It wasn't easy and it didn't happen overnight, but the development of the modern Nebraska Natural Resources Districts has become the envy of many states.
NRDs officially began with the passage of LB1357 through the Nebraska Unicameral in 1969, merging the multiple responsibilities of 154 special purpose districts delineated mostly along county lines into a network of 24 NRDs set up along river basins across the state. Eventually, the number of NRDs would be reduced to 23. But the groundwork was laid years earlier. By 1949, Soil Conservation Districts were set up in all 93 counties to provide sponsorship for the federal Soil Conservation Service. The Soil Conservation Committee evolved into the Soil and Water Conservation Committee by the early 1950s.
In 1969, it became the Soil and Water Conservation Commission. By 1972, it was the Nebraska Natural Resources Commission, responsible for general resource and water management. Today, the commission is merged with the Department of Water Resources to form the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources. In the late 1960s, the executive secretary of the Nebraska Soil and Water Conservation Commission, Warren Fairchild, and state Sen. Maurice Kremer of Aurora worked together to help build the NRD system.
Dayle Williamson, Lincoln, Neb., was involved in the SWCC and that department for 42 years, serving as director for 30 of those years. Now 86, Williamson recalls when the NRD legislation was nothing more than a concept.
"Warren Fairchild, who was my boss at the time, and I went over to University of Nebraska East Campus to hear Clayton Yuetter, who was on the UNL faculty at the time, talk about how water districts were set up in California," Williamson says. "After Clayton's talk, Warren kept thinking about how we could apply a new vision on water management in Nebraska." With Fairchild, Yuetter, who eventually became U.S. Secretary of Agriculture during President George H. W. Bush's Administration, was a key champion in developing the NRD legislation.
As early as 1966, delegates to the annual Nebraska Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts conference passed a resolution that asked the Unicameral to consider reorganizing districts along watersheds, instead of county lines. This resolution called for sizeable districts that would maintain local control through elected officials, but have funding and authority to carry out comprehensive resource and water development.
Fairchild did his share of arm twisting in favor of this resolution.
"We had to do a lot of convincing," Williamson says. "We had a tremendous number of meetings all around the state to tell people why we needed this legislation. People hate change and they were comfortable with the Soil and Water Conservation Districts. Many people were against the bigger NRD districts, but the small districts didn't have enough money to accomplish the big projects that were needed." Over time, NRD supporters in local areas helped educate producers and people started to grasp how much more the NRDs would be able to do.
“During this time, Yuetter and Nebraska Gov. Norbert Tiemann were so supportive," Williamson says. "Tiemann never wavered on his support and would always give us a pep talk to keep moving."
Sen. Kremer and fellow state Sen. Jules Burbach of Crofton introduced LB1357 during the 1969 legislative session. Opponents to the bill hired a lobbyist. But in mid-September, a resolution presented at the annual meeting of the Nebraska Soil and Water Conservation Commission to oppose the NRDs was defeated. Two days later, LB1357 passed the Unicameral on a vote of 29 for, 9 against and 11 not voting. Once the ink was dry from Gov. Tiemann's signature, the work of implementation began.
Just 25 days before the NRDs were to become operative in June, 1972, a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law was filed in Lancaster County District Court. Two weeks later, District Court Judge William Hastings refused to grant a temporary injunction to block the law, allowing the first-in-the-nation NRDs to come into operation on schedule July 1.
"Not all of the regulatory authority was granted to the NRDs upfront," says Dean Edson, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Natural Resources Districts. "But the law created the framework and over time, new statutes were developed that outlined evolving authorities for the NRDs. The process continues today as we gain data and research on resource management thanks to our partners in Extension, NRCS, agribusiness and our producers, so we can continually upgrade to do a better job."
Photo courtesy of Nebraska Association of Natural ResourcesSUCCESS STORY: Dean Edson, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Natural Resources Districts, speaks about the NRD system at the Water for Food Global Conference.
The late 1960s were a crucial time. "Back in the 1960s, there was a massive increase in groundwater irrigation in the state," Edson says. "The state recognized that irrigation in agriculture is good, but it needed to be regulated to protect water resources for everyone."
Through the NRDs, the legislature allowed local people to look at their own river basins holistically. "It was difficult to set up district boundaries and to take on all of the duties of the previous 154 special purpose districts and merge them into the new system," Edson says.
"There were growing pains," Williamson says. "We met with each and every NRD to help them get assembled. The directors decided right away that they needed to hire a professional staff with a background in conservation. We had dedicated people in the old SWCDs and all the small special purpose districts. After they became accustomed to the new system, local leadership really rolled up their sleeves, anxious to get going. With continued strong support of the governor's office and the legislature over the years, we really have never looked back."
You can learn more about the interesting oral history of NRDs by going online at nrdstories.org.
For more information, see related story, Inside look at Nebraska's unique natural resources district system.