What started as “just a draft piece of legislation” by an elusive New York State Watershed Health Coalition volunteer to amend the broad-based NYS Soil & Water Conservation District Law has turned into a full-fledged campaign to educate farmers, conservation district boards, county officials and, most importantly, lawmakers that may see this draft move forward in the legislative process.

Many were asking “Where can I see this 35-page, amended in green, document that has precipitated rebuttals, concerns and social distancing?” At the request of district members, the New York Association of Conservation Districts has posted the original draft at nyacd.org for all to read and postulate how some of the proposed amendments would affect New York agriculture and the environment.

Also on their website is a “Dear Constituent” letter in which NYACD President Sam Casella states, “The NYACD does not support the Watershed Health Coalition’s opening and amendments to NYS Soil and Water Conservation District Law … As it stands, District Law is a broad piece of legislation that allows Districts to implement a wide range of natural resource programs and projects that are adaptable at the county level and meet county needs. Districts work diligently to ensure that we not only serve all people in each county, but those people are represented in the decision-making process that is the foundation of our programs and work in the urban centers, the agricultural heart of the state, or the smallest lake or pond in the middle of the wild Adirondacks.”

Delaware County SWCD vice-chair Bruce Dolph said in a Nov. 1 statement to The Reporter, “It’s my belief … that the Watershed Health Coalition is seeking access to federal and state funding allocated to SWCD to further their agenda … We are talking billions of dollars.” If the coalition is successful in gaining representation on county SWCD boards through proposed changes to board seats, he explained, they will have access to influence allocation of SWCD funds.

The Onondaga County SWCD Board of Directors has taken issue with NOFA-NY’s July 1, 2022 legislative proposal/position on the Climate Action Council Draft Scoping Plan for Implementation of the Climate Leadership and Community Action Protection Act (CLCPA) and its involvement on the Watershed Health Coalition with a letter to their legislators.

“The proposed legislation identifies a number of important issues that merit discussion and efforts to address them, including urban agriculture, organics and the soil health initiative and disadvantaged communities /underserved farmers. However, we do feel that NOFA-NY’s proposal is misguided, and have significant concerns about the way it was written. We are particularly concerned about the complete absence of our involvement in proposed changes to the laws that govern us as SWCDs. The proposal recommends changing every component of a Soil and Water Conservation District, who have been working for all constituents across New York State on issues such as agricultural/urban agriculture, environmental issues, forestry, soil health, greenhouse gases and flooding/drought mitigation for as long as 82 years,” stated Chair Craig Dennis.

It’s just a draft

Some of the major changes proposed by the Coalition and NOFA-NY include removing the Grange from the Board of Directors; requiring districts that have five-member boards to now have seven-member boards with no reasoning provided; removing County Legislature representation from the SWCD boards; and requiring two board positions to be elected by all registered voters in the county.

“We’re also concerned that to pay for costs associated with the proposal, draft legislation is being proposed to establish a ‘soil and watershed health fund’ (under Subsection 7 of section 151-m of article 11-B of Agriculture and Markets law) in which the SWCC will be required to set a tax/fee structure of ‘not less than one dollar ($1) for each ton or portion thereof of commercial fertilizer distributed in this state for agricultural use, and not less than thirty dollars ($30) for each ton or portion thereof of commercial fertilizer distributed in this state for non-agricultural use.’ Please know that we will be at the table for these conversations and will not stand for the dismantling of Soil and Water Conservation Districts and the law that guides us and empowers us to work with ALL constituents,” wrote the Onondaga Board.

The New York State Grange noted that the proposal, which would eliminate the Grange as a member of the board, would also affect Farm Bureau’s participation on these boards.

In a Nov. 13 press release, the Grange wrote, “Both organizations are voices for those who live in rural communities. They also represent those who are participating in urban agriculture. The services the districts provide are available to anyone who wishes to use them. They do not discriminate who they help based on forms of or size of farms or landowners. After carefully reviewing the proposed changes, the New York State Grange established policy at its annual session this past October which is opposed to changing the current make-up of the soil and water district boards and are opposed to any regulations that would change the scope of their work. The Grange has its beginnings in agriculture by helping farmers to improve their farms so that they are more efficient and are good stewards of their lands. The Grange has been doing this for 150 years in New York and 155 years nationwide.

“The New York State Grange and its local organizations will continue to represent our rural communities and to be a voice for agriculture of all sizes and forms. The Grange will continue to be an active member of the soil and water conservation districts and will oppose any changes to its make-up, board size or scope of its work. Any changes to the current soil and water conservation laws would be inadvisable at this time.”

As the Buddha, said, “Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon and the truth.”

by Troy Bishopp