In the 1930s, as the Dust Bowl swept across the nation relocating an estimated 300 million tons of soil, Americans realized the devastating effects of soil erosion. Legislation began to take shape to better manage and conserve the nation’s soil. Despite these actions, Missouri was still plagued with high erosion rates.

Missouri Soil and Water Conservation Districts

The State Soil and Water Districts Commission was created in 1943 to administer the soil and water conservation districts and formulate policies and general programs for the saving of Missouri soil and water through the county soil and water conservation districts. Missouri joined the movement to localize soil and water efforts when Harrison County formed the first soil and water conservation district in 1944. In 1996, Washington County became the last of Missouri's 114 counties to organize as a district.

The Soil and Water Conservation Program carries out the policies of the Soil and Water Districts Commission following the Soil and Water Districts Law (Chapter 278, RSMo). The program promotes good farming techniques that help keep soil on the fields, our waters clean and conserves the productivity of Missouri’s working lands.

Each soil and water conservation district is governed by a board of five supervisors, responsible for all district actions and employees. Four supervisors on each board are resident county agricultural landowners or their legal representative elected to serve four-year terms. The fifth is a representative from University of Missouri Extension.

In 1982, Missouri was losing soil at a rate of 10.9 tons per acre each year on cropland, one of the highest rates of erosion in the nation. In order to reduce soil erosion, improve water quality as well as support Missouri state parks, Missouri voters passed a one-tenth-of-one-percent sales tax in 1984, now called the Parks, Soils and Water Sales Tax.  The tax funds are divided equally between the Department of Natural Resources Soil and Water Conservation Program and Missouri State Parks. Slightly more than two-thirds of Missouri voters renewed the tax in 1988 and 1996, and 70.8 percent voted in favor in 2006. In 2016, all 114 counties approved the sales tax renewal resulting in the highest approval to date at 80.1 percent.

Missouri’s soil and water program is a role model for the nation. Other states envy Missouri for its dedicated tax and support of soil and water conservation. Since 1982, Missouri’s soil erosion rate dropped more than any other state with more than 10 million acres of cropland. It is estimated that more than 179 million tons of soil have been saved since passage of the sales tax.

The sales tax provides financial incentives that share the cost between the farmer and the state of implementing the installation of soil and water conservation practices that prevent or control excessive soil erosion and protect water quality.

Missouri has come a long way since the sales tax was first approved in 1984; however, there is still work to be completed. Issues affecting soil health, soil erosion, water quality can have detrimental effects on Missouri’s natural resources and agricultural productivity. Research and water quality monitoring can help verify that soil and water conservation practices are working as intended. With your continued support, we can help make Missouri an even better place to live, work and enjoy the outdoors.

Cole County SWCD History

The economics of a booming wheat market and the notion that soil was an inexhaustible resource had pushed agriculture to its limits in the 1920's. Through the Twenties and Thirties, the hillsides were becoming denuded of top soil, scarred by gullies, and production sharply declined. Some land was abandoned to broom sedge, elm sprouts and tickle grass. To top it off, we had the big, black dust  blows  of  hot, dry 1934 and 1936. The wind lifted that inexhaustible resource in dark, billowing sheets that blotted out the sun. The biggest of all dust storms arrived on "Black Sunday," April 14, 1935, and stayed for about 50 seconds. The Dust bowl is much more than a geographic area, the term itself has become synonymous with poverty, waste, and despair. But, it has come to symbolize more, something positive as well. The Dust Bowl was the catalyst behind a 60-year endeavor in farming: soil conservation.

This may have been a good thing, for some of the dust blew clear to Washington, D.C., dimming the sun, and helped Hugh Bennett of the Soil Erosion Service to sell President Franklin Roosevelt and Congress on the idea that something had to be done on a national scale, and at once. While the Soil Conservation Act was being debated before a Senate Committee in May 1934, Bennett delayed the hearing a day because he had been tracking a Southern Plains dust storm that was making its way up the Ohio Valley to the East Coast and Washington, D.C. When the dust storm arrived, during the hearing, they moved from the great mahogany table to the windows of the Senate Office building for a look. Bennett remarked: "Gentlemen, that is Kansas blowing by." Everything went nicely thereafter. Photos of huge "dusters" in Kansas, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Texas convinced even doubters that more formal soil conservation actions were needed.

Picture of the Dust Storm approaching Stratford, Texas in 1935.

On April 14, 1935, known as "Black Sunday", twenty of the worst "Black Blizzards" occurred throughout the Dust Bowl, causing extensive damage and turning the day to night; witnesses reported that they could not see five feet in front of them at certain points. Picture of Dust Storm approaching Stratford, Texas in 1935.

Hugh Bennett, by personal research, determined the best practices for control of wind and water erosion, but this achievement, however great, was only a technical one. What places him among the very few greatest and smartest Americans who ever lived, was his Soil District idea. He saw that the job of saving America's Soil and Water was too big for even the huge resources of the Federal government. So he gave the job to the people who lived on the land -- the nation's farmers and ranchers. He knew they would do what was needed, mostly at their own expense, if supplied with technical help and engineering suggestions. The spark for the NRCS and local soil conservation districts was struck in the demonstration projects of the now-defunct Soil Erosion Service begun in 1933.

The crowning touch was to make his own agency's role one of demonstration and suggestion, rather than one of domination and dictation. He knew there was nothing much wrong with the brains and resolution of men who had held title to a farm through that trying period and that, given the technical help, they could be trusted with control of the program. This was absolutely unique in the history of government-farmer relations, and its success has been nothing short of stupendous. The disappearance of huge dust storms says a lot about Government programs. Improvement is evident in the amount of pasture, reduced tillage, strip-cropping, terracing, and windbreaks found on farms today.

In 1982, Missouri was continuing to lose soil at a rate of 10.9 tons per acre each year on cultivated cropland. In fact, Missouri had the second highest rate of erosion in the nation. A one-tenth-of-one-percent parks, soils and water sales tax was passed by Missouri voters in 1984 to fund state parks and soil and water conservation efforts. Almost two-thirds of Missouri voters renewed the tax in 1988 and 1996. In 2006, the tax passed by its highest percentage to date (70.8).

Missouri had the largest decline in the rate of soil erosion in the nation between 1982 and 1997. Missouri's reduction in total sheet and rill erosion from cropland and pasture is impressive. More than 171 million tons of soil eroded in 1982, compared with 95 million tons in 1992 - a reduction of 44 percent.  Missouri farmers have cut soil erosion rates on cropland by over 50% in less than two decades. 

The majority of the soils side of this tax has been used to assist agricultural landowners through voluntary programs that are developed by the Soil and Water Districts Commission. They are administered by the Soil and Water Conservation Program through district boards in each of the 114 counties.

The cost-share program provides financial incentives to landowners for up to 75 percent of the cost for installation of soil conservation practices that prevent or control excessive erosion. Soil and water conservation districts provide technical support with the design, implementation and maintenance of practices.

By promoting good farming techniques that help keep soil on the fields and waters clean, each soil and water conservation district is conserving the productivity of Missouri’s working lands.


The Cole County Soil and Water Conservation District was organized in 1974.