Virginia’s soil and water conservation districts historically have helped farmers implement conservation practices, but now they are helping homeowners as well.
The Virginia Conservation Assistance Program—an urban cost-share program that provides financial incentives and technical assistance to property owners who install conservation practices in the Chesapeake Bay watershed—began in 2012. It was tested until 2015 and then offered to 30 of the state’s 47 soil and water conservation districts.
“VCAP is a great way to tap into helping non-farmers protect our waterways,” explained Kevin McLean, the program’s coordinator. “We’ve gotten a lot of interest from homeowners.”
He said the total amount of cost-share money paid to homeowners has increased from $150,000 in early 2016 to $2 million in 2018. VCAP is managed by the nonprofit Virginia Association of Soil & Water Conservation Districts.
“Everything we have done has benefitted the bay”
Sandee Bailey is one of the VCAP’s grant recipients. The Henrico County resident learned about the program from the Virginia Master Naturalist program’s newsletter. She recently had moved into a home with a sloping yard that led to a small lake. Every time it rained, “a torrent of pollutant-carrying water roared down around my house and straight into the (lake) water,” Bailey recalled. “The slope from the back of the house down to the lake was just as bad.”
With cost-share assistance from the VCAP, she created rain gardens, built dry wells and established large areas of native plants in both the front and back yards.
“Fast-forward just two years, and the rushing water coming down from the street is waylaid by a VCAP-funded dry well and rain garden,” Bailey explained. In the backyard, she and her family now enjoy birds, butterflies and other wildlife attracted by the new plants.
“We would never have been able to do anything on this scale without VCAP’s assistance,” Bailey exclaimed. “Because my yard is on a lake that is part of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, everything we have done has benefitted the bay.”
A shift in focus
SWCD staff help implement the cost-share practices funded by the VCAP. The districts were established in the 1930s to develop conservation plans primarily to conserve soil resources and control and prevent soil erosion. Since the mid-1980s, the Department of Conservation and Recreation has relied on SWCDs to deliver programs that prevent nonpoint source pollution resulting from land runoff.
Such pollution occurs when rain or melted snow moves over the ground, carries away pollutants and deposits them into waterways.
By contrast, point source pollution comes from a single, identifiable source, such as a factory or sewage treatment plant. McLean said the environmental movement focused on point source pollution in the ’70s and ‘80s and then shifted its focus to nonpoint source pollution.
Environmentalists “realized that, despite all their work, a lot of sediments were still going into the bay and its waterways, and much of it was coming from residential areas,” he explained. “VCAP is an opportunity for homeowners to do their part in improving water quality.”
Right now the VCAP is available only in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, but McLean is working to expand the program’s reach.
To learn more, visit vaswcd.org/vcap.