In most states in the U.S., responsibility for the regulation or development of natural resources can be spread out over a plethora of political agencies and entities. Often these are organized along arbitrary lines drawn on a map without regard to the natural world, river basins, soil types or groundwater aquifers.
In Nebraska during the 1950s and ’60s, the situation had almost gotten out of hand. In a state with less than 1.5 million people, there were over 500 different special purpose districts dealing with things like irrigation, conservation, drainage, reclamation, sanitation and mosquito control. Often, different districts found themselves working on the same problem often with conflicting goals. Sometimes, it was hard to find enough leaders willing to serve on the district boards. Inefficiency was built into the system with hundreds of small boards with individual tax budgets that were too small to actually accomplish much, yet collectively the taxes added up to significant sums.
In 1969, the Nebraska legislature passed a landmark law that consolidated 154 special purpose resource districts into, what are now, 23 new Natural Resource Districts (NRDs). In addition, these districts were, for the first time, were organized along river basin lines, rather than county lines.
The districts began operation in 1972. Their budgets come from a small property tax levy – about one percent of total property taxes paid in the state – and they are charged with managing resources within their boundaries. Some of the programs of the NRDs include:
- erosion prevention and control
- flood prevention, control and cleanup
- soil conservation
- development, management, utilization and conservation of both groundwater and surface water
- solid waste disposal and drainage
- fish and wildlife habitat management
- forestry and range management
- parks and recreational facility development.
John Turnbull was hired as the director of the Upper Big Blue NRD in 1975, three years after the district was set up. In this video segment, John Turnbull talks about the unique advantages of the NRD system.
Over the years, the NRDs have sponsored soil conservation programs, built small dams and flood control projects, built urban and rural recreation trails, and helped in pollution control and cleanup.
The districts have also been monitoring surface and groundwater levels and contamination incidents, and it is in this area that the most contentious issues have sprouted. For instance, in the Upper Big Blue NRD based in York, Nebraska, studies on water table levels in the district have shown that the underground aquifer has been dropping since 1999. On average, water table levels dropped throughout the 1960s and ’70s, rose above historic levels in the ’90s, and then started a sharp decline since the turn of the 21st Century. Since the high in 1999, the water table has dropped almost 13 feet.
One of the reasons is that there has been an explosion in the number of center pivot irrigation systems that have been installed. Some estimates are that over 80 percent of the farm land in the district is now under irrigation.
The NRD is now requiring all irrigators to put meters on their wells and report how much water they use each year. If the groundwater drops three more feet, the NRD will begin allocating water – something that no farmer wants. Yet, if the groundwater aquifer is going to be preserved, the resource will have to be used wisely.
By 2006, at least two other NRDs had begun the process of managing irrigation water use.
Nebraska Natural Resource Districts may be uniquely able to produce “more crop for the drop.”