Soil and Water Conservation Districts

The most destructive period to the soil and water resources of Arkansas was during the years 1900 to 1930. During this time, farmers generally received money only from the sale of timber and cotton. Sheet erosion insidiously removed the fertile, more absorbent upper layers of topsoil. This increased the rate of runoff from the fields, and gullies soon appeared. Reduced fertility led to crop failures, and repeated failures led to abandonment of farms in many instances. The appearance of the countryside rapidly deteriorated in the absence of an organized program of soil conservation. Agricultural colleges of the day were teaching terracing and crop rotation, but typical forty- to eighty-acre subsistence farmers viewed these practices as being too sophisticated for their use.

Title II of the National Industrial Recovery Act, enacted on June 16, 1933, created the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works. Among the eligible purposes enumerated in the act were the “conservation and development of natural resources, including control, utilization, and purification of waters, prevention of soil or coastal erosion, and development of water power.” The Department of Interior was allocated $5 million to establish a Soil Erosion Service. Hugh H. Bennett directed this service in operating various national erosion-control projects and in conducting a nationwide erosion survey, which convinced him of the need for an expanded program.

The first great dust storm of the Dust Bowl occurred on May 11, 1934. It originated in the Great Plains region and swept fine soil particles over Washington DC and 300 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean. This spectacle was repeated in a second great storm on March 6, 1935. In response, the Soil Erosion Service was moved to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1935, and the name was changed to the Soil Conservation Service (SCS). The SCS began setting up demonstration areas to promote conservation practices but had limited success due to lack of support and interest. USDA realized early on that local groups needed to lead conservation efforts.

In February 1937, Governor Carl E. Bailey received a letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt recommending that legislative authority be provided for the establishment of soil conservation districts as political or legal subdivisions of the state government to deal with the problems of erosion control and soil conservation in Arkansas. The Arkansas General Assembly was in session at the time the president’s letter was received, and a bill sponsored by state Representative George Louis Hardgrave of Johnson County was immediately drafted and introduced. The bill declared “the necessity of creating governmental subdivisions of the state, to be known as ‘Soil Conservation Districts’” and aimed “to establish the state soil conservation committee, and to define its powers and duties.” Governor Bailey signed Act 197 into law on March 3, 1937, making Arkansas the first state in the nation to pass such a law. However, due to certain legal considerations imposed by the state constitution, the law did not become operative until June 20 of that year. The law provided for a State Soil Conservation Committee to administer its provisions.

One year of experience demonstrated a need to train district supervisors on their duties, responsibilities, and opportunities. The Agricultural Extension Service, together with the State Soil Conservation Committee, called a joint meeting of supervisors for this purpose on May 31, 1938. This is the first known record of district supervisors participating in a statewide meeting. Following the conference, a separate meeting of the supervisors was called for later that evening. They formed an organization called the State Association of District Supervisors, Soil Conservation Districts of Arkansas. Arkansas was the first state to have such an association. Reece Caudle of Russellville (Pope County) was elected chairman, a post he filled until 1950, when Riley Sloan Rainwater succeeded him.

By 1940, three years after the district law was enacted, one-fourth of the state was covered by the sixteen operating soil conservation districts. The district program continued to grow until total coverage of the state was attained on June 2, 1955. This made Arkansas the sixteenth state to obtain total coverage. At the state’s annual meeting in 1954, Rainwater proposed dividing the state into seven areas and electing a vice president for each of these areas. Each area vice president was to conduct an annual meeting of the district directors in his area before the annual state meeting.

The legislature recognized that some soil conservation districts were acting as soil and water conservation districts, and using that term to describe themselves, so Act 14 of 1963 made the name change standard. In 1969, the legislature amended the district law. The title “district supervisor” was changed to “district director.” Districts were also permitted to shorten their names by omitting “Soil and Water.” Another change was to establish a uniform date for conducting district elections and to establish a uniform rate for reimbursing district directors for their expenses. Too, voting in district elections was limited specifically to landowners. On January 13, 1970, the association adopted a new constitution, and the name was shortened to Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts.

Conservation districts are political sub-divisions of the State of Arkansas. They were created by popular vote of resident landowners, as authorized by Act 197 of 1937. District lines generally coincide with county lines, but Mississippi County is divided into two districts, resulting in seventy-six conservation districts in the state. Act 197 provided for a five-member board of directors to govern the affairs of a conservation district. In 2007, the Arkansas General Assembly changed the name of the Arkansas Soil and Water Conservation Commission to the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission (ANRC). ANRC appoints two members, and three are elected by resident landowners. Districts are responsible for holding regular meetings to determine local needs, developing a long-range plan for soil and water conservation, preparing an annual report reflecting the district’s progress in achieving this plan, consulting with the USDA and the ANRC regarding conservation needs, and assisting educational and other organizations on conservation-related subjects.

Conservation districts have the power to carry out preventive and control measures for better utilization of soil and water resources on public and private lands with the consent and cooperation of those in charge of such lands; enter into agreements and furnish financial or other aid to any private or public agency or land user within the district; make available to land users any equipment and materials needed to carry out conservation programs; develop land-use regulations within the district; and organize an irrigation, drainage, or watershed development district to install, operate, and maintain works of improvement such as dams, levees, ditches, and pumping stations.

For additional information:
Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts. (accessed March 28, 2022).

Harper, C. Armitage, and Ewing W. Kinkead. Conservation in Arkansas. Little Rock: Democrat Printing and Lithographing Co., 1956.

Swearingen, Gordon J. History of the Soil and Water Conservation District Movement in Arkansas. Little Rock: Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts, 1970.

Joyce Carson
Arkansas Watershed Coalition


    The definition for “qualified electors,” those who are allowed to vote in a Soil and Water District election, was changed in 1969 state law to mean “any owner of land within the district who is registered to vote under the election laws of the State of Arkansas” (§ 2; 1969, No. 181, A.C.A. § 14-125-106). It should be noted that before the 1969 law, there was no defined “qualified elector” definition in the Soil and Water District state law.  However, keep in mind that there were poll taxes up until 1964/1969 (state/federal) that would have specifically shut out poor people. The timing of this 1969 law, specifically limiting voters to landowners, appears to be a backlash against the repeal of the poll tax and the effects of the civil rights movement. Most Soil and Water Districts in the United States do not require land ownership in order to vote for an elected Soil and Water board member.  Also, most states have Soil and Water District supervisors elected in the regular elections (not special elections like Arkansas does now). 

    Katie Mann