In response to the national "Dust Bowl" crisis of the 1930s, when millions of acres of cropland were destroyed by drought and attendant soil loss, the federal government passed legislation establishing a the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), in 1937. Conservationists quickly realized that a centrally governed federal agency in Washington could not be as responsive to local needs as it might be, so local counterparts of the SCS were set up under state law to be controlled by local boards of directors. Thus were born "Soil Conservation Districts," which began forming in the late 1930s and quickly spread throughout the 48 states. Soil Conservation Districts began to successfully perform the functions originally envisioned by the formation of the SCS.
In California, Soil Conservation Districts have been formed in all parts of the state beginning in the 1940s, continuing up to the present.
Under Division 9, Soil Conservation Districts were originally empowered to manage soil and water resources for conservation, but these powers were expanded in the early 1970s to include "related resources," including fish and wildlife habitat. This expansion of powers was reflected in the change of name from "Soil" Conservation Districts to "Resource" Conservation Districts in 1971.
What exactly is an RCD?
Resource Conservation Districts (RCDs), once known as Soil Conservation Districts, are "special districts" of the state of California, set up under California law to be locally governed agencies with their own locally appointed, independent boards of directors. Although RCDs are established locally by the rules of a county's Local Agency Formation Committee (LAFCO), and they often have close ties to county government, they are not county government entities.
There are numerous types of special districts throughout the state set up to administer needs of local people for pest control, fire fighting, water distribution, and a host of other services. Some special districts are "enterprise" districts and deliver services or products, such as water, to local customers on a fee basis. Other districts, "non-enterprise" districts, deliver services, such as fire or police protection, to all local residents. These are usually supported on a taxation basis. RCDs have characteristics of both enterprise and non-enterprise districts.
Under Division 9 of the California Public Resources Code, RCDs are permitted to function to a certain degree as enterprise districts because they are empowered to charge reasonable fees for services rendered to individuals. At the same time, certain rules permit RCDs to draw on local taxes for revenues, though the passage of Proposition 13 in 1977 has made it much more difficult for RCDs to function in this way.
Though not governed directly by the state, special districts, among them RCDs, are subject to state law concerning elections, responsibilities, legal meetings, and much more. RCDs, however, are given their primary authority to implement local conservation measures by Division 9.
Core Functions of RCDS
RCDs are empowered to conserve resources within their districts by implementing projects on public and private lands and to educate landowners and the public about resource conservation. Beyond this, RCD are given the right to form associations to coordinate resource conservation efforts on a larger level. The core functions of a district revolve around its right to use diverse means to further resource conservation within their districts.
DIVISION 9, THE DEPARTMENT OF CONSERVATION, AND RCDS
As a portion of the state Public Resources Code, Division 9 outlines the structures, powers, and authorities of RCDs under state law. It also provides for state-level support of RCDs through the state Department of Conservation. The Department of Conservation does not have regulatory oversight of RCDs; the Department serves districts through offering ongoing training on Division 9 and related government codes, providing technical assistance through education, as well as offering some financial assistance to districts through competitive grant awards.
SPECIAL DISTRICTS - DIVISION 9
To read an entire overview of Special Districts provisions for RCDs click on the link below:
Public Resources Code, State of California then go to Division 9, pages: 9,001 thru 10,000.
What makes RCDs so necessary?
Until the formation of Soil Conservation Districts there was no organized mechanism for disseminating resource conservation information, expertise, and assistance. Farmers and ranchers often had no one to turn to for soil and water conservation information and assistance. It took a crisis of national proportions, the Dust Bowl, to bring this about. Farmers and ranchers still need up-to-date scientific information and techniques to manage the natural resources on their properties, and the need for ongoing conservation education and assistance among all sectors of the public is as great or greater than it ever has been.
RCDs continue to render assistance to private landowners wishing to conserve soil and water and manage their resources on a sustainable basis. But RCDs also act as a focal point for local conservation efforts, and RCDs throughout the state now function as leaders in the conservation community, including a large amount of watershed groups such as Coordinated Resource Management Planning (CRMP) groups throughout the state. RCDs continue to sponsor educational efforts to teach children and adults alike of the importance of conserving resources.
Though there are growing contributions by other groups and organizations in communities that raise public awareness of resource conservation, RCDs remain one of the primary links between local people and government on issues related to conservation. With an ever dwindling base of resources and environmental pressures from a host of human activities, the work of RCDs will continue to be needed far into the future.
Locally led conservation
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and Resource Conservation Districts share a close working relationship.
The relationship between RCDs and the US Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), formerly known as the "SCS," has been long standing. As noted above, the NRCS was originally formed to address the crisis of the Dust Bowl, and the legislation establishing local conservation districts was created shortly thereafter. Since then, NRCS and RCDs have had a close working relationship within districts, with NRCS appointing a local District Conservationist to provide technical assistance to districts, as well as acting as a liaison between the district and federal programs. Local offices of the NRCS also frequently employ other specialists, such as soil conservationists and engineers, to provide technical assistance to the district board.
RCDs and NRCS formally ratified their relationship through a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed over fifty years ago to establish a partnership and mutual roles between districts and the USDA. In 1994 the MOU was revised "to modernize and reinvent their historic partnership," and to add state conservation agencies to the agreement.
Recently, several new documents were created to supplement this MOU and to further define the mutual roles of each of the partners. In line with this, a Mutual Agreement (set up under PL 103-354) was drafted to provide each district an opportunity to enter into a formal agreement with NRCS, state agencies, and tribes. It establishes a framework for cooperation between the various partners (for a sample Mutual Agreement, See Appendix B, Partnership Agreements).
Another tool California RCDs have for federal, state, and local partnerships is a Cooperative Working Agreement between the USDA NRCS, individual RCDs, CARCD, and the California Department of Conservation. The purpose of the agreement is to supplement the Mutual Agreement and document "areas of common interest of the State, Federal, and Local partnership in natural resources conservation." It reinforces the idea of "locally led conservation," with individual districts being responsible for "exerting leadership to identify local resource needs, advocate for effective solutions and work with appropriate parties on implementation." This Agreement underscores in particular the relationships between a district and other government entities. RCDs themselves are primarily responsible for providing leadership and locally determined policies within districts, with assistance of many kinds coming from state and federal government.
Finally, provisions were set up for an Operating Agreement between individual districts and any local entities involved with natural resource concerns. The Operating Agreement can be developed at the local level to address local needs: "It is initiated by the district board, revisited annually, can replace annual work plans, defines roles and responsibilities at the local level, and provides opportunities to establish and review district priorities. It is signed by the district and others as deemed necessary by the district."
Organiztion of RCDS
RCD Directors educate and inform state government representatives to rally support for resource conservation locally and on a state-wide basis. One of the primary means RCDs utilize to organize representation at the state and national levels is through the California Association of Resource Conservation Districts (CARCD), a non-profit organization set up to serve the districts of California. Through CARCD Areas, districts coordinate their efforts to raise awareness of conservation issues on a broader geographic level by meeting with other districts in their area to share information and coordinate representation to state and federal government entities. For more on the California Association of Resource Conservation Districts (CARCD) go to: California Association of Resource Conservation Districts (CARCD or click on the logo below.
As stated earlier, RCDs are formed through the auspices of county-based LAFCOs, and county government often exercises limited oversight over RCD boards. At one time, RCD directors were elected on a local basis through county government. With rising costs for holding elections, most RCD directors are now appointed by county boards of supervisors. In many cases district boundaries cross county lines, so responsibility for organizing appointment or election efforts of district board members falls to the county with the most district area within its boundaries. Some counties, also, have more than one district within county boundaries.
District boards, however, function independently of county government, and they derive their powers and purposes from state law. Division 9 enables districts to have 5, 7, or 9 directors, who serve as voting members of the board of directors. Decisions or actions of an RCD board are approved by majority vote of the full board (see Step 2, How to Hold Legal and Effective Meetings, "Quorum," for more information on the board as a decision-making body).
Board members are appointed or elected on their strengths as active partners in the conservation community, and, most frequently, board members are private landowners within a district with interest in conserving resources on their own lands. Boards are meant, however, to represent a broad spectrum of resource conservation interests and perspectives. Board members often differ in their interests and conservation philosophies, yet the structure of a board offers a way for local districts to forge coherent conservation policies and programs that balance diverse interests and represent the broader spectrum of opinions within a community.
RCD boards, under state law, meet publicly once a month to debate about local conservation issues, and make decisions or take actions on these issues. Boards also frequently employ specialists and contractors to carry out board policies and projects, and, as mentioned earlier, these may address a broad array of conservation issues. Board members themselves, also, frequently implement district policies and programs on a volunteer basis (board members cannot be paid for their services to RCDs). As such, district directors frequently serve as conservation educators to landowners, schools, and the public to raise awareness of conservation in the local community.