Two years ago, when the Oregon Department of Agriculture was holding hearings on changing the focus of its agricultural water quality program, one thing became clear early on: The state’s 45 soil and water conservation districts were not going to play a part in enforcement.

Doing so, according to Jerry Nicolescu, executive director of the Oregon Association of Conservation Districts, would jeopardize the good will the districts have earned from years of working with landowners.

The department agreed: “The districts have spent literally decades building positive working relationships with the agricultural community, and we do not want to jeopardize that,” said John Byers, manager of ODA’s agricultural water quality program.

Many districts serve as liaisons between government bodies and landowners, Nicolesu said, because government bodies realize the districts offer agencies their best chance of achieving positive results.

The government bodies, in turn, funnel grant funds and projects through the districts, helping keep districts viable.

Oregon has 45 districts, 29 of which represent a county. Six counties have two districts, and Baker County has four.

Each district has a board of directors, made up of between five and seven volunteers elected by county voters.

Lawmakers in 2013 approved a $628,000 two-year operating budget for the ODA to oversee district operations. Among other functions, the department’s four-person staff trains directors, administers stipends to cover director expenses, helps administer elections, and, in cases where districts operate under a tax base, helps administer the tax levy.

Twelve of the state’s 45 districts operate on tax bases. The Tillamook Soil and Water Conservation District is the most recent to have passed an operating levy. It kicked in this year.

The tax bases, authorized by county voters, enable a district to accept property taxes, which the districts use to pay for staff and some basic support.

District budgets vary widely, even among those operating under tax bases: Some operate on budgets of around $300,000 a year in base funding, while some heavily populated urban districts operate on base funds approaching $2 million a year.

Districts use their base funding as leverage to obtain federal and state grants that typically are tied to individual projects.

Healthy operating budgets can play a big part in a district’s ability to improve soil and water quality through on-the-ground projects, but isn’t always necessary to achieve success, Byers said.

“We have very sparsely populated districts, such as Illinois Valley, that have very successful programs, although they don’t have the funds that other districts do,” Byers said. “Through grants and hard work and dedication of the boards of directors, they do good work on the ground.”

Nicolescu said he sees an ebb and flow to the effectiveness of different districts, based on who is elected, what kind of leadership districts have at any one time, the amount of money coming in, and the ability to go out and get money beyond what the state provides.

“What I see right now,” Nicolescu said, “is that districts are very active.”

The history of soil and water conservation districts dates back to 1935, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Soil Conservation Service to address problems with soil erosion. In 1937, Roosevelt asked state governors to promote legislation to form local soil conservation districts.

Oregon lawmakers passed authorizing legislation in 1939. Oregon’s first district, the South Tillamook Soil Conservation District, formed in 1940.

In 1963, according to a report from the Marion Soil and Water Conservation District, the Legislature added water to the name of the districts.

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