It is often said that “necessity is the mother of invention.”  In the case of the soil conservation movement, necessity appeared as a national emergency in the 1930s.  Improper use of farmland and overuse of rangeland teamed up with recurring drought to produce the Dust Bowl era.  During that time, dust storms originated in the Great Plains and swept across the nation, resulting in ruined land, dead livestock, untold human suffering and forced abandonment of farms by many families.  Storms sometimes carried the precious topsoil thousands of miles, dumping it into the ocean.  However, it was the “dust” created in the nation’s Capital that brought government action.


August 25, 1933, saw the creation of the Soil Erosion Service within the US Department of the Interior.  This was the first soil conservation action taken by the US Government and in fact was the first program of its kind anywhere.  The Service began gathering data on the condition of the nation’s soil resources and set up the first demonstration projects.

On March 25, 1935, the Soil Erosion Service was transferred to the US Department of Agriculture and became the Soil Conservation Service.

The same year Public Law 46 of the 74th Congress, known as the Soil Conservation Act of 1935 went into effect.  The act, passed unanimously by the House and Senate and signed by President Roosevelt, recognized that “soil erosion is a menace to the national welfare and that it is hereby declared to be a policy of Congress to provide permanently for the control and prevention of soil erosion…”

The Soil Conservation Service addressed the challenge by setting up a number of large-scale demonstration projects around the country.  Although the projects themselves were successful, it soon became clear that this method was not far-reaching enough.  It was much too slow to accomplish the desired results, it was far too costly, it did not provide long-lasting conservation treatment, and it lacked grass roots support and participation.

What was needed was a local organization through which conservation would be accomplished.

But no such organization existed.  A totally new, locally-administered unit of government was needed–the soil conservation district.  Finally a model state soil conservation districts law was sent to each of the state governors in February 1937 along with a letter from President Roosevelt.

The states did act, but with varying degrees of speed.  Twenty-two states passed enabling legislation within the same year.  Eventually all fifty states, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands adopted enabling laws.

This is how the soil and water conservation districts came to be what they are today.


 The Iowa soil conservation program was initiated in 1939 when the Iowa General Assembly passed enabling legislation to allow soil conservation districts to organize and to provide for their administration.  Legislation of the 48th General Assembly was responsible for the Conservation Districts Law and establishment of the State Soil Conservation Committee.

Iowa has 100 soil and water conservation districts.  The first district organized in 1940 was the Marion District.  However, the Montgomery District, also organized in 1940 was the first district organized on a countywide basis. Today all districts are organized on county boundaries with the exception of Pottawattamie, which is divided into two districts.  The last district organized was the Howard District in Northeast Iowa in 1952.

In 1987 legislation was adopted to add “water” to the district title, creating soil and water conservation districts.

Black Hawk Soil and Water Conservation District was organized July 30, 1945.



The history of the development of the local soil and water conservation district is contained in the district’s soil and water resource conservation plan.  This document is on file in the district office and at the county recorder’s office. Black Hawk SWCD is located in Waterloo and is a subdivision of Iowa’s state government (Iowa Code Chapter 161A.3(6); five volunteer, elected commissioners manage the SWCD, which works in close collaboration with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)—an agency of the United States Department of Agriculture and the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship (IDALS).  Together, these three agencies empower individuals in Black Hawk County to become better stewards of their land as they install conservation practices designed to improve both soil health and water quality.

SWCDs belong to an organization called the Conservation Districts of Iowa (CDI), which supports the soil and water conservation districts through public education, policy, acknowledgment, commissioner development, on-the-ground conservation, events and more.