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Old roots, new focus for soil and water district

For decades, soil experts like Duane Vanhook have been showing farmers how a crop of winter wheat can recharge soil nutrients or how to shore up a stream bank decimated by cattle hooves.


Vanhook works for the Haywood Soil and Water Conservation District, one of 3,000 such districts created nationwide in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl. The ecological catastrophe was largely brought on by farming techniques that kicked up top soil. So Congress sanctioned this network of Soil and Water Conservation Districts to engage farmers in more sustainable habits.

But 70 years later, farmers are no longer the leading culprit impacting soil and water.

“The data tells us most of the sedimentation getting into the streams is coming from roads and development,” Vanhook said. “If we are going to work on water quality we have to start focusing on things other than just agriculture. That’s just not the leading pollutant.”

There seems to be significant paradigm shift afoot for the Haywood Soil and Water Conservation District, and it could be just the solution for deploying more environmentally sound development techniques across the region.

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Last year, the non-profit Haywood Waterways Association solicited Vanhook to join a pilot project aimed at getting developers to take a more careful, conservation-based approach to planning new developments. Better planning — ratherthan a willy-nilly approach to drawing roads and lot lines — would mean less grading, less erosion and more stable slopes.

Ultimately, a “boots on the ground” assessment by a soil expert like Vanhook was needed to assess factors like topography, soil types, rock layers and wet areas to find potential pitfalls before a developer starting marking off lot lines.

The Haywood Soil and Water Conservation District agreed to participate in the pilot project with two developers. It was so successful, the Soil and Water District is now trying to find ways to carry the torch and not let the project die.

“They aren’t turning their back on agriculture but it is a sign that things are starting to change,” Vanhook said.

The glitch, of course, is funding. Since the work is beyond the more traditional scope of Soil and Water Districts, it’s not covered in the budget.

Soil and Water Districts are lobbying the state for money to address soil and water degradation caused by development — the signal of a change statewide to move beyond agriculture. However, in the best-case scenario it could be at least another year before such funding is received.

In the meantime, the Haywood Soil and Water board is seeking a grant from the Pigeon River Fund to finance a continuation of the pilot project.

“As the face of the county changes, we found it is not the farmer causing all the erosion problems. It is the additional homes,” said Eileen Francis, a member of the Haywood Soil and Water board.

Francis said one strength of the Soil and Water District is its focus on voluntary techniques, not regulation.

“We are trying to say this is what you can do, which is so much better if you allow us to show you,” Francis said.

The Soil and Water office frequently gets calls from the public wanting help trouble shooting an erosion crisis.

“Over the last several years more and more of these calls are about driveways, roads, slope failure behind a house,” Vanhook said. “That’s one reason we were excited to get involved in the development project. Normally we were called in afterwards. But it is so much easier to prevent than try to fight it.”

The grant would provide funding to work with eight to 10 developers over the next two years to implement the front-end planning techniques.

“Because of the skills we have in place we are the perfect agency to tackle this. We are used to working with land owners and it is a role we are comfortable in,” Vanhook said.

Ideally the approach to development would become institutionalized over time, said Gordon Small, a Haywood Waterways liaison.

Soil and Water districts in other counties might like to emulate the project. Both the Macon and Jackson Soil and Water Districts have asked to see Small’s presentation on how the project works and talk to Vanhook about his role.

Another player in the project, the Natural Resources Conservation Services, also will assist with the ground assessments if the grant comes through. The Natural Resources Conservation Services also started out as an outreach agency for agriculture, specializing in soil types, but has moved beyond that.

“We make soil interpretations for a great many uses that aren’t agriculture anymore,” said Doug Thomas, a Natural Resources Conservation Services soil scientist. “Soils can give you a competitive advantage or they can give you problems to deal with. All soils are not created equal for any given use. Along with the slope, the properties of the soils will dictate the difficulty of putting in roads and house sites.”

The Haywood Community College Natural Resources Department will map the results of the ground assessments using GIS computer technology.

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