The supervisors, constitutional officers and candidates for state office grab the headlines during election season, but other, less-appreciated elected officials arguably do some of the most important work.
Count among them Louisa County’s two members on the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District board. They play an important role in helping make farmers, forest landowners and other citizens aware of ways to protect water quality in local creeks and rivers and the Chesapeake Bay.
Steve Lucas is one of two Louisans, with Grosvenor Merle-Smith, whose names will be on the November 2019 ballot for conservation district board seats. Both of the county’s seats are open, as Brian Wagner is not seeking re-election. Mistie Goodman, who was elected to the other seat in 2015, stepped down from the board last year.
Lucas has raised beef cattle and timber in the Green Springs area for 29 years. He has a long history with soil and water conservation, going back to the 1970s when he was completing a degree in agronomy at Virginia Tech and worked at the soil district in Loudoun County.
Lucas grew up in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, where his father had a job as a highway engineer for the United States Department of the Interior. The son aspired to be a park ranger, but “everybody wants to be one, so upward mobility is slow,” he said.
As a board member, Lucas wants to try to continue efforts to help landowners protect water quality without the need for regulatory action. The district’s cost-share programs have helped many farmers in Louisa and surrounding counties to fence cattle out of streams and pay for upland watering devices. A growing initiative helps farmers plant cover crops to reduce soil runoff. Other practices the district encourages include planting riparian buffers adjacent to streams and developing wildlife habitat.
“We’ve helped farmers put in hundreds of miles of fence,” Lucas said. “Cover crops are a big thing right now to keep nitrogen and phosphorus out of the bay. We also help people repair or replace septic systems. We know there are a lot of failing septics out there.”
The district employs professional staff, most of them out of an office in Charlottesville and one in the Louisa Air Park. Because they tend to be farmers or timber growers themselves, board members play a special role in reaching out to landowners.
“The issue becomes letting people know about these programs,” Lucas said. “When I go to the co-op or see people I know, I’ll let them know these things are available.”
He said he hopes to organize a stakeholders’ meeting in the county this September.
The district also maintains a number of flood control structures in the county, including one that is visible to motorists on the west side of James Madison Highway (Rt. 15) in the Green Springs.
Louisa County government contributes about $49,000 annually to support the Thomas Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation district, which also includes Albemarle, Fluvanna and Nelson counties and the city of Charlottesville.