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What Is a Resource Conservation District?

RCDs were created to avoid a repeat of the Dust Bowl. Now they work with landowners to preserve the air, water and natural habitats that sustain us all.

PUBLISHED OCTOBER 19, 2021
RCDs look after the land, whether it’s used for grazing, growing, or getting out into nature.
RCDs look after the land, whether it’s used for grazing, growing, or getting out into nature. David A. Litman   Shutterstock.com

What began as a way to prevent another Dust Bowl like the one that ravaged the Midwest in the 1930s has become a method for local jurisdictions to partner with landowners to protect natural resources.

Resource conservation districts were originally formed as soil conservation districts and now exist all across the United States. While they still include a soil conservation component, RCDs have been broadened in scope to protect other natural resources, including air, water, and wildlife habitat. These districts offer a variety of technical assistance, with local programs tailored to help public and private landowners and managers conserve natural resources.

What does it mean to protect or conserve the natural resources? In California, at its most basic level, that means caring for and maintaining the quality of soil, water and air, and protecting these resources from waste and destruction where possible.

More specifically, California’s Public Resources Code Division 9 established RCDs, which are special districts run by locally appointed or elected boards. They link federal, state and local agencies to accomplish resource conservation activities, such as protection of water, agricultural land, wetlands, and urban resources; enhancement of water quality and wildlife habitat; irrigation management; and fuel reduction.

How Does an RCD Do Its Work? 

The form this conservation can take varies from district to district. In California, RCDs are often, though not always, formed at the county level. They do not possess regulatory powers, and working with one is strictly voluntary, so landowners are not forced to implement specific programs or practices on their land.

RCDs help landowners and managers adopt conservation practices for farms, ranches, open space, recreational areas, watersheds, forests, and more. Working with an RCD is a partnership between the district and the landowner, and benefits to the landowner include education, assistance with implementing programs, and access to federal and state funding sources.

Because the work of RCDs is so tailored to the local community and landscape, examining how different RCDs function in different areas is a useful way to understand how they work with local communities to ensure the preservation of an area’s specific resources. Each RCD offers a wide variety of options to help landowners and managers with different needs.

Preserving Agricultural and Tourism Resources 

In California’s Central Coast area, Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties all rely on tourism and agriculture as major parts of the local economy. While the counties’ RCDs offer similar programs and assistance, they also take some different approaches to helping landowners and managers conserve the natural resources on their lands.

In Santa Cruz County, where redwood forests, coastal cliffs and popular beaches draw tourists, the Santa Cruz RCD assists landowners and managers with erosion control, water quality protection, refilling groundwater aquifers, habitat enhancement, and flood management. The RCD will also assess different sites to determine resource concerns and help land managers develop solutions.

Monterey County is not just quaint seaside towns and the Monterey Bay Aquarium; it’s a place where agriculture is still a major part of the landscape. RCD Monterey County offers education and outreach to ensure others understand the resources in the county and why it’s important to protect them. One program it offers in this vein is Range Camp, where high school students learn how the physical and biological sciences inform the management of natural resources, with lessons on everything from grazing and animal nutrition to geology and geomorphology.

In largely rural San Benito County, an annual garden tour showcases local conservation gardens, and site owners are encouraged to talk about what has worked and what hasn’t in their conservation efforts, using educational tourism to help others decide how they might proceed.

Hundreds of miles northeast of this area sits Lake Tahoe, which draws tourists year-round with the recreational opportunities afforded by the lake’s famous blue water and the forests of the Sierra Nevada. Protecting the economy involves protecting the lake, which is threatened by nonnative species. The Lake Tahoe RCD offers a number of programs that work to prevent the introduction of new invasive species to the lake, remove existing ones, and educate the public about the harm these species can do.

Urban Natural Resources

In areas such as Santa Clara County and Placer County, the urban environment spills over into rural areas. The Placer County RCD helps landowners with forestry management, such as dealing with dead trees and bark beetle infestations, while also providing assistance for urban agriculture—that is, backyard and balcony gardens, community gardens, and urban farms.

Santa Clara County, though predominantly urban, still has a sizable amount of agricultural land and open space. It has two RCDs, one focusing on the more urban northern part of the county and one focusing on the more rural southern part of the county.

The Loma Prieta RCD, which covers the southern part of the county, has offered stewardship workshops and sponsored a Speak Off for students to compete by giving presentations on conservation topics.

The Guadalupe-Coyote RCD is responsible for the areas north of Morgan Hill in Santa Clara County and is named for and covers the Guadalupe and Coyote rivers and the areas that drain into them. This RCD offers community grants for a variety of conservation activities from community farm irrigation upgrades to habitat for the western pond turtle, a species of special concern, meaning its population could become threatened. 

Watching Out for Water

Most RCDs work to protect water from runoff and other pollutants. The Sloughhouse RCD in southeast Sacramento County is working to help the area comply with the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, a California law that requires certain groundwater basins to achieve sustainability by balancing pumping and refilling.

Around 3,000 RCDs are scattered across the United States, and California lays claim to 96 of those. Find your local RCD on the California Department of Conservation website to learn more about the programs and assistance offered in your area.

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