There are plenty of down-ballot races in November elections, but perhaps none so far down as Soil and Water Conservation District supervisors. Just ask Jason Ulseth, one of three elected Fulton County district supervisors. Since 2018, Ulseth has received more votes in Fulton than Donald Trump but remains all but anonymous.

“It’s an unpaid position and little known to the citizens of the county, but a very important position, nonetheless,” said Ulseth, whose day job is executive director of the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper. He was elected to his second term in November 2022.

In fact, the state’s soil and water supervisors are arguably Georgia’s most unsung elected office.

As the name suggests, they help conserve the state’s most essential natural resources that we can see and touch—the earth and water. Guarding against soil erosion and runoff into waterways are two of the top issues for the state’s 370 supervisors across 40 Soil and Water Conservation Districts in five regions.

The supervisors are a mix of elected and appointed officials, with at least one elected and one appointed supervisor for each of Georgia’s 159 counties. Most counties in the Atlanta metro area are among the state’s 16 single-county districts.

“In a nutshell, the districts work to promote sound conservation principles and practices throughout the state,” said Robert Amos, conservation manager for the Soil and Water Conservation Commission in Athens, which oversees the 40 Soil and Water Conservation Districts, including the Fulton district where Ulseth is a supervisor.

Soil and water conservation is not just related to farming and agriculture. Georgia’s conservation districts in many areas must grapple with increased land development and fights over limited resources.

As the effects of climate change accelerate, the need for good natural resource management will likely only increase. According to a 2023 report by the United Nations, water availability and quality are deteriorating worldwide due to decades of misuse, lack of coordinated management, pollution, and climate change.

That’s true in Georgia as well. Last week, Ulseth, in his job as the Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, had to warn the public to stay out of the Chattahoochee River south of Atlanta due to poorly treated sewage runoff from a city of Atlanta wastewater facility that raised E. coli levels an average of 340 times higher than the EPA-recommended amount.

“I would say it’s probably the biggest sewer failure we've had in metro Atlanta in 20 years,” said Ulseth. Georgia’s soil and water district supervisors are among the few people in the state who have the power to solve problems like these.

Decades of conservation

The creation of Georgia’s Soil and Water Conservation Districts harkens back to the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s—a different era of manmade climate change. A combination of poor agricultural practices and a decade-long drought manifested in wind storms that blew massive amounts of topsoil nationwide, causing environmental disaster and economic devastation for farmers.

To help reverse the effects of the Dust Bowl, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt passed the Soil Conservation Act in 1935 and encouraged the states to follow suit.

Two years later, the Georgia legislature created the Georgia Soil and Water Conservation Commission, a state agency with five members appointed by the governor, that oversees the 40 conservation districts. They help dole out Georgia’s share of the federal government’s $68.6 billion budgeted for conservation programs for protecting soil, water, and air.

The district supervisors are like groundskeepers but for an entire country. They meet monthly to coordinate with local governments, site inspectors, developers, and private property owners on soil and water-related plans such as stormwater pollution and sediment control. The districts also develop comprehensive plans for most of Georgia’s estimated 50,000 to 70,000 ponds and lakes and 350+ watershed dams, which protect millions of acres of land from regular flooding.

They also engineer systems designed to slow water runoff and stabilize soil, which is important because eroded soil is the top pollutant in the state. “A lot of people don't realize that mud going into the river actually causes the most environmental and economic harm to the Chattahoochee River, which is actually just dirt,” said Ulseth.

Graphic: Georgia Soil and Water Conservation Commission

A River Runs Through It

Of course, the Chattahoochee River is the key resource in Ulseth’s Fulton County jurisdiction—it provides roughly 5 million people with drinking water. “Half the people in Georgia drink out of the Chattahoochee River, and many people don't realize that their livelihoods depend on something so frail,” said Ulseth.

The river’s biggest threat isn’t sewage or industrial waste—it’s dirt. Sediment acts as a carrier of harmful pollutants such as pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, and other chemicals. Thus, when governments or developers alter the land, an erosion and sediment control plan has to be part of the equation, especially as the Atlanta area continues to be developed.

“Human-caused soil disturbance, where we're replacing all of our forest lands with parking lots and rooftops, means it’s not the same as 60 years ago,” says Ulseth. When it rains now, it's either hitting a hard surface or bringing pollutants with it into the river.”

For Ulseth, managing a large swath of the Chattahoochee River is personal. He’s spent nearly his entire life around it, first fishing it as a small child and now working as a Fulton conservation district supervisor and the Riverkeeper.

“My dad would take me out here, and we'd fish the river, catch tons of trout, and come here some mornings with the river blown out with mud because we had a thunderstorm overnight. Now I can wake up at five o'clock in the morning for work, and I check my phone to see if it's blown out.”

FAQs

What are Georgia’s Soil and Water Conservation Districts?

The 40 conservation districts manage and direct natural resource management programs at the local level. Districts work with landowners and local governments to conserve, use, and develop soil, water, and related resources.

How are district supervisors chosen?

They are either elected by their local county residents for a four-year term or appointed to a two-year term by the state Soil and Water Conservation Commission in Athens.

Want to find out who your Soil and Water Conservation District supervisors are?

Click here.

Are you interested in becoming an elected Soil and Water Conservation District supervisor in your county?

In some counties, you can still seek office this year. There are currently 36 openings for both elected and appointed supervisor positions throughout the state. For more info, click here or contact the Georgia Association of Conservation Districts.

To find out more about the Georgia Soil and Water Conservation Commission:

Visit their website.

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