he state of Nebraska has a unique system of 23 natural resources districts (NRDs) that handle water quantity and quality issues, soil-erosion control, flood prevention, and other environmental concerns across the state. The Nebraska Association of Resources Districts (NARD) is the trade association representing the NRDs, primarily before the state legislature and executive branch agencies.
In this interview, Dean Edson, executive director of NARD, speaks with Municipal Water Leader Managing Editor Joshua Dill about the NRDs’ response to the catastrophic flooding that recently hit Nebraska and what NARD has done to support them.
Joshua Dill: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Dean Edson: I used to farm corn and soybeans in central Nebraska, and I also had a livestock operation with about 150 sows and about 200 cows and calves. I farmed with my father until the mid-1980s, and then left the business during the agriculture crisis and moved to Lincoln. I went back to school, got a degree, and worked for the Farm Bureau for 11 years as director of state governmental relations. I’ve been with the NRDs as their executive director for the last 21 years.
Joshua Dill: Please give us an overview of what Nebraska’s NRDs do.
Dean Edson: Nebraska’s NRDs are unique in the country. Back in 1972, we merged 154 political subdivisions that worked in water management, soil conservation, or waste management, and turned them into NRDs. There are 23 of them in the state of Nebraska, with their boundaries determined by river basin boundaries rather than by county boundaries. The NRDs manage the natural resources within their boundaries for water quality and quantity, soil erosion, wildlife management, flood control, and recreation. The NRDs are governed by locally elected board members.
Joshua Dill: Please tell us about the work that the NRDs do in flood prevention and control.
Dean Edson: The districts own or operate over 700 flood- control structures in the state. They work closely with local communities to identify areas that need flood protection and work to build dams or levees needed to protect communities, farmland, and businesses. It is a grassroots approach to flood control. Local people make decisions about the types of structures they need and where they need them. All the meetings that we hold are subject to Nebraska’s Open Meeting Act laws, so they’re open to anybody. When a flood control project has been identified, in addition to the regular monthly meetings the NRD will hold informational meetings that are also
open to public input.
Joshua Dill: What role does NARD play?
Dean Edson: NARD coordinates lobbying efforts for the NRDs. We make sure that, first, Nebraska’s laws are correctly drafted to provide the NRDs with the tools they need to build flood-control structures, manage water for quality and quantity, or do soil-erosion protection. In addition to working with the Nebraska Legislature, NARD works with all the agriculture groups, municipalities, county officials, and state agencies to make all this work locally. We also run the insurance and retirement programs for all NRD employees.
Joshua Dill: When it comes to the NRDs’ flood prevention and reaction work, how does NARD step in or play a role?
Dean Edson: There are some state funds that are available for districts to use. Our job is to work with the legislature to make sure that adequate funding is available to build these projects. In the past, when there have been several large projects that needed to be built, we’ve approached the legislature about temporarily increasing funding to achieve that.
Joshua Dill: Tell us about your experience with the recent flooding.
Dean Edson: I’ve been working with state agencies, agricultural organizations, and local and county officials to cut the red tape, and with the governor to waive rules in this emergency situation. A lot of livestock were killed in the floods—some were just washed away and ended up on other people’s property. There are certain laws in place on the disposal of dead livestock, but one of those rules was waived so that those animals could be buried and disposed of in the safest manner possible. Rules on the transportation of overwidth and overweight loads were also waived so as to allow the movement of equipment from one spot to the other. At the beginning of this flood, over 3,000 miles of roads in Nebraska were closed. Seventeen bridges were washed out. There were ranchers who lived on one side of the river and had their livestock on the other side, and now couldn’t reach them. One guy up on the Niobrara River had to travel into South Dakota, and then over to Iowa, and back into Nebraska, and then come back up. What was normally a 4- or 5-mile trip turned into a 200-mile trip.
Joshua Dill: Are you generally working with the legislature or the governor?
Dean Edson: During emergency situations, we work with Governor Ricketts, state and federal agencies, local government organizations, and the agriculture groups to work through the problems that arise. We work with the governor directly and indirectly to try to assist in any way we can. We try to cut red tape and get assistance directed to where it needs to be.
The local NRDs, on the other hand, are the entities that directly assist the victims of the flooding on the ground throughout the state. One thing they do is provide free water sampling. A lot of domestic wells were flooded out. When that happens, drinking water can be contaminated by E. coli. Water sampling was made difficult because there are only six labs in Nebraska that are certified for this function by the Department of Health and Human Services, and with 3,000 miles of roads closed, they were inaccessible. When individuals take water samples, they have to follow certain procedures, including getting those samples to a lab within 30 hours of taking them. With roads closed and mail service suspended, that was impossible for most people. Local NRDs actually went out and took the samples for the individuals and delivered the samples to the labs, including laboratories in South Dakota and Iowa if they were closer. The NRDs also had collection sites where they would go to collect the samples and then drive them all down to a lab. The NRDs covered the costs of the transportation and the $17 per sample lab fee. About 30 percent of the samples were contaminated with E. coli. The NRDs then worked with the individual well owners to help them clean up their well water. The University of Nebraska extension was also helpful; it has what we call NebGuides, which are guidance documents on how to clean contaminated wells. The NRDs gave well owners and well-drilling contractors those information sheets so that the well water could be properly treated.
Joshua Dill: What are your organization’s top priorities right now?
Dean Edson: Right now, we’re working on a legislative bill with the Nebraska legislature to extend the bonding authority for the Papio- Missouri NRD, which covers the Omaha area, so that it can build more flood-control structures. Its current bonding authority is set to expire at the end of this year; we’re working with the legislature to extend that for 5 more years. Those funds will be used to build additional structures in the greater Omaha area and repair some of the levees that were destroyed by the recent flood. In Nebraska, we have a unicameral, nonpartisan legislature. Procedurally, once the bill gets out of committee, there are three rounds of votes. This bill has already advanced past the first two rounds, so it has to pass one more. We’re pretty confident that we should be able to secure the votes that we need to get that to advance.
Joshua Dill: Please tell us about your vision for the future.
Dean Edson: These widespread floods show the need for additional structures to protect communities and farm ground throughout Nebraska. I think we’re going to have to be more proactive in developing additional protection measures. This event was pretty rare: The ground was frozen, the rivers were frozen, we had a lot of snow on the ground, and then we got 4 inches of rain. The whole state was like a concrete parking lot. All the rain ran off. That’s what caused the majority of the flooding. I don’t know whether we will have another one of these again. In the future, we’re going to have to be more diligent and aggressive in making sure that we have adequate levees and dams to protect the public and its lives and property. In those areas where we had flood-control structures in place, they worked, and those communities didn’t get flooded out. A couple of dams and levees got breached, but the number was low. Spencer Dam, which got washed out, was an old dam that wasn’t operated by the NRDs. It was a public power facility, and it just couldn’t handle the volume of ice and water that was coming down the Niobrara River. Ice is piled up 15 feet high on the banks of the river and will probably take until mid- to late summer to melt. In central and southeastern Nebraska, our structures held up and protected the local communities; the volume of rain during the storm event was much smaller.