hen historic floods recently hit Nebraska, the state’s legislature, executive branch, local governments, and regional entities all worked together to respond and to rebuild. As one element in the rebuilding process, the Nebraska Legislature passed LB 177, a bill to extend the bonding authority of the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District (NRD) and allow it to carry out more flood control projects.
State Senator Brett Lindstrom was the sponsor of LB 177. In this interview with Municipal Water Leader Managing Editor Joshua Dill, Senator Lindstrom explains the role of the unicameral Nebraska Legislature in the flood control process and how the legislature works with the state’s NRDs.
Joshua Dill: Please about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Brett Lindstrom: I grew up in Nebraska, and I work in the financial services industry. I’ve been a state senator for 5 years. I represent District 18, which is in northwestern Omaha. About 40,000 people live in my district. I had been relatively engaged in politics as an observer prior to my run for office, and my predecessor was termed out— Nebraska state senators are limited to two 4-year terms. So I started knocking on doors—I ended up knocking on about 10,000 of them—and was elected to office. I was reelected this past November.
When I ran for office, I didn’t know exactly what I was getting myself into; I don’t think most of us do. You talk about maybe three different issues when you’re going door to door, but when you get to the legislature there are 700 issues. I didn’t even know anything about NRDs when I first started. The Unicameral is unique when it comes to legislation. All 49 of us senators are free agents, so I can bring whatever bills I want forward. Over my 5 years in the legislature, I have passed about 30 bills on a whole host of topics.
Joshua Dill: Please tell us about how the recent floods affected your district.
Brett Lindstrom: My particular district is in a primarily residential area of northwestern Omaha, and Omaha and its suburbs did not get hit nearly as badly as cities like Fremont, which is only a 30-minute drive away; Valley; or even Elkhorn, which is just west. That was due to the fact that the NRDs, particularly the Papio-Missouri River NRD, had taken precautionary steps over the last couple decades to guard against the effects of floods.
In the state as a whole, the costs of repairs are astronomical. President Trump declared an emergency, and
the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is going to pick up the vast majority—I think 75–80 percent— of the costs. Without that, we would be in trouble.
Joshua Dill: Would you give us an overview of what the Nebraska Legislature’s responsibilities are when it comes to flood planning and response?
Brett Lindstrom: Most flood response activities are the responsibility of the governor and executive branch agencies like the Department of Transportation. The NRDs are also vital. As you may know, there are 23 NRDs in the state; their boundaries follow river basins. I learned a lot about the NRDs when, during my first 2 years as a senator, I sat on the legislature’s Natural Resources Committee, which oversees the NRDs. It is one of the 14 committees in the Nebraska Legislature.
I also learned a lot about Nebraska’s compacts with other states, including Kansas. There was a lawsuit a couple years ago when Kansas alleged that Nebraska hadn’t provided it enough water. There are a lot of moving parts to this. There have been legal battles over groundwater versus surface water.
The NRD system was cutting edge when it was first established in 1969 in that it addressed strategy both for
groundwater and surface water. The legislature authorizes the NRDs to carry out flood control projects. We can put a limit or a cap on how much they can levy, in this case 4.5 cents per $100 of property valuation per year. I suppose that the legislature also has the authority to change or eliminate the NRD system entirely, but the NRDs have done such a good job over the last several decades that there is no reason to do that. In fact, other states have looked at how we deal with water issues, and from what I’m told, some states are envious of our system.
My district is within the Papio- Missouri River NRD, which covers a few counties—Burt County, Dakota County, Douglas County, Thurston County, Washington County, and Sarpy County, the last of which is the fastest-growing county in the state. Papio is the only NRD that can bond. It pays its bonds back using funds raised through its levy. Its levy lid, like that of all other NRDs, is set at 4.5 cents per $100 of property valuation. In fact, it only levies 3.7 cents, 1 cent of which is the bond levy. If the NRD wanted to add another cent to the bond levy, that decision would need to be approved by a vote of the people. It has six or seven different projects planned, which would get rid of floodplains where there is now population. That’s the NRDs’ mission.
We just helped extend Papio’s bonding authority, which was set to expire this year, by passing LB 177. We originally intended to extend it by 10 years, but to get it out of committee we had to amend it to 5 years. Certain senators were hesitant to support the bill because some of their constituents don’t like their local NRDs. There’s some history there; I don’t know all of it. Property taxes are also always contentious. In Nebraska, your property taxes go to support the school districts and the NRDs. That was why I got some pushback and why the bill was filibustered. However, the governor signed the bill. I think he’s seen what the NRDs have done.
Joshua Dill: How does the engagement between the NRDs and the legislature occur in practice?
Brett Lindstrom: The first hurdle is engagement. The NRDs themselves or members of their boards will either ask a senator to carry a bill or testify on something that pertains to them. I don’t know how many of the 49 state senators know all that much about NRDs, but the 8 members of the Natural Resources Committee regularly deal with them. Often, legislation pertaining to NRDs will be referenced to that committee.
Once the bill hits the floor, it is incumbent on the senator who is supporting it to explain it. There was
a little confusion with regard to my bill because people didn’t know how the bonding mechanisms worked or understand the fact that adding an extra cent to the bond levy would require a vote of the people. NRD staff or board members may be on hand to help explain the need for the bill. Someone like John Winkler, general manager of the Papio-Missouri River NRD, will be outside the rotunda and can pull senators off the floor to explain his NRD’s needs and why a certain piece of legislation is important. It is part of the education process.
Since LB 177 was passed, other NRDs have also become interested in having bonding authority because
of the flooding. The chairman of the committee told me that he has been getting requests from NRDs to be authorized to bond. We won’t introduce any bills until next year, however.
Joshua Dill: What further legislation is necessary to guard against or prepare for future flood events?
Brett Lindstrom: There is a lot of migration from the western part of the state to the eastern part. We need to allow entities like the Papio-Missouri River NRD to carry out the projects that are necessary to keep the population of their areas safe. That is what this bonding legislation addresses. Anytime you can get those dedicated dollars early in the process, it saves money on the back end on the cost of goods. They’re planning years and years out. I think that they are going to do about $26 million worth of projects in the next few years. The Papio-Missouri River NRD was a few weeks away from starting on a levee on the Missouri to protect Offutt Air Force Base, but the studies and preparations took a long time. If it had been able to do that sooner, then the base wouldn’t have been flooded as badly. It is taking precautionary measures to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
Joshua Dill: What is your vision for the future?
Brett Lindstrom: I was involved in the legislation with the Papio-Missouri River NRD because it was in my backyard, though I don’t know if I am personally going to bring forward a bill that would grant other NRDs bonding authority. I leave it to the NRD groups to take care of what they need to do. Because of term limits, I’ll be gone by the time Papio’s bonding authority expires in 5 years, but I hope that future legislators extend that authority. Papio has done good projects and prevented a lot of flooding. My vision is for them to continue to do the projects that they’re doing in those populated areas. They’ve done a really good job so far.