Water Conservation Through Agricultural Land,
Soil and Crop Management*
U. S. ALLISONt
The normal concept of water conservation as re-
lated to agricultural land, soil and crops may be con-
sidered in terms of our national program of soil and
water conservation. As you probably know, this is the
twentieth anniversary year of the National Soil Con-
servation Act, which we know as Public Law No. 46.
It was this step in natural resource conservation policy,
taken in 1935 by the 74th Congress, that opened the
way to the development and growth of a sound and
effective soil and water conservation program.
S Through it, the Nation's landowners could be pro-
vided with assistance to do something immediately
effective about their long-standing problems of soil
erosion and fertility depletion, water waste, and dam-
age from water. This basic act designated the Soil
Conservation Service as the agency of the U. S. Depart-
ment of Agriculture to provide technical and certain
S other assistance to put that policy and program of
soil and water conservation into action nationwide.
Prior to the establishment of this program many
farmers, agricultural colleges, and other individuals
and groups interested in agriculture were acutely
aware of the menace of soil erosion and fertility de-
pletion. Many attempts were made to control soil
erosion by the use of terraces and other single-purpose
practices. However, these efforts were not coordinated
into a complete land use and conservation program.
The principle of using land within its capabilities and
treating it in accordance with its needs came into
being with the national soil conservation program.
The objectives of the program include getting
proper use of each acre of agricultural land in the
nation, protecting land against all forms of soil de-
terioration, rebuilding eroded and depleted soil, im-
proving grasslands and woodlands, preserving and de-
veloping wildlife habitat on farms, conserving moisture
for crop use, proper agricultural drainage and irri-
gation where needed, reducing floods and sedimenta-
tion, building up soil fertility, and increasing yields
and farm income-all at the same time.
*Publication authorized by the Soil Conservation Service.
tState Conservation Engineer, Soil Conservation Service, U. S.
Department of Agriculture.
Methods of Accomplishing Program Objectives
The first work under the National Soil Conserva-
tion Act was carried out on demonstration projects.
That is, proper land use and soil and water conserva-
tion practices were applied at government cost to all
of the land on small watersheds to demonstrate their
effectiveness and benefits to other farmers. This work
also served to train workers in the new science of soil
and water conservation. These projects so successfully
demonstrated the benefits of conservation farming
that there was a flood of requests for assistance from
other farmers. It soon became apparent that this in-
creasing demand could not be met through demonstra-
tion projects. It was recognized that the responsibility
for conserving and managing our natural resources of
land and water should rest with the landowners, with
assistance from the government. It was believed that
landowners could carry out this responsibility best by
working together in groups or communities. Thus was
born the soil conservation district approach to the
In 1937 the state legislatures of several states passed
laws enabling the landowners to form soil conservation
districts. Many districts have been voted in and or-
ganized by the landowners. As of January 1, 1955 all
48 states, and Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the
Virgin Islands had passed district legislation. There
are 2,649 conservation districts organized containing
a total area of approximately 1,461,025,000 acres.
These farmer-organized and managed districts include
four-fifths of the country's farmlands and close to 90
per cent of our farms, although the first district did
not come into existence until 1937. The Florida Legis-
lature passed a soil conservation district act that be-
came law in 1937. At the present time there are 57
districts covering 60 counties in Florida.
A soil conservation district is a local unit of govern-
ment that operates under state laws to help farmers
carry out a soil and water conservation program. It
is set up and supervised by land-owning farmers who
live in the district. The farmer supervisors operate
the district to carry out the objectives of the district
program. They have authority to ask for and receive
help from local, state, and federal agencies. These in-
clude, among others, the State Agricultural College,
Agricultural Extension Service, Agricultural Experi-
ment Stations, State Department of Agriculture, Soil
Conservation Board, Agricultural Stabilization and
Conservation Committees, and such federal agencies
as the U. S. Department of Agriculture.
The U. S. Department of Agriculture has entered
into a memorandum of understanding with each of
2,615 districts. This memorandum provides that, upon
request from the district, the agencies of the depart-
ment may, consistent with their available resources
and authorities, assist in carrying out the conservation
program on the farms in the district. These agencies
include the Farmers Home Administration, Agricul-
tural Conservation Program Service, Agricultural Re-
search Service, and the Soil Conservation Service.
Working with and through the districts, the Soil
Conservation Service provides the technical assistance
which landowners need in applying conservation mea-
sures to their lands. This technical help includes: (1)
a scientific inventory of the soil resources of each
farm or ranch; (2) assistance to the landowner in de-
termining the best alternative uses and treatments for
the land, based on this inventory, and the development
with the landowner of a plan for soil and water man-
agement; and (3) help to the landowner in applying
and maintaining complex practices.
These soil and water conservation plans applied
to individual farms are basic to the national soil con-
servation program set up by Congress in 1935. But too
little attention has been given to conserving and man-
aging our water resources. It behooves all of us who
are concerned with the welfare of America's agri-
culture to recognize the fundamental importance of
water on agricultural land.
Water management must begin where the rain
hits the earth. Water in streams and wells, and in
storage reservoirs on farms and in towns and cities, is
merely an accumulation of rain that once fell on the
land. Water management starts with the right use
for each kind of land and the application of needed
conservation practices. Such treatment prevents ero-
sion and permits more water to go into the soil and to
pass through it slowly.
Water management problems also develop as excess
water drains from the land into the upper tributaries
of streams. Management measures are needed to pro-
tect the agricultural land along the streams, to protect
the small communities, the roads and highways, and
the farm homes and buildings that are subject to
damage from flooding and silting.
Last summer the 83rd Congress enacted Public Law
566, the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention
Act, to help meet the needs of local people who are
faced with small watershed problems. This law pro-
vides a means for bringing the water element into
balance with the soil element in our national soil and
water conservation program.
The primary objective of the Watershed Protec-
tion and Flood Prevention Act is to provide the basis
for local groups, such as the soil conservation districts,
to cooperate with and receive assistance from the
Federal Government in solving their flood prevention
and water management problems in small watersheds.
The act authorizes the Department of Agriculture
to cooperate with states and local agencies in carrying
out flood prevention and water management projects
jointly planned and mutually agreed upon. It places
responsibility on local organizations to initiate pro-
jects, adapt plans to local requirements, share the costs,
and make provisions for each plan's application and
This act gives farmers a specific means to get
technical help from the U. S. Department of Agricul-
ture to work out watershed treatment plans. It also
provides for Federal cost-sharing on small waterflow-
retarding dams and other flood prevention and water
The act also gives us a new authorization for ap-
proaching soil and water conservation problems on a
watershed basis. The watershed concept, however, is
not new. It is as old as the conservation movement
National forest developments over the last 60
years have evolved around the basic concept of water-
shed protection. Demonstration areas established by
the Soil Conservation Service in the thirties were
mainly creek-size watersheds. The Flood Control Act
of 1936 recognized this approach, as did the soil con-
servation district movement which started in 1937.
In fact, some soil conservation districts are organized
around watersheds rather than around the political
boundaries of county governments.
The program of the Soil Conservation Service,
from its earliest days, stressed the importance of plan-
ning and treating entire small watersheds. Upstream
watershed planning and treatment has been under
way since 1947 in the 11 flood prevention projects au-
thorized under the 1944 Flood Control Act. The
pilot watershed program initiated by the Congress in
1953 was a more recent step in the growth of the water-
shed concept in the conservation program. The en-
actment of the Watershed Protection and Flood Pre-
vention Act gave national recognition to the need for
combining soil and water conservation treatment on
the land with upstream flood prevention measures.
This act provides a means for doing just that. It
is a natural, logical growth in the already established
soil and water conservation program. It is an im-
plementing tool to the soil conservation district pro-
_~ U __
S gram, rather than a separate program or some new
magic substitute for this program.
We now have an opportunity to work on problems
that require group action that have been difficult to
deal with under older programs. The new measure
is intended to accomplish things that cannot be ac-
complished with our programs of research, education,
technical assistance, and cost-sharing.
The Watershed Protection Act simply provides a
means by which local people can get help in doing
those conservation jobs that affect more than one farm
and which the individual landowners cannot do alone.
It is a most important forward step in our national soil
and water conservation program.
Many conservation practices applied to farms in-
crease yields the first year, and provide sufficient ad-
ditional income over the old method of farming to
meet the cost of installing the practices. Some prac-
tices, however, do not give an increase in farmer in-
come for several years. This puts a heavy financial
burden on the farmers and some of them cannot
finance the cost from their current resources. In some
instances, benefits from the practices do not accrue
to the farmer at all, but accrue to other interests in-
cluding the national welfare. The Congress has recog-
nized this situation and written into law several
authorizations intended to help solve the problem.
One of these authorizations is for the Federal Gov-
ernment to share the costs of the practices with the
land owner. This is done in two principal ways. One
method is the cost-sharing provisions in the Water-
shed Protection and Flood Prevention Act. Another
method is the cost-sharing provisions in the Agricul-
tural Conservation Program which provides that
farmers may receive from the government up to 50
per cent of the costs of applying certain conservation
Another authorization is contained in the amended
Water Facilities Act, which provides for making both
direct and insured loans for conservation practices
through the Farmers Home Administration and pri-
Still another is the provision in the revised Internal
Revenue Law enabling farmers to treat expenditures
for a number of soil and water conservation measures
as current expenses that may be deducted, at prescribed
rates, from farm income for tax purposes.
Congress also, in 1953, amended the Federal Re-
serve Act to permit national banks to accept properly
managed growing timber as collateral for real estate
loans, under certain conditions.
In these authorizations, added to prior basic legis-
nation, Congress has provided important additional
tools needed to enable the Federal Government to do
its share of assisting local organizations and the states,
without preempting their rights and responsibilities
in this important field. The states, too, through legis-
lation and through their departments having to do
with resources, have been giving increased attention
to resource conservation and to the place of soil con-
servation districts in agricultural resource develop-
Work Accomplished in Soil Conservation Districts
It does not seem appropriate to include a lot of
statistics in this paper on the amounts of soil and
water conservation practices applied to the land since
the first district was organized. However, you may
be interested in some-Florida figures. Since 1937 the
Soil Conservation Service, working with and through
soil conservation districts, has helped Florida farmers:
1. Make conservation soil surveys on approximately
2. Prepare conservation farm plans on 18,249 farms,
covering approximately 8,000,000 acres.
3. Construct 14,000 miles of terraces.
4. Establish conservation cropping systems on 590,-
5. Plan 2,500 irrigation systems, covering 167,000
acres with conservation irrigation.
6. Establish improved permanent pastures on 950,-
7. Plant 73,363 acres of tree seedlings.
8. Improve 545,000 acres of farm woodland through
selective cutting and other woodland practices.
9. Protect 1,702,000 acres of woodland from fire.
10. Plant 137,000 acres of field borders and other
wildlife food plantings.
11. Develop drainage on 940,000 acres.
12. Construct 1,150 farm ponds to conserve water
for irrigation, produce fish, and provide rec-
During the last quarter-century the people have
founded and built in this country a solid structure for
a national soil and water conservation program. We
have developed effective tools and methods for ac-
complishing program objectives. We have a force
of skilled workers. We have the approval of the peo-
ple of our nation to push ahead with the job. We are
getting more and better tools and more experience in
using these tools effectively and efficiently. We have
made good progress on the job itself.
We can look to the past with justified pride and
face the future with optimism and confidence.