It wasn't easy and it didn't happen overnight, but the development of the modern Nebraska Natural Resources Districts system has become the envy of many states.
NRDs officially began with the passage of LB 1357 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 by July 1972.
Throughout 2022, Nebraska’s NRDs will celebrate 50 years of protecting lives, property and the future, commemorating breakthroughs and achievements won in conservation through this unique, locally controlled, watershed-based system.
The modern network of 23 NRDs established across the state today began with groundwork laid years before the passage of LB 1357. 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, Warren Fairchild, the executive secretary of the Nebraska Soil and Water Conservation Commission, and state Sen. Maurice Kremer of Aurora worked together to help build the NRD system.
Dayle Williamson was involved in SWCC and that department for 42 years, serving as director for 30 of those years. In a 2017 interview with Nebraska Farmer, Williamson recalled 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 said. "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 sizable 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 remembered. "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 noted. "Tiemann never wavered on his support and would always give us a pep talk to keep moving."
Kremer and fellow state Sen. Jules Burbach of Crofton introduced LB 1357 during the 1969 legislative session. 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, LB 1357 passed the Unicameral on a vote of 29-9, with 11 not voting. Once the ink was dry from Tiemann's signature, the work of implementation began.
Just 25 days before the NRDs were to become operative in 1972, a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the law was filed in Lancaster County District Court. Two weeks later, 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.
Through the NRDs, the Legislature allowed local people to look at their own river basins holistically. "There were growing pains," Williamson acknowledged. "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."
“In the past 50 years, NRDs have adapted while facing changes in technology, funding, legislation, agencies and societies,” says Jim Eschliman, president of the Nebraska Association of Resources Districts (NARD). “Nebraska’s locally led conservation model has been a successful legacy because of our ability to adapt to the local needs of our communities.”
Today, Nebraska’s system is widely admired across the nation, with at least 11 states ranging from Washington to Arkansas and Illinois to California, inquiring about applying a similar system for national resources management.
Although Nebraska has more irrigated acres than any other state, statewide groundwater levels have been sustained for the most part at levels less than 1 foot below pre-irrigation development in the 1950s, with groundwater levels actually rising higher in many areas.
“Many states are facing massive groundwater declines with almost depleted aquifers,” Eschliman says. “NRDs work with irrigators to monitor water use, establish groundwater recharge projects and implement waterwise programs.”
It’s all for the future, Eschliman adds. “Conservation is something that impacts us all, and we need to pitch in and be good stewards of our land and water,” he says. “Locally elected NRD boards across the state are uniquely positioned in their communities to help manage our natural resources for future generations.”
NRDs across Nebraska will be hosting special activities all year to celebrate five decades of conservation work. Among those include the planting of the 100-millionth tree this spring through the NRD Conservation Trees program, a special tree planting on Arbor Day at the state capitol grounds, along with a NRD Week recognition July 11-15 with open houses planned at the individual NRD offices.
Other special festivities and awards are being planned for the annual NARD Conference in September. Learn more at nrdnet.org, or follow #Since1972 on social media.
NARD press release contributed to this article.