Nebraska’s natural resource districts spin the Big 5-0 | Local
Alan J. Bartels Lower Wolf NRD
Nebraska’s natural resource districts celebrate 50 years in 2022. With more miles of rivers than any state, the deepest depths of the Ogallala Aquifer and the Sandhills, it’s no wonder Nebraskans are long-time leaders in conservation.
In March 1935, the Dust Bowl literally hovered over Washington, DC in a grainy cloud of Midwestern topsoil as lawmakers prepared to discuss soil conservation. The Great Depression was raging. The Soil Conservation Service was born a few weeks later. In 1949, Nebraska merged its counties into Soil Conservation Districts – the predecessors to today’s NRDs.
These SCDs have changed, merged and multiplied over two decades. In the late 1960s, Warren Fairchild of the Nebraska Soil and Water Commission and Aurora Senator Maurice Kremer began seeking the amalgamation of Nebraska’s 154 special purpose entities and their more than 500 districts which overlap. Kremer and his fellow legislators introduced LB 1357 to the Nebraska Legislature. The unicameral adopted it, and Governor Norbert Tiemann signed the creation of Nebraska’s NRD. The country’s first natural resource districts—organized along river basins instead of political borders—began operating on July 1, 1972.
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Educating Future Environmentalists
Whether it’s wading through a swamp to teach kids why wildlife needs clean water or helping with high school land judging contests, information and education professionals in every NRD know that ecosystems benefit when young people learn about conservation.
“Conservation education helps students understand and appreciate our natural resources and provides information on how to conserve these resources now and for future generations,” said Larry Schultz, information and education coordinator. education of the Lower Wolf NRD.
Locally elected directors represent each DRN. The 12 areas of responsibility of the DRNs include flood control, groundwater quality and quantity, soil erosion and irrigation runoff. NRDs have planted more than 95 million trees through partnerships with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Nebraska Forest Service.
After nitrate levels spiked in some wells in Antelope, Knox, and Pierce counties, the Lewis & Clark NRD, Lower Niobrara NRD, Upper Elkhorn NRD, and Lower Elkhorn NRD spiked. joined with producers to form the Bazile Groundwater Management Area (BGMA).
When it is not taken up by crops because too much has been applied, the wrong time of application, or because rainfall or excessive irrigation has prevailed, nitrogen seeps into the water supply. Fertilizers are also leached from golf courses and lawns.
BGMA partners have developed a management plan. The problem has grown over decades of nitrogen use. Decades of cooperative hard work will be needed to solve it.
The 7,932 square mile Lower Loup NRD is the largest in Nebraska, stretching from the Sandhills 156 miles just east of Columbus.
LLNRD technicians noticed municipal, commercial and irrigation well levels near Columbus dropped from 2010 to 2014. Residents of Christopher’s Cove were not happy when lake levels dropped.
The LLNRD could have used regulatory authority to restrict water use. “A better option was to develop a project to move water while allowing water users to continue doing what they do,” said Russell Callan, managing director of Lower Loup NRD.
Callan and his staff developed a charging project while leading a partnership with Platte County, City of Columbus, Christopher’s Cove Homeowners’ Association and agricultural processor Archer Daniels Midland.
Water passing through the Loup Power District hydroelectric dam can be intercepted before returning to the Loup River and routed to the abandoned Lost Creek channel, which dried up after an unrelated flood control project diverted flows around Columbus. Rising groundwater will seep into the Lost Creek channel and an adjacent shallow well before being pumped to Christopher’s Cove. Water will only flow when needed. Excessive rainfall is not necessary. It may be closed if heavy rainfall is forecast.
Scheduled to go live in 2022, the project demonstrates that multiple interests come together, under the leadership of NRD, to benefit everyone. No wonder Nebraska’s locally controlled, tax-funded, watershed-based conservation system is respected nationwide.
“As I interact with other states and foreign officials, it becomes apparent that Nebraska’s NRD system and the ability of our NRD boards to make tough decisions is admired,” said Don Masten of Downey Drilling, Inc. , in Lexington. “The result of this proactive leadership is a stabilized static water level across much of Nebraska. We have created a future for our children and grandchildren as a reward for making tough decisions and changing the very framework of our agricultural irrigation culture.
The great outdoors of Nebraska
NRDs also develop and manage fish and wildlife habitat, as well as parks and recreation facilities. Outdoor enthusiasts can explore more than 80 recreation areas, parks, trails, lakes, and wildlife management areas belonging to Nebraska’s NRDs.
DRNs often use the creation of flood control structures, sediment control activities or wetland rehabilitation projects as opportunities to create or expand recreational opportunities for the public.
Nebraska residents who value recreational areas, clean soils, and safe drinking water may want to raise a glass to Nebraska’s natural resource districts. Welcome to 50 more years of conservation, education and recreation.