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Cow buffers and a bit of controversy: A glimpse into Durham’s Soil and Water Board

At the March 6 meeting of the Durham Soil and Water Conservation District board, one member wore a gray t-shirt that said “We Farm. You Eat.” Like all the meetings, it was held in the Durham Farm Bureau building.

The setting — and the shirt — are reminders of the agriculture roots of a group that may feel distant to much of Durham. In an interview he said he took while sitting on a tree stump, board chair Talmage Layton asked if I would mail him a copy of this story, because he doesn’t use much technology. “I sit down at the computer, and I look out the window behind the computer, and I see how much work is out there to do. I don’t even do email,” he said.

The board’s goal, broadly speaking, is to conserve the county’s natural resources through education and economic incentives. There are five members — three elected, two appointed by the state soil and water commission — and a small staff that carries out the day-to-day tasks. Together, they comprise the work of Durham’s “District,” one of 96 across the state

And a peculiar one at that. As Durham has changed over the past few decades, the board has covered two turfs: its original mission of preserving farmers’ land and newer problems from urban and suburban sprawl. 

Throughout the meeting, board members mostly discussed the alphabet soup of programs that they oversee. These programs provide logistical and financial support for property owners to build infrastructure that manages soil and water in whatever form is causing problems — often erosion and stormwater. Some of the programs originate at the state level, but others were developed by the Durham group itself.

There was talk of bank accounts, dates to explore project sites and an event featuring a fish-fry lunch that would include “two port-a-johns and one washing station.”

You don’t need to know much about farming, soil or water to understand the ways infrastructure can help or hurt. Melissa Rooney, a former associate supervisor of the group, talked about how the District can subsidize “buffers” between animals and water sources “so that the cows can’t go down there and just stand in the creek and poop, and have that washed out.”

As the Triangle has urbanized, the region’s soil and water have suffered. Throughout the region, local volunteer and advocacy groups have been cleaning up water sources and pushing for solutions.

The District’s public programs have been a part of that puzzle. For example, the group runs the Community Conservation Assistance Program, which helps Durham residents build devices ranging from rain gardens to pet waste receptacles.

In 2010, the District spearheaded a way to combine conservation and education at local high schools in a program called the Bionomic Educational Training Centers. The program teaches students about environmental issues and has them install solutions, including solar technology and irrigation

The benefits of the school program, the board has said, are expansive. Landowners and the broader community end up with better land and cleaner water, and students get a hands-on education that teaches project management and environmental engineering. It also provides workforce training to students who are less likely to get a high school diploma, said Danielle Adams, a board member from 2008 to 2020.

“We were kind of surprised that several high school students didn’t even know how to use a tape measure, and they were not able to calculate areas,” said Mike Dupree, a former staff member who created the program. He said he got the idea after his six years of teaching science in public schools. 

Areas outside of Durham took notice. Over the past decade, the program won state and national  awards for environmental education, and Adams recalled presenting on it at conferences in other states about local governments.

But more recently, local advocates say they are concerned that these urban and suburban initiatives aren’t getting enough attention. 

“There are a lot of low-income, underserved areas in Durham and throughout North Carolina that are suffering from flooding issues and erosion issues because of this development,” said Rooney.

Early last year, Matt Kopac from the Durham Environmental Affairs Board presented a letter from nine advocacy groups, including the NC Sierra Club and the Durham People’s Alliance, and asked for an expansion of the urban and suburban programs. 

“I think there’s a huge opportunity in the future of our economy if there’s a greater shift toward opportunities in the green economy sector with green jobs,” said Kopac. “And I think that those are jobs that can often be attainable for people regardless of formal education.”

Layton attributed changes in the high school program to Dupree leaving the staff. “Different people run things differently,” he said. As far as expanding urban and suburban programs, he said that they require a lot of manpower and the district currently lacks the staff. 

Adams also talked about how, during her tenure, the board made an effort to seek out ways to subsidize infrastructure for Black homeowners. Conservation districts in the U.S. have a history of being discriminatory, and the board worked to make up for that, she said.

Though the board has had some controversies. Efforts to diversify in terms of race, gender and a focus on urban farmers hit a public snag at the state level — from the N.C. Soil and Water Commission  — in 2021. The Durham board had voted to recommend Phoebe Gooding, a Black local farmer, to join, but the state overrode it and chose Kenyon Browning, an assistant football coach at UNC-Chapel Hill with experience on local farm boards, according to the News & Observer

Another bit of tension involves an offshoot of the board itself. Until this year, there was a team of volunteer associate supervisors who helped out the members and their staff. One of Durham’s current state senators, Natalie Murdock, once held the role. 

Adams said these associate supervisors were especially useful given board members’ limited capacity. For example, she said, they could attend other organization’s meetings — like the county Environmental Affairs Board — and report back. They also made an effort to go out into neighborhoods and tell community members about the programs. Many supervisors who became full board members began as associates, she said.

“Whatever the priorities were — whether we were doing stream cleanup, environmental education, Envirothon — the associates played an important role in implementing district priorities,” Dupree said.

According to Rooney, a former associate supervisor, the board sent notice to the volunteers late last year telling them they were fired. The letter Rooney provided to The 9th Street Journal said  the board unanimously decided on the firings in a closed session on Nov. 21 and told the recipients to return their badges by Dec. 1.

Layton, who signed the letter, said that the board decided to end the program in part because some associate supervisors were claiming to represent the board at external meetings and in the public.

“We were having associate supervisors speak out of turn. They were speaking about things we had not voted on,” said Layton. “It got to the point where we realized we had created something here that we couldn’t control. We decided — instead of picking out two or three people that were abusing the privilege — to stop the whole program.” He emphasized that associate supervisors are still welcome to attend meetings as members of the community. 

Rooney has been vocal about expanding suburban and urban programs. “You’re called Soil and Water Conservation District, which means not just agriculture, not just farmers. It means wherever that pollution is coming from,” she said.

Layton sees the group’s mission differently. 

“Everybody has the thing that they think is the most important. And, because I’m involved in agriculture, I want them to take care of the farmers first,” said Layton. “We need it worse than everybody else.

Above: Bonita Green tends the rain garden in front of her Durham home. Rain gardens are among the urban projects he Durham Soil & Water Conservation District has sponsored in the past to fight erosion and protect stream health. Photo by Ana Young — The 9th Street Journal