They get down to the nitty gritty — at least they’re supposed to.

What You Need To Know

  • The Hillsborough soil and water conservation district maintains a presence at agricultural events

  •  With no funding, the Orange soil and water conservation district works in relative obscurity

  • "We don’t get any budget, and we don’t have any staffers," says Orange board member Alaina Slife

That’s why they’re called soil and water conservation districts. They’re not supposed to sound exciting. They’re supposed to sound urgent.

“I believe that it gets down to soil and water,” Betty Jo Tompkins, executive director of the Hillsborough Soil and Water Conservation District, said when asked if it would be a good idea to change the entities' names and garner more attention.

She then referred to reports about projected global food demand by 2050.

“To be very candid,” she said, “if we don’t double food production in the next 29 years, we are going to have a starving world.”

So soil and water it is.

The Hillsborough Soil and Water District stands among 58 such boards of supervisors in the state. The districts — some call them boards — aim to promote wise use and conservation of soil, water and other natural resources, according to the Association of Florida Conservation Districts.

They do their work through five-member boards of supervisors who get elected to four-year terms as volunteers.

Some districts do it better than others, and it largely comes down to funding. Some have it, and others don’t — and it shows in programs and activities that districts offer or don’t offer.

Take the Hillsborough district. It secures grants and funding, including a budgeted $124,032 in fiscal year 2020 from Hillsborough County, plus dozens of corporate and governmental “cooperating partners” such as Wells Fargo, Busch Gardens, Hillsborough County and the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, or IFAS, Extension.

It plants trees by the thousands. It hosts the Florida Strawberry Festival. It distributes money to farmers and landowners in so-called cost-share programs that demonstrate environmental stewardship.

It maintains a constant presence in countywide agricultural events, especially anything having to do with strawberries — Hillsborough County’s red yet golden fruit. It’s active in schools, youth clubs and church groups, including through its Hillsborough 100 Conservation Challenge.

And it boasts an executive director — a luxury that many soil and water districts lack the funding to enjoy — who will talk as long as you want about Hillsborough County’s agriculture and Plant City’s bright red treasure.

“We are the winter strawberry capital of the world,” Tompkins said, referring to the Hillsborough board’s Plant City base.

“A lot of people think of Tampa and think of the urban inner-city areas and all that. The truth is, we're the third-largest agricultural county in terms of revenue in the state of Florida.”

In another large metro area two counties to the northeast, the Orange Soil and Water Conservation District works in relative obscurity, with little funding and, at least over the past two years, just as little activity.

The Orange board this year touts four new supervisors, including Nate Douglas, who at age 19 in November became Florida’s youngest elected official. The board boasts optimism and youthful exuberance, yet little money.

A State of Florida database of financial reports shows that the Orange soil and water district had zero revenue, $248 in expenditures and zero debt in 2019. That compared with the Hillsborough district, which showed $438,743 in revenue, $465,285 in expenditures and zero in debt.

But when it comes to revenue, Hillsborough isn't the only rich district and Orange isn't the only poor one. The Marion Soil and Water Conservation District brought in $525,743 and the Osceola district zero in 2019, according to the database.

“We have like $980 in our bank,” Orange supervisor Alaina Slife, the board’s public relations officer, told Spectrum News last month. “We don’t get any budget, and we don’t have any staffers. We’re going to be individually fund-raising... We’re going to be putting together a plan on that.”

The birth of soil and water districts

Soil and water conservation districts emerged from the 1930s when the Dust Bowl brought misery and devastation to the U.S., especially to the southern Plains, as a result of drought, high temperatures, wind erosion and poor farming practices.

Florida established its soil and water conservation districts in 1937, with the goal to “promote the efficient use of soil and water resources by protecting water quality and preventing floodwater and sediment damage,” according to the University of Florida IFAS Extension. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services oversees them.

Today, soil and water districts take on various tasks and interests related to natural resources and the environment, depending on board makeup, initiative, staffing and, of course, money.

Sometimes they find it difficult to take on anything.

"I feel that this position is very much ceremonial and powerless," said Matthew Kirk-Boggs, elected last year to a seat on the Osceola Soil and Water Conservation District.

He said, for example, his district receives no funding or information on how to help farmers and landowners receive grants for conservation efforts.

"I would love to go door to door and try and help people get money from the government for their land, especially to conserve it," Kirk-Boggs said. "But I'm not given any resources to do that... They're not readily available, and they should be."

He also said he has tried and failed to raise money for the district.

"And it's not, I believe, a coincidence that we are underfunded and underutilized as much as we are while Osceola County is being developed at a breakneck pace," he said.

The boards have their critics. Republican state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, whose District 32 covers parts of Lake and Orange counties, early last year declared on Facebook that “these Soil and Water Conservation District Boards have lofty sounding names but literally do nothing.”

His post included a link to an article about the Orange soil and water board, which had voted to retain Daisy Morales as a supervisor after she had been accused of missing board meetings. Morales, D-Orlando, gave up her board position last year to run for an open seat in the state House of Representatives, which she won.

At the time, the district otherwise appeared marked by inactivity. When Spectrum News wrote about the Orange district in October, the board hadn’t posted on its Facebook page since April 2019. And its website offered no minutes, agendas or upcoming events, apparently in violation of the Special Districts Accountability Act.

The new board this year started slowly, citing technical problems for a lack of updates to its website and Facebook page. Its website now includes names and contact details of current board members but little other information.

The district’s Facebook page in mid-April told readers of a cleanup of Lake Virginia, near Rollins College, and of a board meeting in which it discussed coming events such as a food drive, a lake cleanup, an agriculture tour and “projects to support residents with specialized issues.”

It also posted that board meetings typically take place at 3:30 p.m. on the second Friday of each month in the Orange County Administration chambers.

“There has been a lot of criticism of our board and boards across the state,” Orange board member Slife told Spectrum News. “And so it is one of our priorities to make sure that we show the value, that we serve our community... It’s not just sitting on a board to sit there.”

Some Central Florida board members and former board members make note of, and sometimes bemoan, colleagues who appear to use the soil and water districts solely as gateways to higher elected office. That path has bred absenteeism and a lack of interest, except for higher-exposure events such as ribbon cuttings, they say.

"I think that is the absolute most obvious thing ever, because that is absolutely what happens all the time," said Kirk-Boggs, of the Osceola district. "They get into these positions and their steam keeps them going or they peter out, one or the other."

“When people say ‘the inactivity of the board,’ it is really not the board that gets inactive,” said Eric Rollins, who served on the Orange board from 2013 through 2018, including his last four years as chair. “It’s each individual supervisor that’s inactive, and it just so happens that... some of the ones in the past just didn’t do anything, and they just didn’t show up.”

The ‘daunting’ task of incoming board members

In the case of the new Orange board, “they’re learning the ropes,” said Banks Helfrich, chair of the Lake Soil and Water Conservation District. “It’s totally daunting because if you’re not getting paid and you’re spending 20 hours a week to put this together...”

Helfrich said the Lake district secured a contract with the state to run a mobile irrigation lab, through which it gets enough funding to pay for scholarships, tree giveaways, poster contests, office supplies and an administrative assistant.

Districts such as Orange enjoy no such contracts or arrangements.

“Orange County does not give the soil and water conservation board a dime, so how can you work without a budget?” said Rollins, the former Orange district chair.

Asked about funding, an Orange County government spokeswoman quoted the county’s Office of Management and Budget as saying that the soil and water board “approached the county years ago for funding” but that the county “is not required to support the Soil and Water Conservation District.”

Orange County pointed out that the soil and water district is a state entity and that county entities, including utilities, environmental protection and cooperative extension service, provide the same types of services.

“I asked so many times for just $50,000,” Rollins told Spectrum News. “It is just a drop in the bucket, but it really (could) help a lot of educational programs that would could have.”

State Sen. Linda Stewart told Spectrum News that the Orange soil and water district also tried unsuccessfully in past years for grants and for state funding through the Legislature.

“I don’t know if the state wants to add another funding source to the budget,” she said last month.

She said she attended a lake cleanup last month that included about 30 volunteers.

“So they’ve done their part, but they have no money,” Stewart said. “So they have to come up with projects that don’t cost any money.”

After his election in November, Douglas — the state’s youngest elected official — told Spectrum News that he’d look to expand the board’s reach beyond soil and water into related social, economic and environmental issues.

An Apopka High School graduate, he also said he planned to target underserved communities, which he and many environmentalists say become the first to feel the effects of climate change.

“I will say that our board is very passionate,” board member Slife said. “We really care a lot about marginalized communities. I think our focus needs to be on supporting marginalized communities, supporting environmental initiatives and ways to support the people who are facing the brunt of environmental harm.”

For funding, Tomkins, the Hillsborough district’s executive director, suggests that the Orange district do what the Hillsborough district does at its annual county fair — get nurseries to donate plants, auction them and put that money toward a program.

For the rest of us, she suggests for starters that we avoid plastic bags.

“And if you use that bag when you're in the produce department, shame on you,” Tomkins said. “Five hundred years to degrade in a landfill.

“So that's the first bag. What's the second bag? When you walk to the front of the store and you put that plastic bag in another plastic bag — another 500 years.

“Better is paper. And best is to carry a recycle bag.”

She added: “We have got to get the public to be more engaged.”