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Editorial: What do soil and water boards do and why do we elect them?

Editorial: What do soil and water boards do and why do we elect them?

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When Roanoke voters go to the polls on Tuesday, they won’t have much to choose from.

The city is divided between two House of Delegates districts — one represented by Democrat Sam Rasoul, the other by Republican Chris Head. Both, though, are running unopposed. There is a state Senate race on the ballot, although not much of one. Democrat John Edwards faces only independent Steve Nelson, whose campaign has been almost invisible. There is one contested office on the Roanoke ballot, though; one that might confuse many voters because it’s for an office we rarely hear about. (Same, too, for voters in Montgomery County.) Just what is this Soil and Water Conservation Board, anyway? And why is there a three-way race for two seats in both localities?

The answer to the first question takes us back to the early 1900s, which saw the rise of “scientific agriculture.” This was the same era that eventually saw the founding of the extension service to dispense new-fangled scientific advice to the nation’s farmers. President Theodore Roosevelt was especially interested in this. In 1905, his U.S. Department of Agriculture sent a young soil scientist named Hugh Bennett — two years out of the University of North Carolina — to Louisa County, Virginia. Why was the county’s crop yield declining? Bennett’s conclusion was that the problem was soil erosion. From then on, the problem of soil erosion — how to prevent it and how to repair it — became his life’s work, in time earning him the honorific “The Father of Soil Conservation.” Bennett wrote extensively — for both scientific journals and popular farming magazines — about soil erosion. As with many things, it took awhile before his warnings took hold. His seminal work was a government report called “Soil Erosion: A National Menace” that came out in 1928. He described how even a light rain was enough to turn “the Tennessee River red with wash from the red lands of its drainage basin.” He described how many fields in Southwest Virginia had been “completely ruined by erosional ravines . . . Field after field has been abandoned to brush, and the destruction continues.”

It took two events to turn Bennett’s advice into action. The first was the 1932 election of Franklin Roosevelt, who was predisposed to an activist government. The second was the Dust Bowl, the first drought of which hit in 1934 and was so severe that some of the Midwestern dust settled on Washington, D.C., both literally and metaphorically. The next year, Congress passed, and Roosevelt signed the law creating the Soil Conservation Service — with Bennett as its director. From that federal agency came a Roosevelt request that each state set up its own state and local soil and water conservation districts. Virginia did so in 1938 and we’ve been electing soil and water conservation board members ever since — in the localities that have chosen to be part of such districts. Some localities, such as Salem, do not participate.

It’s still unclear why we elect these board members. Virginia, unlike other states, is historically a “short ballot” state where we appoint a lot of officials that other states elect. Here, we’re reversed. Every state has soil and water conservation district boards but not all elect those boards. We do.

These elections are typically unopposed. The contests in Roanoke and Montgomery County are the first contested campaigns anyone can remember for these seats.

Here’s what voters may want to know: These boards — whose members serve without pay — do not set any policy and have no regulatory authority. Instead, they are in charge of disbursing state and federal funds for soil and water conservation programs. In the Blue Ridge District (which covers Roanoke and the counties of, Roanoke, Franklin and Henry), that’s about $450,000 a year. In the Skyline District (which covers Floyd, Giles, Montgomery and Pulaski counties), that’s just under $638,000.

Most of this money goes directly to landowners who apply for funding and qualify through a rating system. Typical allocations are for fencing, tree-planting buffers, cover crops, that sort of thing. The Blue Ridge District currently has a program in Henry County for repairing or replacing septic tanks in the Smith River watershed. Qualifying homeowners can receive funding for 50% of the cost. Applications go before each board anonymously — “applicant 123” and not “applicant John Smith” — to avoid the appearance of favoritism. The district also awards scholarships to students planning a career in natural resources and for high school students to attend the Youth Conservation Camp at Virginia Tech.

In both Roanoke and Montgomery County this year, incumbents are being challenged by opponents of the Mountain Valley Pipeline — in Roanoke, civic activist Freeda Cathcart; in Montgomery County, former National Weather Service hydrologist Thomas Adams. In Roanoke, the two incumbents are Sarah Baumgardner, public relations director for the Western Virginia Water Authority, and Mike Loveman, retired project manager and human resources and safety director for Lanford Brothers. In Montgomery County, the two incumbents are Bob Phillips and Richard Wall.

Some context for voters: Anyone thinking that electing a pipeline opponent to the soil and water board will help stop the pipeline is sorely mistaken. The board simply has nothing to do with the pipeline. It would, of course, give pipeline opponents a title before their name if anyone thinks that lends them more credibility. That’s particularly relevant in the case of Cathcart, who was accused of improperly claiming to represent the state Board of Pharmacy when she was arrested last year at a pipeline protest in the national forest (she was fined $150 in federal court for violating a closure order). For misusing her state ID badge, Gov. Ralph Northam removed her from the board for “this act of misconduct.” Cathcart said she did wear her Board of Pharmacy ID badge to the protest but presented her state credential only as a form of personal identification. In any case, voters who would like to see her with a Soil and Water Conservation Board badge at a pipeline protest have an opportunity to make that happen Nov. 5. Voters opposed have an opportunity the other way.

Regardless, the work of these boards involves septic tanks, scholarships and stormwater, not pipelines. For voters who oppose the pipeline, the best recourse would be to write a check to the environmental groups challenging the pipeline in court. Lawyers are expensive.

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