Pictured: Students with the Environmental Restoration program at CSUCI help put in a firescape garden at the Somis offices of the Ventura County Resource Conservation District. Photo submitted. 

by David Goldstein

david.goldstein@ventura.org

During a time when some good causes are appealing for funds by expressing concerns about how the pandemic is reducing their opportunities, one local organization is expanding by bringing state and federal conservation funds to Ventura County. Three years ago, the Ventura County Resource Conservation District faced financial difficulties and had to lay off staff, including its executive director. Now, largely through successful grant application writing by a full-time staff of three dedicated employees, a few part-time workers, and a new executive director, the organization is expanding.

One sign of the Resource Conservation District’s expansion is their recent decision to hire a Restoration Ecologist. This new staff person will help landowners acquire funding and create plans for habitat restoration on their land, whether the land owner is initiating projects out of altruism, as a permitting condition to mitigate development elsewhere, or as a response to a natural disaster.

Another sign of the Resource Conservation District’s renewed vitality can be seen at their headquarters, 3880 Somis Road, where Resource Conservation Specialist Andrew Spyrka has led the development of a grant-funded demonstration garden built to display fire-wise plant selections and defensible space. Expected to open for public tours by winter, the garden’s educational messages will target fire safety, resource conservation and wildlife compatibility, providing information on plant characteristics such as blooming period, watering needs, and flower colors via QR-codes and through www.vcrcd.org/fire.

The district will also assist homeowners with custom fire-safe gardening management plans as the demonstration garden further expands to include items such as fire-wise pollinator plants. The district will plant a new section of the garden with plants needed by butterflies and pollinators for habitat. These plants support native pollinators and also have bloom times corresponding to butterflies’ migration period. Furthermore, the garden addition will focus on demonstrating defensible space in action by building a mock home structure retrofitted to demonstrate climate-smart and fire-smart techniques. 

Parts of the demonstration garden will also display climate smart landscaping techniques such as xeriscape, the practice of gardening with little use of irrigation. Xeriscape also produces little waste, resulting in a promotion of both water conservation and solid waste management goals. Water-thrifty plants are sustained through efficient irrigation, use of water-retaining soil amendments such as compost, and application of evaporation-reducing mulch. 

Evaluation of irrigation efficiency on farms has long been a staple of the district’s workload, and now the district is able to assist farmers with many water-related conservation needs. In the lower Calleguas Creek Watershed, the district can help fund projects for irrigation, nutrient, and sediment management. In the Somis Valley, the District is conducting an atmomenter study to help farmers track crop’s evapotranspiration rate. Through the Ventura River In-Stream Flow project, the district is working to stabilize water resources for all Ventura River stakeholders, including agriculture. Countywide, applications will soon be accepted from farmers interested in a program to reduce leaching of nitrogen by assisting growers with soil monitoring and nitrogen management. 

The district can also assist landowners in the wildland-urban interface, including farmers and ranchers whose properties experienced environmental degradation in recent wildfires. Funding is available for those planning or implementing on-farm or on-ranch projects to enhance climate resilience, wildlife habitat or ecosystem benefits, and those who would like to begin using cover crops, hedgerows, mulch, or compost to conserve soil. The application period for the latter project ends June 26, but additional funding cycles are expected. Applications for post-fire recovery projects will close late this year. 

Resource Conservation Districts, originally known as Soil Conservation Districts, are locally-led special districts of the state. The district secures funding for local projects with other conservation partners such as the Natural Resource Conservation Service, which was launched at the federal level as part of the Department of Agriculture as a response to the Dust Bowl. This launch, in 1935, began with the congressional declaration, “The wastage of soil and moisture resources on farm, grazing, and forest lands . . .  is a menace to the national welfare.”

Since then, according to Jamie Whiteford, a district scientist based in Somis, “Under our board’s direction, the mission of the district has gradually expanded to address more than just soil and water-related agricultural concerns. We are now able to also help our local landowners enhance wildlife habitat, protect water quality and reduce wildfire risks.”

To see whether the Resource Conservation District can help with a project you are considering, contact Jamie Whiteford at 805-764-5132 or jamiewhiteford.vcrcd@gmail.com. To donate, visit www.vcrcd.org/donate. To volunteer visit www.vcrcd.org/volunteer.

David Goldstein is an environmental resource analyst with the Ventura County Public Works Agency.