What is a conservation district?

The 45 conservation districts are the ONLY organizations in Washington State that routinely design and apply on-the-ground solutions to nonpoint water quality problems on privately owned resource lands. No other group, public or private, does this work. Further, the technical help provided by conservation districts to private landowners is free for the asking. Each conservation district is led by a five-member board of volunteer supervisors - three elected locally and two appointed by the state's conservation agency, the Conservation Commission. These individuals serve three-year terms, during which time they remain aware of locally important natural resource or environmental issues and decide what projects their district will undertake each year. Also, each conservation district has paid staff that works to implement the annual and long range plans of the board of supervisors.

Conservation districts have broad authority under their enabling legislation, and can tackle just about any problem related to the natural environment. Districts in Washington State are involved in issues ranging from air quality (blowing dust), to prevention of groundwater contamination, to stream improvement for endangered salmon, to dairy waste management, to stream bank stabilization, to on-farm irrigation water management, to forestland improvement, to erosion control on dryland farms. Even where natural resources problems exceed local capabilities, local conservation districts usually know who to contact for additional help.

Under their enabling statute (RCW 89.08), a conservation district is defined as "…a governmental subdivision of this state, and a public body corporate and politic exercising public powers…" Conservation districts are part of state government just like hospital districts, irrigation districts, and other special purpose districts created under state law for specific public purposes. They are local governmental bodies charged with fulfilling very specific purposes relating to the conservation of renewable natural resources. Based on this, Section 115 of the Internal Revenue Service Code confers tax exempt status on conservation districts. Also, charitable contributions to districts are generally tax deductible.

How is a conservation district funded?

Conservation districts are funded through a variety of sources including local, state and federal granting agencies, as well as private sources. Districts work hard to secure funding that helps to implement their annual and long range plans of work (click here to view our plans). Districts also have the opportunity to propose a local funding option per RCW 89.08. For more information on this local funding click here. 

The KCCD is primarily grant funded and averages approximately 20 open grants at any time. The grants are secured predominantly from state and federal sources such as the Washington State Conservation Commission, Department of Natural Resources, Department of Ecology, Salmon Recovery Funding Board, Bonneville Power Administration, and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. Over the last seven years, the state and federal grants have accounted for 94% of the revenue received. The remaining revenue is from local and private sources, including the Special Assessment, Kittitas County Public Works and private organizations (e.g. Puget Sound Energy). The Special Assessment funding is used to secure many of the state and federal grants, so although the local funds are a small part of the overall revenue, they are critical to obtaining those grants.

KCCD’s expenses vary widely from year to year, although basic operating expenses (wages, office supplies, etc.) are relatively constant, usually varying by less than 5% per year. The professional services (primarily engineering & design) and cost share and construction expenses are where the large variations occur in the expenses. This is not unexpected, as cost share and construction projects are developed over the course of months or sometimes years. Implementation occurs when the funding, the design, and permits are all in place. For example, in 2014 more than $1 million in cost share payments were made to 54 landowners and $2.5 million was paid to construction contractor on four separate projects. In 2015, $1.05 million was provided in cost share payments to 49 landowners, and $260,000 was paid to construction contractors on three projects. That is simply a result of project readiness and funding availability.

Annual expenditures of federal funds in excess of $500,000 require a single federal audit to be conducted by the Washington State Auditor’s office. KCCD has completed these audits for the last seven years and we are planning the next one this summer. Audit reports may be found on the State Auditors website (click here).

History of the Kittitas County Conservation District

On March 21, 1942, more than 400 Kittitas Valley landowners visited nine polling stations to vote overwhelmingly in favor of forming a conservation district. It was a beginning, but it was also the culmination of years of work at the federal, state and local levels not only to bring attention to the impacts of soil erosion but to do something about it. The USDA Soil Erosion Service (SES) established a demonstration project in the Badger Pocket area southeast of Ellensburg in 1936. In a speech to the Ellensburg Chamber of Commerce in December 1936, Jack Rodner (SES employee) stated that the shallow soils on the steep lands under the Kittitas Reclamation District (KRD) highline were eroding badly. His assessment was that if the soil erosion wasn’t slowed or halted, a large part of the Badger Pocket could be abandoned within 5 years. The Badger Pocket Project included as much 40,000 acres and was essentially from Cooke Creek east and south. Some of these lands were in the Ellensburg Water Company Canal (Town Ditch) and Cascade Canal delivery areas and had been farm for two decades or more, but most were in the KRD delivery area and were newly converted to irrigated cropland. About a quarter of the project area was relatively flat, the rest was steep. Most of the area under the KRD also did not have stock water during the non irrigation season and drilling wells was expensive, so the farmers concentrated on crop production.

April 28, 1937; This picture shows severity of wind erosion before land is irrigated. Fine soil is blowing off fields that have been prepared for seeding. Tom Hamilton farm, 14 miles southeast of Ellensburg

Like other demonstration projects across the state, willing farmers in the Badger Pocket signed five-year cooperative agreements to install conservation measures. The SES furnished equipment, seed, seedlings, assistance in planning the measures, and labor from the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) or the Works Projects Administration. In fact a CCC camp was set up at Kittitas County Fairgrounds in 1938. The SES staff worked to demonstrate conservation practices that would allow crop production while conserving soil. This included changing the distance between corrugations (the furrows in the field that direct irrigation water), shortening the lengths of corrugations, adding water control structures, using sprinklers on the steepest slopes, and planting trees. Many of the water distribution practices that are still in use began as part of that demonstration project. Assistance was available to farmers outside of the Badger Pocket Project area, however the SES staff could only offer advice. Within the project area, they offered both technical advice and did the actual work using their own staff or CCC staff. The SES Annual Report for 1938-1939 included a list of requests from other areas for information about the conservation practices they developed and demonstrated in the Badger Pocket. These requests came from areas in Yakima, Grant and Snohomish counties, as well as regions of Idaho. The SES listed these as indications of their success.

A green manure crop of winter rye on irrigation land is being plowed under before planting the field to late potatoes. Wires are being used on the plow to completely cover the heavy crop of rye which was lodged considerably by wind. Don McKenzie Farm, 16 miles SE of Ellensburg

1939 cooperator George McKenzie looks over his crop of winter rye, which is to be turned under for a green manure crop before potatoes are planted in June. 8 miles SE of Kittitas

As the Badger Pocket project was coming to an end in 1941, it became apparent to the farmers that the conservation work should continue. Since the 1939 Washington State Legislature passed Revised Code of Washington 89.08 – Soil Conservation District Law, it was now possible to not only continue the conservation work but to take local control. As required by the law, a petition was submitted to the State Soil Conservation Committee stating the interest in forming a district. Public Hearings were held in February and the referendum was scheduled for March. After the successful vote, the State Soil Conservation Committee appointed two local landowners as the first Board members. R.L. (Bob) Rutter and Alan Rogers met first in May 1942. Together they made the application to the Secretary of State and mailed it with the required $5 fee. They set the date for the election for the remaining three board members. In the June election, Rufus Schnebly, Jess Newman, and Mike Schormann joined Rutter and Rogers as the first Board of Supervisors. They would meet weekly (Thursday at 8PM) the first few months in order to organize the District.

The Cle Elum Soil Conservation District followed suit in 1947, establishing the District with a unanimous vote by 77 landowners. Tom Newton and Ray Baker were appointed by the State Soil Conservation Committee, and Fred Cushing, Steve Bednar, Otto Cooper were elected locally.

The Board members solicited some of the first funds for the Districts from the managements of the Washington National Bank of Ellensburg, the National Bank of Commerce, Ellensburg Branch, Kittitas State Bank of Kittitas and the Cle Elum Branch of Seattle First National Bank. In first year of operations for the Kittitas District, there were 125 applications for technical assistance, of which 95 were applications for farm and range plans. Forty plans were completed and signed for a total of 36,110 acres. When the Cle Elum District was established in 1947, they received 39 applications for farm plans, with 10 completed in the first year covering 3,500 acres. Such was their enthusiasm for the conservation districts that both Bob Rutter and Alan Rogers were part of the effort to establish the Washington Association of Conservation Districts and served as state officers. Rutter served a term as an officer for the National Association of Conservation Districts.