Soil and Water Conservation District

In the wake of the recent catastrophic floods, the role of FEMA, local emergency responders, insurance companies and others involved in cleaning up the damage has been much in the news. But stream banks in the area also suffered severe erosion in many places, and restoring them is the job of a relatively little-known branch of local government: the Buncombe County Soil and Water Conservation District.

The district is charged with protecting environmental quality in the county through education and demonstration projects, with a $350,000 annual budget funded by a mix of tax dollars and grants. In the aftermath of Frances and Ivan, the district has received substantial federal funding for needed remediation projects.

According to Executive Director Gary Higgins, the Soil and Water Conservation District’s elected board of supervisors “oversees the programs and determines what direction the department will take over the next one to five years. This involves a pretty large responsibility for protection of streams as well as soil-and-water quality in our district.”

The agency is active on a number of fronts, including the North Carolina Agriculture Cost Share Program, which funds farm conservation practices that improve water quality; the Newfound Creek Watershed Project, whose budget is more than $1 million; and work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to implement initiatives here.

The district also manages the Buncombe County Voluntary Farmland Preservation Program, designed to help slow the disappearance of local agricultural land and offer farmers protection from encroaching development.

The three candidates for superintendent come from widely different backgrounds and offer similarly diverse perspectives on the job, which has a four-year term.

Harold (Cicada) Brokaw, who holds a master’s degree in music, says he wants “to bring a perspective focused on nature and the natural environment. … When people have made roads or cut away the shape of the land, in my mind I can still see the land — how it was before, how the water wanted to go, how people are always trying to make the water go where they want it to go. I have a sense of the land’s original shape and how the water is impacting what people do.” He adds, “We should use beavers as our primary soil-and-water conservation engineers.”

Alan Ditmore is a farmer and environmental activist who believes the best strategy for addressing soil- and water-quality issues is “to advocate for birth control as an environmental priority. Which is to say that if you look at the cost-effectiveness of how much do you improve the environment for how much a government or charitable program is spending, I think that birth control blows everything away by orders of magnitude.” He continues: “I also want to bring more class consciousness into discussion of the environment. People talk about reducing trash and encouraging recycling, but they miss the boat on the effect of rich people. Look at the rich towns: Montreat throws away four times as much garbage per person as Asheville.”

Michelle Price, who serves on the district’s board of supervisors, is a former employee of both the district and the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources. She holds a Bachelor of Science (Public Health) degree in environmental science and engineering. Price says: “I’m very passionate about water quality. In the last three years, I have helped the district obtain over $500,000 of grant funds to improve water quality; I encourage the local staff to seek grant funds. I want to continue to contribute to improving water quality in Buncombe, and I will continue to seek funds.”

Harold “Cicada” Brokaw

Age: 43
Address: 362 London Road, Asheville
Occupation: student
Years in Buncombe County: 8
Education: Master’s degree in music
Political party: Democrat
Political experience: Ran for Asheville City Council three years ago; past president, French Food Co-op board of directors; ran a write-in campaign for mayor of Ann Arbor, Mich.

Alan D. Ditmore

Age: 40
Street address: 2340 Old N.C. 20, Leicester
Occupation: Farmer
Years in Buncombe County: 6
Education: Some college
Political party: Democrat
Political experience: Ran for this office before; student senator, University of Massachusetts; Harvest Brigade to Nicaragua

Michelle W. Price

Age: 34
Address: 26 E. Chestnut St., Asheville
Occupation: Water-quality specialist
Years in Buncombe County: 10
Education: B.S. in environmental science & engineering (public health), UNC-Chapel Hill
Political party: Democrat
Political experience: Board of supervisors, Soil and Water Conservation District

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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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