Understanding the Soil and Water Conservation District

Bluebells on the Potomac River Flood Plain

Bluebells on the Potomac River Flood Plain

What is a Soil and Water Conservation District?

The Northern Virginia Soil and Water Conservation District (NVSWCD) covers all of Fairfax County.   We do some work with the City of Alexandria and Arlington under special agreements since they are not part of another SWCD.

Soil and Water Conservation Districts were formed by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) after the dust bowl.   After such an event caused by mismanagement of resources, it was felt that technical experts made readily available to farmers and other landowners could help ensure better future management of our country’s soil and water quality.  Districts were set up across the country to make sure that local landowners had easy access to this expertise. Virginia has 47 districts across the state. Most of our neighboring districts, Loudoun and Prince William for example, are like NVSWCD and cover entire counties.  Many other districts are comprised of several counties. Besides the expertise in our local office, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service works closely with districts to provide technical support. In Virginia, the Departments of Conservation and Recreation and Environmental Quality also work closely with district staff and board members.

How does the NVSWCD serve you as a Fairfax County resident?

Community garden in support of local food bank visited by the Urban Agriculture Work Group

Community garden in support of local food bank visited by the Urban Agriculture Work Group

The easiest way to describe how and where NVSWCD staff works is to say that we are here to support environmental work on private property.   Fairfax County has qualified county staff to deal with issues, questions and planning on public property but when a private property owner is struggling with flooding, erosion, or water quality issues or simply wants to learn about the best environmental practices for managing their land, the NVSWCD staff is who can provide technical expertise and guidance.   We have stormwater engineers, a soil scientist, an equine and agricultural specialist, several Chesapeake Bay Landscaping Professionals and stormwater best practice experts and educators. All of our work is solution oriented. We collaborate with entities across the county to find the best way technically and financially to meet challenges always with an eye to what solution will best meet the needs of the constituents we are working with.

Through the Virginia Conservation Assistance Program (VCAP), the district is providing landowners with financial assistance to encourage the implementation of stormwater practices on their property.   The installation of these practices has proven to prevent and improve erosion and flooding issues in yards and neighborhoods. In many cases, successful installations are done by community centers or homeowner’s associations where groups of land owners collaborate to increase the impact of their work.   Over 100 projects have been implemented to date with the Vienna Community Center project winning a state award.

For those with small farms, especially those with animals such as horses, sheep, goats, etc. we have staff expertise in preparing agricultural plans to maximize efficiency and minimize negative environmental impacts to the operation.  

NVSWCD staff is often called in by members of the Board of Supervisors to provide technical advice on constituent issues and we work daily with Fairfax County land use planners, stormwater managers, urban foresters, health department staff and others to ensure that the best assistance is provided to our county residents.   

Our entire staff works with adult groups to educate people about environmental issues and solutions.   We run programs for landscape professionals, homeowner associations, and other groups to educate others on property management best practices.  We are working closely with Fairfax County Public School staff to train teachers in basic science and environmental solutions as they then work with our students to build their knowledge and engage them in project based learning around environmental questions and careers.  

Besides being willing to work with any grade level in the schools, we run a set of programs for high school students.  In 2018, we reached over 3,200 students. We manage high school teams that compete in the international Envirothon program.  Groups that participate over the years include the Hidden Pond Nature Center, Marshall HS, Oakton HS, Robinson SS, James Madison HS, Justice HS, Thomas Jefferson HS and Lee HS. These students learn about soil, forestry, wildlife, aquatic animals and make a presentation about a solution to an issue they are given to study.   Our local winners go on to the region and potentially the state and international competitions. Last year, Marshall HS was a state competitor and took first place in the aquatics section. We have had international teams several times in the past years.

Native plant garden in Fairfax County

Native plant garden in Fairfax County

We also have a Young Leaders Initiative and this year have 3 county high school students working on individual projects to improve their community.   They receive state funding to complete their projects. We give awards at the Regional Science Fair to the best environmental projects and sponsor area high school students to attend the Statewide Youth Conservation Camp held at Virginia Tech each summer.   

Each year we hold a seedling sale so that residents can obtain native trees and shrubs at a very reasonable rate.   In 2018 we sold 7400 seedlings. Seedlings are ordered ahead of time and picked up in early April for planting. See our website for specifics for 2019.   

In June we hold a Sustainable Practices Garden Tour in varying areas of the county.   Several years ago, Elaine Tholen collaborated with NVSWCD to include a school on the tour.  With the growth of Get2Green, there are over 90 schools with wildlife habitat in the county now and each year we are looking to highlight the work of our young environmental stewards.   They are always happy to be part of the tour and will give you a wonderful tour of their habitat. Watch our website for the June 2019 tour details.

In addition, NVSWCD staff and Directors are members of watershed-wide, regional and state-wide working groups to establish recommendations and collaborative working relationships to improve water quality.   Some examples are the Potomac Watershed Roundtable, the Chesapeake Bay Program Watershed Improvement Plan and the state working group for the Virginia Conservation Assistance Program. Elaine Tholen was recently appointed chair of the VASWCD state-wide Education Committee.   

What positions are on the Board of NVSWCD?

The NVSWCD Board has 5 members.   

The County Horticultural Agent, employed by Virginia Tech Extension, is an appointed member of the board.   That was established federally years ago to ensure collaboration across these programs.

The Chairperson of the board is appointed by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation with a recommendation from the current NVSWCD board. This is done to ensure continuity of operations for the board even with board member changes during elections.

Three of the board seats are held by elected officials.   If an elected official leaves before the end of term, the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation appoints a board member to finish out the remainder of the term.   That is how Elaine Tholen became a board member in 2016. The board has a Vice Chair, Treasurer and a Secretary. Elaine Tholen is currently serving as the Treasurer.

What does the Board do?  What does it take to make it happen?

Virginia waterway

Virginia waterway

Typical duties for a Board member include:

  • Reviewing the technical and financial aspects of stormwater best management practices such as rain gardens, conservation landscaping, infiltration trenches. permeable pavers, etc.  and working with staff to ensure constituents are knowledgeable to accurately and efficiently implement the practices.

  • Reviewing financial reports for NVSWCD business to ensure accuracy and sound judgment

  • Connecting staff to potential grant and funding opportunities for building programs

  • Reviewing agricultural management plans for technical and financial accuracy

  • Attending Chesapeake Bay Watershed, statewide, regional and county meetings to stay informed of environmental issues and concerns and to make sure the NVSWCD view is supported and that NVSWCD staff expertise can be appropriately leveraged

  • Assist NVSWCD staff in strategic planning, budgeting and human resources activities

  • Develop a legislative agenda for the NVSWCD for input to the larger state SWCD agenda and work with delegates and senators in Richmond to inform then of the agenda items

  • Represent Fairfax County, an urban/suburban area with unique environmental and urban agriculture needs and issues at state and national meetings