On conservation’s front lines, districts facing budget cuts

When the town of Oxford’s lone wetlands officer was trying to figure out how to keep a steep bank, once excavated for gravel, from crumbling onto Route 34 and into the Housatonic River, he knew exactly who to call — the Southwest Conservation District.

It’s a little-known and even less-understood quasi-governmental, non-profit organization — one of five such districts in the state. And one of its roles is to help municipalities with soil and water conservation problems and projects they can’t handle themselves.

A former gravel excavation area in Oxford along Route 34 where the Southwest Conservation District has succeeded in getting vegetation to root.

Andy Ferrillo / Oxford Wetlands Officer

A former gravel excavation area in Oxford along Route 34 where the Southwest Conservation District has succeeded in getting vegetation to root.

“They’ve helped quite a bit over the years with various, sometimes controversial projects, or projects where we needed expert advice,” said the wetlands officer, Andy Ferrillo. “Having that backup is very important. Obviously we can’t afford to hire someone on staff to use once or twice a year.”

And all that help — which included finding better plants to hold the bank — came free with a voluntary annual contribution to the district of $2,000.

But Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposed budget has zeroed out the annual funding — a $300,000 line item in the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection budget — for the districts and their coordinating Council on Soil and Water Conservation.

“Penny-wise, but pound foolish,” say many of those who are part of the districts or have worked with them.

“It’s a great resource. Whether you get on the phone or request an in-depth review on property, they’ve never said no,” Ferrillo said. “They’re a big asset for the least amount of dollars.”

It’s not that $300,000 is a shut-the-doors loss. Each district budget varies widely from year-to-year, from about $250,000 to $400,000. But that’s mostly grant money, and in the tightly restricted world of grants — especially federal ones, which the districts rely on most — that $300,000 has been a key component in making just about all the other money possible.

Those who are fighting to get the funding restored — including a member of the Connecticut congressional delegation — caution that without it, communities like Oxford face higher costs and fewer services; federal money could get left on the table; and it could make implementing a recently announced $10 million grant for Long Island Sound restoration far more difficult.

Rising from the dust

There are about 3,000 conservation districts around the country dating to Dust Bowl-era soil conservation efforts. Though the federal government created the district concept, each state authorizes them individually.

While nearly all other districts operate through existing county governments, Connecticut, without county government, relies on the unique quasi-governmental, non-profit structure, and on all that federal grant money. And that’s the catch.

Most of those grants can’t be used for administration — including paying the roughly 20 people employed by the districts (many of them part-time). And the federal grants also typically require a non-federal match — 40 percent for a key Environmental Protection Agency grant DEEP receives and passes through to the districts.

Many grants, in addition to needing matches, are project-specific, so they can’t be used to cover general operations.

“The council and districts were created under state statute and are required to perform services that provide assistance to DEEP,” said Suellen Kozey McCuin, the council executive director, whose salary comes from the slated-for-elimination funding. “They are in this position literally to leverage funds for local land use projects.” McCuin said the $300,000 typically leverages another $800,000.

DEEP spokesman Dennis Schain said in an email that the district and council cuts were a budget option DEEP suggested the governor’s office could consider since the department is not required by statute to fund the districts the way it is to fund other programs. Schain said DEEP would work with the districts to find alternative funding sources.

“Conservation districts are valuable partners for DEEP in efforts to protect natural resources,” he said in the email, calling it “a year of tough budget choices and steps no one would necessarily want to take under different fiscal circumstances.”

Denise Savageau serves on the board of the Southwest District, as president of the Connecticut Association of Conservation Districts, as a district representative to the council and as the state’s member of the National Association of Conservation Districts — all volunteer positions in addition to her real job as conservation director for Greenwich.

“We appreciate DEEP’s dilemma on having to make decisions on what programs to cut,” she said. “But I don’t think they’re looking at the reality of the matching part of the federal grants.”

Her point, echoed by many, is that the state money serves as critical base funding. “You have to be able to open your doors,” she said. “It’s really hard to use grant money for just those basic costs.”

The less funding you get, she and others said, the more grant applications employees and volunteers like her need to write.

“One of the things that happens when you have to do more grants is you’re spending more time on the administration and all this other stuff instead of being able to do the work out in the field,” she said.

In the trenches

Each district responds to dozens of inquiries a year — from municipalities, including ones that don’t contribute financially, as well as farmers and individuals looking for technical assistance from soil scientists and other experts on staff.

“DEEP doesn’t have depth of staff anymore,” said Jeff Folger, the environmental planner in South Windsor and a volunteer board member of the North Central Conservation District and the council, where he serves as chair.

He said he’s called the district for help with wetlands mapping and assessment.

He pointed to the Laurel Marsh project between East Hartford and Manchester, which replaced invasive phragmites aquatic grasses with native species, as an example of the projects the districts can implement with a mixture of minimal state funding and grants for the project itself.

An aerial of the Laurel Marsh project in East Hartford and Manchester, which replaced invasive aquatic grasses with native species.

North Central Conservation District

An aerial of the Laurel Marsh project in East Hartford and Manchester, which replaced invasive aquatic grasses with native species.

Among the many other services the districts provide are stormwater and wetlands advice, helping towns develop open space and wetlands management plans, technical training for municipal wetlands officers, site plan reviews for developments, habitat restoration, and all manner of drainage issues.

The districts take calls from the public at large, and for years they have run wildly popular plant sales (this weekend) as sources of additional income.

For more than two decades the council has supplied funding to the districts to run Connecticut Envirothon, an educational program for students with a national competition component. The state funding elimination would likely cut into that assistance.

The present state funding is actually half what it used to be when the districts were funded directly by $30 Land Use fees, which are added to a range of municipal permits and which generate about $600,000 a year. In 2009, the fees were doubled, but the revenue they raised was swept into the general fund. At the same time, conservation district funding was cut in half and switched into the DEEP (then just DEP) budget. With recent rescissions, it now sits at $285,000 annually.

“If we’re not going to include it in the state budget as a line item, how can we justify that filing fee?” asked Rep. Melissa Ziobron, R-East Haddam, ranking member of the Appropriations Committee and a member of the Environment Committee. “If we want to collect that fee, it needs to go for that purpose.”

She would like to see the funding restored. “A lot of the municipalities that use these services are already bare bones and don’t have the planning staff, which is why they’re reaching out to those districts,” she said, also confessing to being a big fan of the plant sales.

Jane Brawerman, executive director of the Connecticut River Coastal Conservation District, said that while the individual district budgets may look large, those numbers are deceptive.

“It looks like we’re flush, but we’re not,” she said. “There’s a lot of money coming in for grant projects, and it goes right back out.”

Brawerman’s district right now is slated to help build a new fishway in Westbrook. Ongoing are water quality improvement projects for the Coginchaug River watershed and a project on Lake Hayward in East Haddam that uses vegetated buffers to improve water quality and habitat in the Eightmile River watershed.

“DEEP – they don’t really work on the ground,” she said. “They’re not really out there in the trenches like we are.”

But the project that has all the districts most excited right now stems from a $10 million grant for a Long Island Sound Watershed Regional Conservation Partnership Program.

It’s also what has them most concerned about the funding cuts.

The Long Island Sound grant

The grant is from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a frequent project partner with the conservation districts. It was announced with great fanfare in January with a lineup of officials including two of Connecticut’s members of Congress.

Major watersheds of Long Island Sound

Council on Soil and Conservation

Major watersheds of Long Island Sound

The grant extends for five years for projects on private land in all six states of the Long Island Sound watershed – all the New England states except Maine, plus New York. The goal is to develop soil and water projects, land protection and other management plans in the watershed that would lessen runoff of contamination into Long Island Sound.

But it requires an equal match in funds over that time, on a project-by-project basis. Even though Connecticut, with just about every square inch of the state in the Long Island Sound watershed, is the lead state, and the Connecticut Council on Soil and Water Conservation is in charge, other states could beat a budget-diminished Connecticut to money if they can come up with projects and matching funds.

“Long Island Sound has been underfunded, so we finally get major dollars coming into Long Island Sound and we get DEEP not funding the agencies who are trying to make this happen,” said Savageau, the driving force behind the grant application, which she completed as a volunteer on weekends and at night. “Why would you cut our budget?”

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, instrumental in securing the grant, is asking the same question. Her office sent email to Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, co-chair of the Appropriations Committee which handles budget legislation, requesting the state funding be restored to the budget. “Without these resources our ability to secure and use federal funds will be greatly diminished,” the email said in part.

Walker did not respond to requests for comment.

An even more immediate worry is how to pay for the project coordinator position, which must be funded outside the grant. NRCS has agreed to fund at least half of the first two years, but the council needs to come up with the other half, for a total of $240,000.

“We’re definitely going yo be looking at – yeah how do we do this – that’s a critical piece,” Savageau said indicating that a coordinator announcement was imminent even without funding in place.

“With this grant, we won’t leave money on table, we’ll make sure it gets done,” Savageau said. “We want to make sure this project works and we want to make sure that in five years we are able to apply for another $10 million.”

Taking all calls

Roman Mrozinski has been executive director of the Southwest District since 1994. He said 60 to 65 percent of the 43 municipalities in his district pay to use district services, but he’ll take a call from anyone who needs help.

“I realize $2,000 is chump change but to small towns it adds up,” he said.

In recent years he’s done everything from major studies for consulting firms to participating in a three-district project to help horse owners better dispose of  manure so it doesn’t leach into Long Island Sound.

A rain garden installed to solve a ponding problem at a Milford government building

Steve Johnson / Milford Open Space Officer

A rain garden installed to solve a ponding problem at a Milford government building

Milford is one city that’s called him more than a few times. No surprise there, since MaryRose Palumbo, the inland wetlands officer, is a volunteer board member of his district.

Palumbo recalled one instance when a contractor did what she called a “horrific” job of securing a construction site. “There was a bad rain storm – mud and dirt everywhere,” she said. “Roman came in and solved the problem very quickly.”

And when there was a problem with ponding outside one of Milford’s government buildings, Palumbo went to Mrozinski again. The district came up with a plan for a rain garden to soak up the water.

“If they go away, we’ll have to do more with less. Efficiency and the protection for the environment go away,” said Palumbo, ticking off a list of long-term projects the city has with the district. “We’ve got a good system where people can help each other and back each other. To take this out of the budget, that out of the budget – it’s going to topple.”

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