Resource Conservation Districts (RCDs), once known as Soil Conservation Districts, are “special districts” of the state of California, set up under California law to be locally governed agencies with their own locally appointed, independent boards of directors. Although RCDs are established locally by the rules of a county’s Local Agency Formation Committee (LAFCO), and they often have close ties to county government, they are not county government entities
In response to the national “Dust Bowl” crisis of the 1930s, when millions of acres of cropland were destroyed by drought and attendant soil loss, the federal government passed legislation establishing a the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), in 1937. Conservationists quickly realized that a centrally governed federal agency in Washington could not be as responsive to local needs as it might be, so local counterparts of the SCS were set up under state law to be controlled by local boards of directors. Thus were born “Soil Conservation Districts,” which began forming in the late 1930s and quickly spread throughout the 48 states. Soil Conservation Districts began to successfully perform the functions originally envisioned by the formation of the SCS.

In California, Soil Conservation Districts have been formed in all parts of the state beginning in the 1940s, continuing up to the present. Today, RCDs manage a diversity of resource conservation projects, including soil and water conservation projects, wildlife habitat enhancement and restoration, control of exotic plant species, watershed restoration, conservation planning, education, and many others. Since most RCDs receive very little regular funding through local taxation, they rely heavily on grants and other types of fundraising to stay in operation.

Until the formation of Soil Conservation Districts there was no organized mechanism for disseminating resource conservation information, expertise, and assistance. Farmers and ranchers often had no one to turn to for soil and water conservation information and assistance. It took a crisis of national proportions, the Dust Bowl, to bring this about. Farmers and ranchers still need up-to-date scientific information and techniques to manage the natural resources on their properties, and the need for ongoing conservation education and assistance among all sectors of the public is as great or greater than it ever has been.

RCDs continue to render assistance to private landowners wishing to conserve soil and water and manage their resources on a sustainable basis. But RCDs also act as a focal point for local conservation efforts, and RCDs throughout the state now function as leaders in the conservation community, including a large amount of watershed groups such as Coordinated Resource Management Planning (CRMP) groups throughout the state. RCDs continue to sponsor educational efforts to teach children and adults alike of the importance of conserving resources.

The relationship between RCDs and the US Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), formerly known as the “SCS,” has been long standing. As noted above, the NRCS was originally formed to address the crisis of the Dust Bowl, and the legislation establishing local conservation districts was created shortly thereafter. Since then, NRCS and RCDs have had a close working relationship within districts, with NRCS appointing a local District Conservationist to provide technical assistance to districts, as well as acting as a liaison between the district and federal programs. Local offices of the NRCS also frequently employ other specialists, such as soil conservationists and engineers, to provide technical assistance to the district board.

RCDs and NRCS formally ratified their relationship through a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed over fifty years ago to establish a partnership and mutual roles between districts and the USDA. In 1994 the MOU was revised “to modernize and reinvent their historic partnership,” and to add state conservation agencies to the agreement.