Nebraska's natural resources districts celebrated its 45th birthday in 2017. In 1969, the Nebraska Unicameral passed LB1357, creating the NRD system. The unique system combined the responsibilities of 154 special-use districts into a modern network of 23 multipurpose NRDs established along naturally delineated river basins across the state.
It has become the envy of other states struggling with resource management. In recent years, at least 11 states from Washington to Arkansas and Illinois to California, have contacted the Nebraska Association of Resources Districts to see how they might apply this system to their needs. Neighboring South Dakota, Colorado and Kansas are among them.
If you talk with the folks involved in establishing NRDs, they say that the process wasn't always easy. However, proof of success is in the results. Take groundwater as an example. With about 8.5 million acres of irrigated cropland and pasture — 15% of U.S. irrigated acreage — Nebraska leads the nation in irrigation use. However, statewide groundwater levels have been sustained at levels less than a foot down from pre-irrigation development days in the 1950s. In many areas, groundwater levels are higher.
"Other states are facing massive groundwater level declines — some over 100 feet down — with almost depleted aquifers. California has depleted the groundwater so much in some areas of the state that the elevation has actually gone down," says Dean Edson, executive director of NARD for the past 20 years. "We might be down in a given year, but working with irrigators and depending on rainfall, our water levels will often go above pre-development levels." That's why other states tell Edson that they wish they had developed a Nebraska-style NRD system decades ago.
What makes NRDs unique?
• Established along river basins. Most of the special-purpose districts in the state were established along county or multi-county boundaries. But when you are working with natural resources, it makes more sense to develop larger districts along major watersheds. "Resources don't end at a county line. There is no 'one size fits all' when it comes to resource management in Nebraska," Edson says. "In our state, there is about 14 inches of annual precipitation in the northwest, and up to 34 inches in the southeast. The land, terrain, soils, elevation and precipitation are all different."
Through their elected board of directors, each NRD can make local decisions based on local needs and resources. "This system puts decisions in the hands of people who reside in those areas," Edson explains. "It allows local people to develop rules and regulations to protect natural resources and the local economy."
Working within river basins combines the multi-use responsibilities of each of the old special-use districts under the umbrella of the NRD system, but recognizes the uniqueness of each watershed.
• Taxing authority. Special-purpose districts of old had to raise funding to accomplish any of their specific purposes. Allowing NRDs to have taxing authority put teeth into their multi-purpose responsibilities, allowing each district to take on large flood control projects, major irrigation and soil erosion programs and to cost-share with landowners for hugely successful conservation practices like tree planting, soil testing, wildlife habitat construction, and water and soil management. "We have the funds and ability to build different flood control structures, for instance," Edson says. "We can build smaller structures where we don't own the land, but the NRD maintains easements on the dam and keeps the land in private ownership, so it stays on the tax rolls. Depending on the need, we can also do larger-scale flood-control structures, which could have a recreational component and be open to the public." There are more than 80 recreation areas run by NRDs scattered across the state.
Some of these structures have helped with groundwater recharge, Edson notes. "As an example, flood-control structures in the Blue River basin are used to help us meet the Blue River Compact with Kansas, because we can release water from the structures to maintain water flows within the compact," Edson says. "Existing irrigation on the Blue River is protected then, so we don't have to shut down irrigation in order to meet our compact needs." None of these kinds of NRD projects would be remotely possible without funding from tax dollars.
• Evolving multi-purpose responsibilities. As far back as 1939, an Interim Legislative Council Study Committee looked at the problem of multiplicity between 172 districts in place at that time. From 1895, when the first irrigation district was formed, to 1967, there were 13 different types of special-purpose resource-related districts covering all kinds of duties, including irrigation, drainage, soil conservation, watershed management, rural water and even mosquito abatement. The NRD legislation began the process of bringing the responsibilities of these many purposes into a network of local NRDs.
Tom Moser was working with Nebraska Game and Parks Commission when he applied for the job of the first general manager at the new Lewis and Clark NRD, based in Hartington, along the upper Missouri River basin. He came onboard in April 1973. "The board told me right after I came into the position that they had 20,000 tree seedlings coming in two weeks that would need to be planted," Moser recalls. "This was previously the job of the county soil and water conservation districts, and now it fell to me."
EARLY EXPERIENCES: Tom Moser, Hartington, Neb., was the general manager at Lewis and Clark NRD from the beginning of the new district in 1973 until he retired last year. During that time, his NRD alone planted over 2 million trees.
Moser hired a high school student to drive a tractor to pull the tree planter, and Moser planted all those trees himself that spring. "We planted over 2 million trees in our NRD alone from the time I became general manager until I retired last year," Moser says. NRDs together have planted in excess of 95 million trees since 1972.
As Moser soon learned, NRDs in those early days had to figure out where they would have an office; what their district functions would be; the number of directors that were being merged under new boundaries; the number of staff they needed; how to assume assets, liabilities and obligations of the old districts; and any new programs they wanted to pursue. The plate was full, and the agendas of the early NRDs were evolving.
Today, NRDs also work with producers to reduce groundwater nitrate contamination and to regulate chemigation through center pivots, for instance. Some NRDs do farm well abandonment procedures, while others focus more on soil erosion issues. "The nice thing about the NRD system is that we can learn from each other," Moser says. "One NRD might deal with a specific local issue in a certain way, and then another NRD that faces this same issue down the road can ask for input from the folks who have already been working on it."
You can learn more about Nebraska's NRD system by going to nrdnet.org or by calling Edson at 402-471-7674.