal could be structured to address drinking water concerns.
  • The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) often provides direct funding to conservation districts. For this reason, it is important to “pitch” your project ideas to NRCS staff so they can target their funds in priority watersheds.
  • NRCS can provide funding for voluntary implementation of conservation practices and for voluntary development and implementation of forest management plans
  • For more information on USDA conservation programs see the SWC’s USDA Collaboration Toolkit
  • State Departments of Agriculture, Departments of Environmental Quality, and Departments of Natural Resources can be sources of funding for state/local projects
  • For information on a wide array of funding resources, see EPA’s Catalogs of Funding Resources:
  • Federal Funding Opportunities for Source Water Protection (April 2013)
  • Catalog of Federal Funding Sources for Watershed Protection
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Partners

Many conservation districts often collaborate with these partners:

  • USDA offices:
  • Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)
  • Farm Service Agency (FSA)
  • Forest Service
  • State Nonpoint Source Programs:
  • All state NPS management program websites are available by clicking on the online state map here.
  • Click here to find state programs.
  • Tribal Conservation Districts: Contact the Indian Nations Conservation Alliance for information about the 27 Tribal Conservation Districts in seven states throughout Indian Country
  • National Association of Resource Conservation & Development: Local Resource Conservation and Development Districts may be partners with local conservation districts. Click here to find local RC&Ds
  • Soil & Water Conservation Society* SWCS members include researchers, administrators, planners, policymakers, technical advisors, teachers, students, farmers, and ranchers. Their work targets conservation of soil, water, and related natural resources on working land. Their mission is to discover, develop, implement, and constantly improve ways to use land that sustains its productive capacity and enhances the environment at the same time.
  • Attend a meeting: Conservation districts and USDA-NRCS staff are often members
  • National Estuary Program National Estuary programs work with a wide variety of state and local partners. Click on the link to find your local estuary program to enhance your project support network.
  • Watershed Groups: Conservation districts are often involved with local watershed groups. Their meetings may provide a valuable opportunity to develop a collaborative approach for water quality projects and build a relationship with your conservation district. Click here to identify watershed groups in your area.
  • Envirothon: Many districts involve youth in natural resources concerns through this event. Click here to see participating states.
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