Name as it appears on the ballot: Jillian Riley
Party affiliation: Democrat
Campaign website: jillianriley.org
Occupation & employer: Masters of Social Work Candidate at UNC-Chapel Hill
1) Why are you running for the position of soil and water conservation district supervisor? In your answer, please explain your understanding of the role and why it is important.
As a community organizer, I’ve fought to preserve clean water and special natural spaces in North Carolina. Now, I’m running for our county’s local environmental board in order to bring my environmental justice perspective and organizing skills to government.
My grandad grew up on an oil rig camp during the 1940s and his father, my great-grandad, died in an accident on the rigs due to poor labor practices. My grandad spent his childhood hunting squirrels for food but eventually climbed out of poverty by working in the big oil and fracked gas business. Now we know the irreversible damages that come with this work.
I began working as an environmental justice organizer at the age of 15 as a way to pay homage to my grandad’s childhood and as a form of reparations for the damage he contributed as an adult. As a teenager, I started a club to raise money for small farmers using humane practices as a way to stand up against factory farms. I later began working on the coast of rural NC managing a home repair program for elderly and disabled veterans whose homes were damaged from hurricanes due to climate change.
Most recently, I worked for the Sierra Club and partnered with communities all across the state to fight for clean water, clean air, and renewable energy. Together, we successfully forced Duke Energy to pay to clean up their toxic coal ash.
Lastly, I am currently an Associate Supervisor on the Durham SWCD, already working to support environmental justice efforts in the county. Because of my family’s history, I have dedicated my life’s work to advocating for environmental justice for all people. Right now, Durham doesn’t have an elected official with a background in environmental justice. As an activist, I know how crucial it is to have an advocate at the local level. As your Board Supervisor, I will be that elected official who advocates for environmental justice.
A Board Supervisor has 4 main roles:
1. Protect Natural Resources by using best management practices to maintain our natural resources
2. Build Partnerships with local, state, and federal agencies for technical and financial assistance
3. Approve Local Projects presented by county soil and water staff
4. Support Communities with projects of local interest such as parks and environmental education initiatives.
As a community organizer, I worked to protect natural resources by building partnerships, and coalitions, working with both grassroots leaders and local officials. I have also helped develop a community garden and find funding for walking trails in rural areas. I have read some of our most complex environmental policies and worked to pressure the NC Department of Environmental Quality to do better. The roles of a Board Supervisor, are the roles of a community organizer. Durham needs a community organizer in the role of a Board Supervisor to help build a greener Durham from the roots up.
2) What are the three most pressing natural resources issues in the county? How do you plan to address these issues? Please be specific.
I believe we need to think creatively about our environmental solutions. My platform was built through years of listening, helping, and learning from people in Durham and all over this state. I want to build off the work of past Board Supervisors, but also push the boundaries of what’s considered standard District work in order to meet the growing environmental justice needs of the Durham community. The top three most pressing natural resource issues in Durham County are conserving water, agricultural innovation, and protecting clean water.
PRIORITY 1: SUSTAINABILITY IN SCHOOLS
As a Board Supervisor, I will integrate environmental education opportunities for students while supporting conservation projects that help increase the Durham education budget. As an example, there was a recently completed stormwater restoration project at Southern High School. The water runoff from the school’s property leads into the Chunky Pipe Creek, which flows into the Little Lick Creek and leads into Falls Lake. Through the Little Lick Creek Local Watershed Plan, water reuse ponds were built on the school’s property.
These ponds provide a natural water source for watering the school’s athletic fields. They reduce their dependence on potable water and save the school district $15,000 annually. Currently, the Durham SWCD is beginning a similar project at Riverside High School. I will actively support the completion of this project, and future projects, that put money back into schools while also conserving our natural resources.
Building off my position as Board Chair of Crayons2Calculators, a Durham nonprofit that gives free school supplies to all DPS teachers, I will collaborate with DPS and the Durham Board of Education to further develop cost-saving measures.
PRIORITY 2: INNOVATION IN AGRICULTURE
We need to support our Durham farmers with the most innovative agricultural trends. Currently, hemp is leading the nation in economic opportunities and environmental conservation. Hemp is used as food, CBD oil, and fibers for clothing. Recent studies show that hemp can help prevent soil erosion and absorb Co2 emission, therefore improving the overall health of air, water, and soil quality. The North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Customer Services has supported new hemp farms in NC’s Pilot Program under the U.S. Congressional Agricultural Act of 2014.
As a Board Supervisor, I will work to support current and new hemp farmers. In particular, I will bring more attention to the racial discrimination that is currently preventing farmers of color from accessing hemp licenses. This is an innovative economic opportunity and I’ll make sure that all farmers have the tools needed to start their new business venture. And hemp is only the beginning, this will build momentum towards marijuana legalization, an important criminal justice reform initiative.
PRIORITY 3: PROTECT CLEAN WATER
The Durham SWCD has the duty of making sure all residents have clean water for drinking, cooking, showering, and agricultural use. Stream and stormwater runoff restoration projects are a big component of this work. These projects reduce high nitrogen and phosphorus levels from entering into our water sources, which are Little Michie and Little River Reservoir located in northern Durham. I have worked with communities across the state to advocate for clean water through protests and speaking at statewide meetings held by the Department of Environmental Quality and the Utilities Commission.
As a candidate, I have proudly signed onto the No Toxic Money Pledge, Green New Deal Pledge, and No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge vowing to never accept campaign contributions from Duke Energy, Dominion Energy, or PAC affiliates. Dominion Energy had proposed a pipeline that would have gone through the American Tobacco Trails, but they have now receded that plan. I submitted an op-ed in opposition to the pipeline and as an elected official will continue speaking out against proposed projects by the fossil fuel industry for both environmental justice and conservation concerns.
An area the District needs to focus more of its efforts is on Ellerbe Creek. This is a well known polluted creek due to Durham’s industrial pollution. Since 1988, this creek has been on the list of North Carolina’s top polluted bodies of water. The creek is known to have 131 sources of pollution. The most common sources are from sediment and soil erosion, sewer spills, petroleum spills, yard waste, and household waste. The Ellerbe Creek runs right into our Falls Lake Reservoir, a drinking source for hundreds of thousands of people. The District has a Volunteer Nutrient Reduction program. Greater community outreach and education on how individual changes can drastically improve urban stormwater runoff into the Ellerbe Creek is one way that the District can contribute to the work of the City of Durham and groups like the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association to reduce unsafe nutrient and pollutant levels.
3) Identify examples of how the district can best balance agricultural/rural and urban interests in regards to soil and water conservation.
Balancing farmland preservation and urban development is an important issue in Durham County. I recently had a conversation with a Durham resident in East Durham. Her neighborhood is zoned Residential Rural (RR), but a developer is attempting to rezone the area into a Rural District (RD). This would allow the developer to add 350 small family homes and townhomes into the neighborhood. The community is concerned because the development backs onto a wetland that already has issues with flooding and also near an area where they are starting a community garden.
The Durham Planning Commission approves new developments and the District is no longer involved in the environmental impact portion of development projects. However, this one example signifies the growing needs for greater involvement from the District as it pertains to urban development and farmland preservation. We need affordable housing in Durham, but not all development is equal. As Board Supervisor I will work with the Planning Commission to ensure community voices are heard and the environment is a priority.
4) What funding issues are facing the Soil and Water Conservation District? How would you ensure the district receives full funding? Are there alternative funding sources the district could explore? If so, what are they?
Due to COVID-19, county departments, including the Durham SWCD, are having to cut costs in order to stay on budget. As of now, the Districts budget has already eliminated travel and conference funds. Durham sales taxes are down and it’s expected that more people will have a harder time paying their property taxes. The Durham County government put a hiring freeze on most departments which has saved the county $46 million.
The financial repercussions due to COVID-19 will last for the next few years, so now is the time to take a hard look at our District budget to find innovative ways to save money and plan for the future. Partnering with other county departments to work collaboratively on projects will be necessary to meet conservation goals and community needs. We need to break down the silos within our government.
Alternative funding sources include state and federal grants. I will work closely with Bryan Evans and Franklin Williams. Bryan is the Executive Director of the NC Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts. This nonprofit is a staff of one, but Bryan works hard to advocate at the NC General Assembly for funding and program support. We spoke about the impact the recently passed Farm Bill has on the Soil and Water Districts. It is important for a Board Supervisor to understand how federal and state legislation impacts the work and budget at the local level. Franklin is with the National Association of Conservation Districts and represents the Southeastern states at the national level through our federal partner Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The NRCS, located within USDA, and is always open to greater support and advocacy efforts from Board Supervisors to ensure more funding from the federal government. Specific funding opportunities the District can turn to are the NC Land and Water Fund grant through the Piedmont Conservation Council and Emergency Watershed Program grant through NRCS.
5) Many residents don’t know what the Soil and Water Conservation District actually does. In what ways would you reach out to residents to educate them on the issues facing the county and the district’s efforts?
This question leads to the core rationale for electing a community organizer to this role. Many farmers I talk with say our conversation is the first time they have heard from anyone from the Durham SWCD. As an organizer I have the skills to connect farmers to the grant programs available to them; to uplift the voices of advocates, scientists, and residents concerned about the issue of corporate pollution; and to fiercely advocate for Durham at the state and federal level to ensure that we have the best possible environmental regulations. I will work beyond the expected role of a Board Supervisor and expand our work beyond environmental conservation to truly intersect the District’s work with that of the social justice community.
I am truly dedicated to community outreach. For me, it’s not just a box to check, but a call to action. By November 3rd, I’ll have just completed my 20th week canvassing the Durham Farmers Market, passing out 1,000 packets of Forget-Me-Not seeds with my information on them. My team makes weekly phone calls to Durham residents and we’ve spoken with hundreds of folks in our county. In between my graduate classes at UNC Chapel Hill, I spend my days touring farms to outreach about the grant programs SWCD provides. If it wasn’t COVID-19 I’d be going door to door talking with voters! But still, we’ve reached thousands of residents in Durham informing them of my campaign and all the great work our District does for Durham.
My campaign is a jumping off point to completely overhaul the outreach methods of SWCD. I want people to know about the amazing work and incredible grant opportunities our District has to offer. The hard work during my campaign is just the beginning, if elected I will work even harder over the next 4 years to build a greener Durham from the roots up that includes the voices of residents all over the county. As an Associate Supervisor on SWCD, I have already begun conversations around better community engagement, outreach, and advocacy strategies to strengthen our county’s District. I believe we can outreach at all of the Farmers Markets in Durham, including the new Black Farmers Market that happens once a month, hold information sessions at local garden stores and the Durham Co-op, and partner with teachers to strengthen educational opportunities with DPS students. I love Durham, it is truly my home. I’m running to be both an activist and an advocate as a public servant, and I hope my campaign highlights my dedication.
6) What is the district’s role in making sure residents’ water–including those people who use wells―is safe to drink? What role, if any, should the district play in safeguarding the local water supply from emerging contaminants?
Protecting clean water is a major part of my platform. I have seen firsthand how polluted water can impact every aspect of a person’s life; and truth be told, I will not stand for it. Voluntary participation and stream restoration is so important for the soil and water quality in Durham County. The District works closely with private landowners on the most important restoration projects. These projects are ranked according to the Nutrient Sensitive Water Management strategies adopted by the North Carolina General Assembly and managed by DEQ. These strategies require local municipalities and counties to comply with state mandated levels of nitrogen and phosphorus.
Durham County is required to comply with three specific rules: Neuse River Basin Nutrient Strategy, Falls Lake Nutrient Management Rules, and Jordan Lake Nutrient Management Rules. These mandates are met through unfunded measures, which means the County needs to find another revenue source to pay for reduction and clean-up costs. The District presented a proposal to the County Commissioners to initiate a Stormwater Utility Fee. This request was denied; however, the Durham County Manager adopted the idea and is giving the program over to the Engineering and Environmental Services Staff, within the county government. The District will work with this department to connect with Durham County farmers, residents, and businesses to inform them about the new Stormwater Utility Fee that will be used to meet the state mandates around reducing pollutants like nitrogen and phosphorus.
In addition to this new initiative, the District is currently working on the Marbrey-Jackson Restoration Project, which began in 2019. Neighbors Jason Marbrey and Betty Jackson own land that is located near the sediment-impaired Panther Creek. This creek drains in the eastern part of Durham County.
The project is funded by three main grants, Division of Water Resources Grant, Clean Water Management Trust Fund Grant, and the Upper Neuse Clean Water Initiative Program, totaling $760,000. Southern High School students will receive a $5,000 grant to plant trees as the buffer zone in the creek. As Board Supervisor I will work to complete this project, ensuring that Falls Lake will see a reduction of 901 tons of sediment, reduction of 529 pounds of nitrogen, and a 34 pound reduction in phosphorus.
Lastly, I’ve spoken with Dr. Ashely Troth at the Cooperative Extension. She runs the pesticide safety school, working with urban and rural growers and pesticide companies. Partnering with Dr. Troth on this program is a great way to outreach about our water conservation programs and inform folks about best management practices for maintaining water quality. I also believe we can do greater outreach to urban residents and businesses to educate them about urban runoff issues. Many people do not understand how the chemicals they use on their flower beds or front lawns lead to urban stormwater runoff, which ultimately impacts the quality of water in Durham County.
7) Are there any other issues you would like to address that have not been covered by this questionnaire?
We need to be more transparent and equitable around our grant application and distribution process. The top cost share or grant programs are the Community Conservation Assistance Program (CCAP), Agricultural Cost Share Assistance Program (ACSP), Agricultural Economic Development Grant Program (Ag Economic), and Ag Water Resources Assistance Program (Ag Wrap).
Each of these programs provides a unique opportunity for urban and rural growers to implement best management practices around water, agricultural, or business ventures while also conserving our county’s natural resources and ultimately impact Durham County’s water source. In order to apply for these programs an applicant must know which staff person to call. For example, in order to apply for ACSP, a person must first call staff person Emily to set up an in-person assessment. Emily will then work with the applicant to officially apply for the program. This part of the process is not transparent. Many farmers do not know how to apply to the District programs, and it can sometimes feel like an insider’s game.
I’ve spoken with farmers in Durham who did not know we provide cost share assistance; I connected them with the right staff person so they could begin the application process. As an Associate Supervisor I am working to adjust this process by updating the website to create a special tab for grant information. This will include an online interest form so farmers and residents are not required to first know who to call or which program to apply for. Making these small adjustments will be a huge step in making sure the District programs are fair and transparent. Once an applicant applies there is a ranking system for each grant or cost share program. Although they are generally fair, efforts to ensure equity could be improved to ensure fairness. Some suggestions are to improve language in regards to race, gender, and whether or not the applicant is a new farmer.
These are the “minority requirements” mentioned in many USDA grants provided to the Districts from the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Adopting these criteria will ensure that we are not only choosing projects based on conservation and environmental impact, but also through an equity lens. I will work with the staff to make these changes in a realistic and socially conscious manner.
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