Ann Bleed

Interviewee:


Interviewee Ann Bleed, State Hydrologist, Deputy Director, Director, Department of Natural Resources 1988 – 2008; Board Member, Lower Platte South NRD, 2008 - present

Ann Bleed

Position Held: State Hydrologist, Deputy Director, Director, Department of Natural Resources 1988 – 2008; Board Member, Lower Platte South NRD, 2008 - present

Full Interview:


Interviewer(s):

Jim Barr

Associated NRDs:

All

Transcript:

MR. BARR: This is Jim Barr. It is July 21st, 2014, in Lincoln, Nebraska, visiting with Ann Bleed. Ann, would you like to give a little background on yourself,
and --
MS. BLEED: Well, I'm originally from New York City, and came --
MR. BARR: You're the first one that we've interviewed from New York City.
MS. BLEED: I'll bet I am. Came to Nebraska in 1972 when my husband got a job at the university, and promptly had two kids. So I, it took me awhile to get back into the career path. I --
MR. BARR: What was your college --
MS. BLEED: Well, I graduated from a little Quaker school in Indiana, Urlam Earlham College. Got a master's from Penn State University, and a PhD from the University of Wisconsin. And, then, in the 1980s got a master's degree in engineering from University of Nebraska and then my PE, so I was a professional engineer. And, one of the first things I did in Nebraska, the summer of 1973, I lived out in Kearney where my husband was doing archeology for the Mid-State Project and that was my first real introduction to what irrigation was about in a very hot summer, mid-part of the state.
MR. BARR: Where had you been previous to coming to Nebraska?
MS. BLEED: Well, I -- when I graduated from college, went to Penn State and then to Wisconsin for my degree work, and then came here --
MR. BARR: Okay.
MS. BLEED: -- directly after that. So, I've lived in Nebraska ever since, over 42 years.
MR. BARR: Okay. What was your first exposure or connection to the natural resource district idea, and --
MS. BLEED: Well, I arrived as I said in 1972. I became involved in the League of Women Voters and the League did support the natural resources district concept, and I was very interested in natural resources. And, so I learned a little bit about it then. I remember talking to Ernie Chambers --
MR. BARR: Oh.
MS. BLEED: -- in fact about the NRDs, and it sounded like a good idea to me.
MR. BARR: What all involvement did you have with the League at that point in relation to, particularly in relation to natural resource districts?
MS. BLEED: Well, I was at first involved with the environmental quality committee of the local league. Got a little bit involved in state league issues, particularly on the water committee. That was chaired by Alice Hamilton. You might remember that name. And got to know Karen Kerr who was president of the state league. I actually started monitoring the Lower Platte South NRD, and I remember the first meeting I went there, Bob Crosby, who was their attorney, came up and he wanted to know what the heck I was doing there because at those, during those days, and this was in '74 or 5, I believe, so they had already established their 21 member board, there weren't that many people from the outside who went to the meetings. And, he very politely came up and introduced himself, and then asked me what I was doing there. And, of course, that was also shortly after the league sued the NRD on the one person, one vote issue. They were supportive of the NRDs, but they didn't like the idea that some people had more access to voting for a director than others.
MR. BARR: How did that issue play in the Lower Platte South?
MS. BLEED: Well, the Lower Platte South, if I'm remembering correctly, was nomination by sub-district and election-at-large. I believe that's the case. But, it was also such that there were more people if you looked at it on a land area and looked at how, the acres -- landowners with large acres had more say or a larger vote, if you will, more powerful vote on the board than city folks who didn't own a lot of acres, and that was one of the concerns.
MR. BARR: Wasn't that by the formation of the boundaries of the districts?
MS. BLEED: I believe that was the way it was. Yes. And, we obviously thought that was not one person, one vote.
MR. BARR: Do you remember some of the issues the Lower Platte South was dealing with at that point?
MS. BLEED: You bet I do. Hal Schroeder was the manager of the Lower Platte South. And the big issue there was flood control in Stevens Creek. And they wanted to build a number of flood control dams, and there were a number of people, including the league, who were questioning whether or not we should build as many dams and where they should go, et cetera.
MR. BARR: They had built a number of them in the Salt Valley earlier, is that correct?
MS. BLEED: I believe so. I'm not sure of that. But, and they are building some now that didn't get built then, but that was one of the big issues. And the league, I don't know that we ever formally opposed the building of the dams, but one of our ways of dealing with issues was to go and ask questions and that was pretty threatening when we did that.
MR. BARR: Do you remember if the City of Lincoln had some thoughts on that subject?
MS. BLEED: I do not.
MR. BARR: Doug Brogden was planning chief at that point and did not want to go into the Stevens Creek watershed with development.
MS. BLEED: Right.
MR. BARR: And I suspect that was related to some reluctance to develop dams.
MS. BLEED: That might have been, and Doug Brogden was a very strong, strong individual. Interestingly enough, later, a little bit of a diversion, but later on when we were dealing with the water, or the Natural Resources Commission giving out water funds, one of the issues was whether or not if you build, wanted to build a dam in, like in Stevens Creek, you could talk about the fact that population increases in that Stevens Creek Basin was going to occur in the future and, therefore, you needed to do something to protect that increased population. And, at that time, and it may still be true, you could not speculate about population. So, that could not be part of the calculus. And, the Lower Platte South NRD folks did not like that.
MR. BARR: Anything else about your early experience with the league or the --
MS. BLEED: Well, not the early experience --
MR. BARR: I was going to follow up with your career after you got to Nebraska --
MS. BLEED: Okay.
MR. BARR: -- and that sort of thing and --
MS. BLEED: Well, when I first got to Nebraska after my second child was about two, three-years old, I started looking for a job. I did go over to the Game and Parks Commission, and it was very clear at that time that the only women who worked for Game and Parks, thank you, were secretaries. And I ended up doing, essentially, substitute teaching at the college level at the university, but that was such an on-again off-again. And they would call me up two days after the semester started and, “Can you teach for us?” And, it was a lot of work with never knowing whether you were going to be working the next semester or not. And, I finally decided this is crazy, and that's when I decided to go back to school in engineering.
Would have, or was offered a job at the Department of Environmental Quality. I think it was Environmental Control at that point. And, Dan Drain (phonetic) said I had to work from eight to five and take an hour lunch, and I refused to do that because of my kids. I wanted more flex-time and that was not appropriate. So, I took -- I did not take the job.
I eventually ended up going back to school to get my engineering degree and then started working for the Water Resources Center on a big economics project under Ray Supalla (phonetic) on the Platte River. We did a multi-objective optimization model for the Platte, which was a very interesting project. And then, the water center got merged in with conservation and survey division. And I worked there -- developed the atlas of the Sandhills, which was a wonderful project. Fell in love with the Sandhills.
And then, the job at the state opened up for state hydrologist and Mike Jess (phonetic) called me up and offered, said, “Do you want to apply?” I said, “I don't know if I'm qualified.” And he said, “I think you are. Please do.” And I did get the job which --
MR. BARR: When was that?
MS. BLEED: That was in 1980 -- well, I took the job in 1988. And, I was state hydrologist for, I don't know how many years. I guess until about 2000. And saw a lot of interesting issues come up. I was the state's examiner, if you will, for both the Prairie Bend Twin Valley Project and the Landmark Project, which was involving the Upper Big Blue NRD. Was involved in both the in-stream flow hearings, both on Long Pine Creek and on the Platte River. So, it was really quite an interesting time to be the state hydrologist.
In 1999, Mike Jess was not reappointed, and Roger Patterson became the director. And then, at that point in time, DWR and the Natural Resources Commission merged and became the Department of Natural Resources. And at that point in time, I remember Roger Patterson said -- well, I became deputy director, and he said “Well, do you still want to be called state hydrologist?” And very frankly, I thought, you know, I love the title state hydrologist, but I'm not the only hydrologist in the state and I feel a little big arrogant keeping it because there are a lot of very good hydrologists in the state, and I said, “Why don't you just drop it.” And then I became deputy director and served in that capacity until Roger Patterson left. Became acting director and then the director under Governor Heineman. And then I left that job in 2008.
MR. BARR: What were some of the more interesting challenges you encountered in the natural resource area that, at least, had some peripheral involvement, at least, with NRDs?
MS. BLEED: Well, there were I'd say two major ones. One was, of course, the NRDs were the applicants for a number of these large projects, and we would have a formal judicial hearing before the department and they operate pretty much as if you were in a formal court proceeding. You may or may not have formal rules of evidence, usually we did not, but we still had the attorneys there and the applicant would present their case and the objectors would present, or go after the applicant, the normal court proceeding. And, one of the things that was very frustrating to me during that whole process and really turned me against court proceedings as the way to resolve issues, there is a lot of gamesmanship in a court. And, as state's examiner, I had to be very careful not to bring up issues if nobody else brought them up.
And I remember in one case in particular, nobody had brought up the role of storage water in the river, and we ended up having to deny a certain part of an in-stream flow application because they had not proven their case because they had not dealt with the storage water. That made the, I think it was the NRD in this case, pretty happy. But it seemed to me in the end that was not really serving the truth of the issue. And there were a lot of times when that occurred, I believe, and you just couldn’t get at the truth.
Another instance that bothered me a great deal was on the Prairie Bend Twin Valley Project when they put the dam for the Prairie Bend Project right in the middle of a roosting crane site, or whooping crane roost. And, the dam would have increased the depth of the water. Well, that would have been so easily dealt with if we could have raised that issue. Central Platte NRD could've come back and said well what we'll do during the spring when the whooping cranes are coming, we'll make sure that the dam is low enough so we don't pile up the water. But because we could not ask that question in this formal procedure, that was one, not the only by many means, one of the major, one of the minor reasons, but a reason that we denied the permit. Because it would adversely affect the habit of the whooping crane, and the Endangered Species Act is a pretty hard act to get around. The other issue in that case was that we had a lot of rain in the 80s, so some of the people who wanted the Prairie Bend Twin Valley Project in the 70s no longer cared and they came in and testified how it wasn't really needed. So, that did not help the Central Platte NRD's case. So, that was very frustrating to me.
The other issues that I thought were really good with the NRDs after the water policy task force, which was a really amazing process in and of itself, we had to develop integrated management plans. And part of my job, then, was to go out and work with the NRDs on developing these plans in a stakeholder advisory process. And I really felt good about those processes, because you did get a group of people together, in some cases the farmers particularly would be frustrated because they don't like sitting around at meetings and jabbering when they've got work to do. But I think in the end, where there were integrated management planning processes involving stakeholders, it turned out very well and what was developed eventually was very much accepted. That was not the case on the Republican River, because we had to develop the plans quickly because we were under a lawsuit with Kansas. And I think the fact that there wasn't that kind of involvement of all the stakeholders, particularly surface water users, does show now in that we don't have as good of plan as we would have had if we could have really involved them in a stakeholder process.
MR. BARR: What experience did you have in relation to compacts and interstate agreements?
MS. BLEED: Oh, quite a bit. When I first started working for the State, we were involved in the North Platte decree case. That was, we filed suit against Wyoming in 1984 or '86. I think it was four. So, I was very much involved, first, in the lawsuit itself. We had several settlement attempts that didn't work and then finally, literally, on the courthouse steps the night before we were to go to trial, the parties, which were the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the states of Colorado and, primarily, the state of Wyoming and the state of Nebraska, we looked at each other and said “You know, we should be able to settle this ourselves.” And so, we decided to go for a settlement. The special master, who was an environmentalist, which was part of what scared us, I think, into trying to settle it, said okay. And then something very interesting happened, the governor of Wyoming and the governor of Nebraska got together and said, “You know, these attorneys have been fighting each other for years. Let's try to settle this with them out of the room.” So, they formed what was eventually nicknamed The Gang of Six, which was two people from Wyoming, that was Jeff Fassetcet (phonetic) and Mike Purcellercel (phonetic), and two people from Nebraska, Roger Patterson, who was the director, and me, and then two people from the Bureau of Reclamation, Ken Randolph and John Lawson. And we started meeting, we met for months, once, twice a month. Spent a lot of time at a cheap hotel right by the Denver airport before it was really developed. About the only place you can get a meal nearby was at the Moonlight Cafe. And went through a really intense negotiating process. And I'll say one thing that I think was critical to that process. Early on, we learned to trust each other. The Bureau of Reclamation, Ken Randolph, would have a lot of detailed data. We stopped, we realized we didn't have to question whether that data was the best data he could find. It was. If Wyoming said this is the best data we have, we learned to trust that. Now, did they tell you their whole game plan? No. Were they fighting for their rights? Yes. But, we learned to trust each other and, as a result, we were able to come to a settlement. There were a lot of hard words, but we ended up as friends. And, then we called the attorneys back in to write it up. So, that worked very well.
On the Republican case, it was a little bit different. We tried to settle that early on. The republic -- Kansas started complaining about groundwater pumping in Nebraska in the middle 80s. And we first said, the compact doesn't include groundwater pumping. At the same time, we were arguing against Wyoming that their groundwater pumping was depleting the river. But in the case in the Republican, it's not in the compact was our statement. Meanwhile, Kansas was saying the state has been robbing us of water since the late 70s because of their groundwater pumping and they owe us millions and millions and millions of dollars. Tried to settle it once. Didn't work. And so, Kansas filed a lawsuit. And, in this case, the special, in lawsuits, the court usually appoints a special master who actually hears the case and then writes up an opinion which goes to the Supreme Court, and then there's often a hearing before the Supreme Court which can only last about an hour. And then, the court says, yes, we like the special master's opinion or, no, we don't and we're going to change it to do this. In this case, the special master was from Maine. He'd never seen a center-pivot before. I have a picture of him looking at the nozzle going, “Oh, my gosh.” So, we were a little concerned about what he would do with this irrigation. He was also in his late 80s, so -- but very sharp.
The first thing he did was he ruled against Nebraska. He said, “Sorry folks, groundwater pumping is part of the compact to the extent it depletes the stream flow.” And he ruled against Kansas and he said, “No, no, no, you didn't object to the groundwater pumping formally. You accepted all the engineering reports until” 19 -- or 2000 -- or “1998, so anything before that doesn't count. The only damages you can count are damages after that.” Which was a very shrewd move because it took away the big wins. And again, everybody looked at each other and -- oh, the other thing we did when we were talking -- no, this was after -- we looked at each other and said, “We should be able to settle this. We don't want someone from Maine telling us how to run this river.” And then we were talking, we said, “Well let's figure out just how big this problem is.” Because both sides had this idea that it was a four-foot wide difference. When we actually looked at the numbers, it became a one-foot wide difference. Well, then you start thinking, we can deal with this. And we did develop a settlement.
Again, trust was very important. One of the dynamics of that negotiation was we would work all day on various and sundry things, and then about 5:00 o'clock, we'd break and Dave Pope, who was the state engineer from Kansas, and Roger Patterson, who was the negotiator and director from Nebraska, would go have a beer. About 7:30, I'd get a tap on my room, “Ann, what if we did this?” And then I'd spend half the night, and my counterpart in Kansas would spend half the night, trying to figure out what the impact of that would be and we'd come back the next day and discuss it. But, they were able to talk individually, and so, we did come up with a settlement then.
MR. BARR: I think, maybe, we should pause here.
MS. BLEED: Okay.
MR. BARR: I think --
MS. BLEED: Yeah.
MR. BARR: But, I would like to continue --
Okay. This is Jim Barr. We're back with Ann Bleed. One of the things I was -- wanted you to talk a little bit about was the water task force and what all was involved there, how it was organized, what all it did, and et cetera.
MS. BLEED: Well, that was an amazing effort in my view. It started out during the 80s, which were pretty wet. There wasn't a lot of well development. A lot of well development in the 70s. The 80s was wet. And then, the 90s it was dry again. We had a lot more groundwater wells that had been put in, and between the wells and the increased dryness there was less water in the streams. And surface water users were complaining and threatening lawsuits. And they started pressuring the legislature to say, “You've got to do something about this.” And in my view, the legislators said, “We don't want to do anything about this. It's too politically hot. It's too complicated, both legally because water law is it's own set of laws and technologically, the hydrologic aspects of water are confusing.” They did not want to touch it. And due to the leadership of Senator Schrock, who was from Holdrege area, and of the then governor, Mike Johanns, who used to be a water attorney, so he understood water law very well, in fact, they said, yes, we really need to do something. And, also, at that point in time, Roger Patterson was the director of the Department of Natural Resources. We had just merged. And they got together and said, “Yes, we really need to do this. And the way to do it would be to form a task force with all the basic stakeholders that would be involved.” So, Senator Schrock passed -- got a bill passed through the legislature that gave the task force some money to work with and the ability to hire a facilitator and 18 months. And one of my jobs at that point was to figure out how to get the task force members appointed. So -- and there were a few requirements in the law about who should be in the task force to make sure that the surface water and groundwater irrigators were about equal in power and so forth -- or in numbers. What I did was that I went out -- sent letters out to the basic groups, stakeholder groups involved, like the municipalities or the surface water irrigators, the groundwater irrigators, and I said, “You suggest who you think would be, represent you well on the task force understanding that these people are going to have to represent you as well as work with you in the task force.” And that process worked very, very well. And we ended up with -- there were, I think, three to five could be appointed at-large by the governor, but we ended up with 49 members of the task force which was similar to our 49-member unicameral. And, for the most part, there were people from all over the state. The middle of the Sandhills was not represented, and that became a bit of an issue for those folks. But for the most part, we had people from all over the state, and about an equal number of surface water users and groundwater users because that conflict was a huge part of why the task was formed.
The charge to the task force was to review the existing laws, surface water and groundwater laws, of the state and to determine what, if any, changes needed to be made to hopefully reduce and resolve the conflicts between surface water users and groundwater users. And then, there were some peripheral charges to look into banking, whether we should establish a water bank, and a couple of other things.
So, the task force was convened. And one of the first things that the natural resources committee did was to hire a facilitator, which we did, a group from CDR Associates out of Boulder, Colorado. And they facilitated the task force. The meetings were all open, except for some subcommittee meetings. We established an executive committee that was voted for by task force members. Thinking that the executive committee would do some of the heavy lifting and then the 49-member task force would say yea or nay. As it turned out, anytime the executive committee met, the whole task force was there anyway. And it was open meetings, so there were a number of people who came regularly from the public, which was always very good.
At the beginning, most people were there basically with their arms crossed across their chest saying, “I'm going to sit here and make sure they don't do anything that's going to harm me.” And our facilitators were very good, as well as Senator Schrock and Roger Patterson from the department were also very good leaders on that task force. And so, things actually went fairly well.
Another major decision which was, I think, critical was we agreed to work on a consensus basis. And a consensus is not unanimity. We did not say everybody had to agree. But the way we worked was if you liked it, you'd vote for it with a thumbs up. If you could live with it, you didn't like it, but you could live with it, it was a thumb sideways. If you didn't like it, it was thumb down. And then, you had to explain what it was you didn't like. And then, because everybody wanted to get a consensus, then people would start going and say, “Well, Jim, what -- you said you didn't like this. What if we did it this way? Could you live with that?” And we would take pieces at a time without saying anything was final until we got to the very end. So, when we got to the end, there was nobody who stood to say, “I object.” There were some people who didn't care for everything, but they went along and we had a consensus. We did allow a minority report, so people could explain what they didn't like about it. And if it hadn't been for that consensus, I think, especially some of the more minority groups, such as the environmental groups, would have felt very outnumbered. But the reality is, one strong voice could stop the task force, and it didn't matter how many were on your side. If you had a good leader on that side, you could do it. So, the process worked very well.
At the end, well, first of all, we looked at whether we should have everything first in time, first in right. Get rid of the correlative rights for groundwater. We also looked at whether there should be one agency in charge of water and not have the split. Fairly early on, the task force decided there should be a split between the NRDs in charge of groundwater, DNR in charge of surface water (indiscernible) under the appropriation system. And, I think, given our hydrology in the state, that makes sense, be. Ccause our groundwater aquifers are fairly widespread and trying to administer those first in time, first in right, groundwater for surface water, I think, would have been impossible. I really do. And so then, we worked through all that.
Another big issue was how to deal with municipalities. And eventually, we worked that one out as well. So, in the end, we came up with a consensus. I think there were some surface water users who didn't like it, but given the fact that most of the irrigated acres in the state are groundwater irrigated, they figured this was about as good as they were going to get and that it was better than what they had before. So, they went along with it. And we sent it to the legislature. When it was sent to the -- oh, I should mention that Jim Cook was the one who essentially wrote the actual law, and he worked extremely hard on that.
When we sent it to the legislature, the legislators were told, “Don't mess with this.” Because if you start pulling out one piece, that might be just the piece that allowed somebody else to say yes and the whole thing could unravel. And Ernie Chambers was the only person who had to mess with it. Senator Chambers did make one minor change, but then it passed the legislature by an overwhelming majority. And the governor signed it, of course, cause he was a strong supporter. But the leadership there was very, very important. And the governor made it very clear he was behind the task force, he expected it to work, and it did. I think mid-way through people thought you know, “This is going to go. I better get serious about working on this.”
MR. BARR: Do you want to kind of summarize the major elements?
MS. BLEED: The major elements -- after our first decision to maintain the existing system of surface water rights and groundwater rights, the decision was made that the Department of Natural Resources every year would survey the river basins or sub-basins in the state and determine which ones are fully appropriated. And by fully appropriated, the idea was that it was right on the balance so that if you had an additional consumptive use in the basin, the only way you could add that would be by taking water away from somebody else. So, the idea was to protect the existing users from future depletions, sort of a security of water rights, if you will. And if the basin was determined to be fully appropriated, there iswas a preliminary determination and then a final. But once the final determination iwas made, then that basin, sub-basin, or reach, whatever NRDs were involved in that, haved to work with the Department of Natural Resources to develop an integrated management plan. And there awere some requirements for this plan. The first was that it had to have clear goals with the purpose of sustaining a balance between water supplies and water uses so that the environmental health, safety, economics, and welfarealth of the basin -- and, I'm not quoting that right -- the economic, health, environmental, safety, and welfare of the basin could be sustained for both the short term and the long term. And that iwas a required goal. And then, there awere some other requirements. One of which was that you haved to enact controls, and there was a list of controls already in the act -- you had to list at least one or more surface water controls or groundwater controls to achieve those goals. And one of the requirements was that the surface water users dependent on stream flow and the groundwater wells dependent on recharge from stream flow should be protected from any new uses of water. Later on, the NRDs actually requested some further requirements for data and so on be put into the law. So, it's a fairly specific list of requirements that must go in the law. At the same time, it gives the basins a lot of leeway to decide how they're going to do this and what they want to do.
One of the big issues was whether or not a basin would be over-appropriated. And that's an issue because that means there's more uses than can be sustained in the long term. And, therefore, in order to get back to a fully appropriated condition, which was one of the requirements in the law, you would have to reduce existing uses, which, of course, is always hard to do. How do you tell people they can't use their water anymore? And that was a huge issue in the Republican basin because, partly because of the Kansas lawsuit. And the attorney general's office had said, “We do not want to admit to Kansas that we are, in fact, over-appropriated.” Although, the legislation creating the task force and the charge to the task force and the task force report all admitted that. But the -- basically, folks from the Republican basin said, “We won't agree to this if you declare our basin over-appropriated.” So, they developed language in the law that said that the basin, an over-appropriated basin is a basin that is subject to a three-state agreement and on or before, I think it was 19--, the year 1997, had been determined -- or the surface water users had not been allowed to add more uses and there was something else in there. The bottom line was there was only one portion of one basin that could meet that, and that was the Platte River, the north Platte, south, and Platte above Elm Creek. So, that sub-basin was determined to be over-appropriated.
And one of the other things that we discussed at great length in the sub-committee meeting was the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District and NPPD were part of that over-appropriated area, and they were concerned, as surface water users, that they would be out-numbered. And, oh, I should go back. During the task force meetings, the question was should the -- who should be in charge of this integrated management plan. The basic decision was the regulatinge (sic) agencies. The NRDs were the government regulating agenciesy and DNR, which left out the surface water irrigation districts. They did not like that at all. So, they argued that they should, at least, be involved in the process of developing the IMP. So, we put in there, not only did they have to consult with, which was true for every fully appropriated basin, but in the over-appropriation, they had to consult and collaborate with surface water irrigators, reclamation districts, power districts, municipalities, and environmental groups, or something like that. And there were rules for how to do that. So, that was another big issue. And it went and passed the legislature.
MR. BARR: Did you have most of the recommendations of the task force combined into the legislation, or were there some issues that did not get legislate -- get into the legislative action?
MS. BLEED: One of the charge was to deal with banking, and we just ran out of time. And we just did not do that.
MR. BARR: What about funding?
MS. BLEED: And that is, I'm glad you mentioned that. Funding was huge. The task force recommended increased funding. And they particularly wanted funding that would not be subject to the year-to-year debates over the budget. They wanted some ongoing funding. And one of the major reasons they wanted that is they knew, particularly in these over-appropriated basins, that that funding would be critical for them to solve their problems without taking a lot of irrigated acres out of irrigation, which nobody really wanted to do. And the task force worked very hard with the legislature to get funding. They did not succeed. So, the bill passed, but the funding that the task force wanted did not. And there were a lot of people who were very upset about that.
MR. BARR: What was lost by not having the recommended funding to go along with the original recommendations?
MS. BLEED: Well, I think, the major thing that was lost is the ability to do things that would allow us to do a better job of managing water so we wouldn’t have to simply reduce our uses. Some of those projects have since been developed by the NRDs primarily, but they had a heck of a time getting the funding to do that. And there's a whole another chapter involved with how they got some of the funding to do work on the Republican, in particular. Some NRDs, like the Central Platte NRD, has a pretty strong tax base. They were able to work on reducing their consumptive uses by buying acres out, willing seller, willing buyer, and by doing conjunctive management projects, but not everybody has that.
I should also mention, the over-appropriated area also corresponds almost directly with an area that was subject to the Platte River Endangered Species Act requirements.
MR. BARR: Do you want to kind of -- originally some of this started with the re-licensing --
MS. BLEED: Right.
MR. BARR: -- of McConaughy and -- do you want to just kind of go over some of that story of the three-state involvement in the Platte River and --
MS. BLEED: Sure. When the Endangered Species Act passed, one of the keystone species, if you will, was the whooping crane. Big white bird that was very rare and very much loved. And they, of course, have as one of their primary stopover places is the Platte River. And so, the Fish and Wildlife Service very early on started saying, “We've got to create more habitat for the whooping cranes on the Platte. And we'd need water in the river for them to roost in.” At one point, and this was before I got involved, but there was apparently an attempt by the Fish and Wildlife Service, maybe you remember this Jim, to actually create a wildlife refuge on the Platte, in which case the --
MR. BARR: That was a matter of the discussion in the Level B Study even.
MS. BLEED: And the feds would've owned that.
MR. BARR: That general idea. Yeah. I mean I don't remember the details of it, but that was an issue that was involved in the 70s in the Plate River Level B Study.
MS. BLEED: And needless to say, the people along the Platte were not very excited to have that happen.
MR. BARR: And had it not probably been for the need to relicense McConaughy, which triggered involvement there, that may have lingered further.
MS. BLEED: Yeah. Right. And the Lake McConaughy was actually closed in 1942, but their license ran out in,
oh --
MR. BARR: Mid 70s or 80s --
MS. BLEED: -- mid 70s. I think, I want to say '78.
MR. BARR: -- I'm not -- I've kind of -- I've kind of lost track of that.
MS. BLEED: And so, they started negotiating with the Fish and Wildlife Service on getting a renewed license, and I was involved in some of that. The Fish and Wildlife Service, at first, wanted fairly strict requirements at Grand Island, that there had to be so many cubic feet of water flowing past the gauge at Grand Island changing by month. But, and then if they didn't meet that, if they were two cubic feet per second less, they would get fined or dinged somehow. And you're dealing with projects all the way up above Pathfinder Dam in Wyoming that might be 23 travel days distant, and how the heck you meet that. And even going from McConaughy to Grand Island, I believe, is seven days, if my memory is correct. And you just can't run a river like a pipe. It doesn't work that way. So, the districts really fought that. And they eventually came up with, and I'll take a little bit of credit here, it was my idea. I remember sitting on my couch one Sunday afternoon thinking there's got to be a better way of doing this. And I came up with the idea of creating an environmental account in Lake McConaughy to be run by either the Game and Parks Commission or the Fish and Wildlife Service. And a certain amount of water would go into that account, and then they'd get, decide how and when to use it. And there were two reasons for that. One is the whooping cranes are such a small population as they're flying north, they may have all flown north. There's no sense in having water requirements at the Grand Island gauge when the whole population is already up in northern Canada. So, it didn't make sense to me to have these rigid rules -- and, of course, then it was too hard to really control. So, I said give them some water. Let them manage it. And when I first proposed this to Game and Parks Commission, they didn't want to have anything to do with it, but eventually that's what, in fact, was put into the Platte River agreement and into the FERC -- no. It wasn't. The FERC licensing still had some pretty strict controls. But what the FERC licensing folks said was, “If you can come in -- up with a Platte River agreement, that would be a reasonable and prudent alternative to the FERC licenses.” So then, there was a series of meetings over -- I don't know how many years. It seemed like forever. Where the Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska, and the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Reclamation would get together to try to figure out how to develop this program.
I should also mention that the Bureau of Reclamation reservoirs in Wyoming and a few in Colorado were also feeling the heat from the Endangered Species Act. They had to come up with water to, for the, water for the birds as well. And then, there were a whole series of smaller permits on federal land in Colorado and Wyoming that cities and little towns got involved with where they were subject to the Endangered Species Act. Not to mention, Two Forks Dam in Colorado, which was nixed because of the endangered species. So, there were a lot of people that were being hung up by this. At the same time, the Fish and Wildlife Service was fighting all these lawsuits and nothing was happening on the river. So, they decided, let's try to get together with the program. And so, that would -- is what happened. They met for years.
One of the key aspects of that, which I think was important, they decided -- the first thing was, well, how much water do the species need. The Fish and Wildlife said that they needed an extra 41735, I think it was, thousand acre feet from what we've got now. And the states said, “Screw that.” Excuse my language. But that is not what we need. That's way too much. So, the big question was well, how much do the birds really need. And there were other species involved at this point. The -- there was no easy answer. And there was obviously not going to be an agreement on that. So, we agreed to use an adaptive management approach whereby the program would actually do some tests to figure out what is it the species needs and we would do that in the first 13-year increment. And then, ideally, at the end of the increment, we would decide, okay, is this right or not. Meanwhile, the program said that the states had to come up with between 130,000 and 150,000 acre feet of water to offset shortages from what the Fish and Wildlife Service had determined they needed out of the four hundred and -- 4175, 35, anyway. And so, we agreed to that. And we agreed to meet certain compliance standards. That was another issue. If the species for no reason that we had anything to do with went extinct, maybe they got shot on their breeding grounds or something, then we shouldn't be held liable in Nebraska. So, the only thing we were held liable for was whether or not we met these specific compliance standards, which was a good thing. And then, we had the adaptive management.
The other thing that was important, once we got that program developed and signed, or developed and agreed to by the committees, then each of the states had to sign on to it. And by that time, Governor Heineman was the governor, and he held a series of meetings all over the state. And the dynamics were fairly interesting. The people in the Nnorth Platte Valley wanted it because they were so dependent on the Bureau of Reclamation reservoirs which would be severely curtailed if we didn't have the program. The surface water users, Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District particularly and NPPD, who wanted their FERC license, they were in favor of it. Although, by this time, they weren't so sure it was going to be then -- really a good deal or not, but they were basically in favor of it. But that left the groundwater users. In order to come under compliance with the Endangered Species Act, there has to be a federal nexus. In other words, there has to be some federal requirement involving your water use that would then hook you into the Endangered Species Act which says no federal agency can do anything to adversely affect an endangered species. Well, groundwater users didn't need a permit to divert water from the river from the feds. They didn't have a 404 permit requirement like a number of people had when they build dams. So, one of the questions that was asked was, “Well, what about the farm programs?” Because, of course, there is a huge federal nexus in terms of farm subsidies. And so, the Fish and Wildlife Service was asked, “Does that give them a nexus or not?” And they decided no. I think, I don't know this for sure, but I'd guess for political reasons. Because if they had said yes, I think they would have had every state in the union going after them. So, here you had a situation where it didn't matter to the groundwater users. And they could easily opt out. And yet, if they were in, then they became part of the requirements and, also, 962 was part of the requirements requiring them to cut back on their uses. So, that was a huge issue. But, eventually, they decided that they could, they would support it. And a big part of it was understanding that a lot of the water along the Platte River comes from Wyoming from those Wyoming reservoirs, either directly or as return flows from the projects. And if that water is curtailed, a lot of the groundwater, particularly into the Mound and Tri-Basin, which is a build up of a lot of Central and NPPD's use of water, would be depleted. So, they realized that, by gosh, this is one resource and maybe we should go along with it. But, it was only for the first 13 years, and any party to the agreement could pull out at any time. So, with all that in place, Governor Heineman did finally decide to sign the, on to the Platte River program. We were the last state to sign on. And so, it got put in place. But at the end of the 13 years of increment, there will have to be a decision by every --
MR. BARR: (Indiscernible), probably.
MS. BLEED: -- I think that's 2019, I believe.
MR. BARR: One other follow up, and I don't remember if we talked about this on record or not. But did we talk about the Wyoming, Nebraska settlement on record, or do you want to --
MS. BLEED: I think we did.
MR. BARR: Did we?
MS. BLEED: I think we did.
MR. BARR: Okay. All right.
MS. BLEED: I talked about the settlement on the courthouse --
MR. BARR: I didn't know if that was --
MS. BLEED: -- steps. Yeah. I think we did. If we didn't, call me up and we'll do it again.
MR. BARR: That's (indiscernible).
MS. BLEED: But, I'm pretty sure we did.
But, so, you know, at the end of the first increment, there'll be some important decisions made of whether or not we want to stay in it, and whether the Fish and Wildlife Service wants to stay in it. We'll have to see.
MR. BARR: How big of a role was the COHYST effort in this?
MS. BLEED: I'm glad you asked about that. The COHYST effort to me is another amazing effort. I remember very specifically the day when Ron Bishop came into the department. Mike Jess was the director. And Mike called me into his office and Ron was sitting there, and he said, “I have this idea that we really need to do a groundwater model for the Platte River. We're going to need it. And we want your help.” And I immediately said, yes, I think that's an excellent idea. So, he established the cooperative hydrology study or COHYST. That involved the DNR, the NRDs along the Platte, the Game and Parks Commission, Central Platte or Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District, and then the NPPD, and some of the municipalities. And at first, the idea was simply to get enough information together into one database so that people could do their individual models, and then it morphed in to let's do a groundwater model, surface water/groundwater model for the entire basin. And that effort is still going. It's certainly had its up and downs. A lot of squabbling. But the reality is people are still working on it, and that model became the basic model to determine how much a well depletes stream flow that is used now by the Platte River program. And it's a beautiful example of where the NRDs really were the ones to show the leadership and take the initiative to get something done. The state went along, not as a reluctant partner by any means, but it wasn't our idea. And I don't think it would've been done without the NRDs.
MR. BARR: What do you see as some of the challenges still before NRDs and natural resource issues, in general, in the state of Nebraska?
MS. BLEED: Well, I think we have some very significant challenges. Water quality is a huge one. As somebody once said, “You know, it took us a long time to pollute our water. It's going to take us a long time to get rid of it, the pollution.” We do have nitrates problems. In most areas of the state, they are slowly but surely increasing. We have atrazine problems. The Central Platte NRD was one of the earlier NRDs to take action on water quality, and they've actually seen areas where the water quality has improved. But it takes a long time. But we still have a lot of work to do on that. There are some areas of the state where we still have water table declines. The Upper Republican has consistently declined even during the wet years. In other areas during the 1980s -- declined in the 70s, as you well know, and the 1980s, which was a period of above-average precipitation, the water tables came back. Meanwhile, the NRDs were very effective at getting people to use water use efficiency; to do conservation tillage, which saves water; and a lot of education efforts, teaching people that you save money if you don't pump all the time. That kind of thing. So, you know, why the water tables came up in certain areas, I think it's probably a combination of above-average precip and some of the efforts of the NRDs. For the most part, there were not heavy regulations in place. The Upper Republican was the earliest one to put on some heavy regulations, because they do have a declining water table. That was important. So, those are still issues that we have before us. Whether or not we will have to do increasing regulations, I don't know. It looks like in some areas, we may. In other areas, we may not.
Another area that I think is somewhat of a problem is domestic wells being interfered with by irrigation wells. And in some NRDs, they have spacing requirements to try to protect the domestic wells. The domestic wells don't need a permit. They should be registered, but they don't all, even all have to be registered now. But that is an issue.
And I think one of the basic issues that we've got is the NRDs are locally controlled, which I, on the whole, think is excellent. But those are also the people who have to say we need to tighten our belts. And that's hard to do, especially if you're tightening your belt for the future. You may be fine now, but if you're worrying about whether your kids or grand-kids will have water, then you may need to tighten your belt and that's a lot harder to do.
The other issue which I think is important is that the NRD laws say that each NRD is supposed to treat the impacts of their uses on users outside of their district as if those users were within their district. That's intent language. So, it's -- again, it's hard for an N- -- one NRD to say, well, those users downstream are being impacted by what we're doing here. We need to cut back on our water use. Which all gets to the fact that, as long as something is somewhat parochial in fact, and originally groundwater was considered to be kind of local, it didn't really have long range impacts -- if you want to mess up your own water supply, maybe that's your problem. But as we've learned, it's usually -- it's not local. That what people do in one NRD does affect people in another NRD. And I still think we need to get a better handle at a state level to set some broad guidelines of -- to make sure that one NRD does not adversely affect another NRD or surface water users. And in fact, a number of the NRD managers and officials, other board members, when I talked about what is the role of the state and asked them that, indicated just that, that we probably need some more broad guidelines and a little bit more ability for the state to step in if somebody is not meeting those guidelines and make sure they do.
MR. BARR: That's pretty much the questions I had, but I've usually had a question at the end that says, anything else you'd like to add?
MS. BLEED: Well, I will, I will just add one thing. I have been doing a study of the NRDs and their governance structure. And I think we have a really terrific governance structure with the NRDs to manage water and groundwater, in particular, in this state. It's not perfect, but it's a lot better, I think, than most other states. I think it gives people the ability to tailor their management actions and their controls to their local situation. And I think that's a good thing. I think they've done a lot of things, and initiated things like COHYST that would never have been done if it had simply been up to the state. I think that people are much more accepting of what the NRD does. They've done a lot of education. So, in some cases, regulations aren't necessary because people understand, through education, that they need to do it anyway. And a lot of the rules of the NRD are set up that, as you start to see a problem, you're going to have increased education efforts, maybe certification to learn that you have to know -- certify that you know how to irrigate in a water-wise way. But then, if those don't work, there may be stricter regulations for both water quality and quantity and increasingly strict regulations. So, you set up a system where we don't want to be regulated, so we better do this voluntarily. And I think that's very effective. People make their own rules and, I think, that is helpful.
So, in general, I think the NRD system has worked very well. There is a problem with surface water users. They do not feel they're getting their fair share of the water supply, and I think that's a serious problem in some basins, not all. And we need to deal with it. I think we're going to have to deal with the question of domestic wells. Our preference system says they are the most important use, but they are often the wells that get affected by a higher irrigation wells and without much recourse to get that system corrected. So, a few tweaks and I think we will have a really great system.
The only final thing I'll say is that, like any governmental system, it depends on the leaders involved, and we've had some wonderful leaders. The NRD system helps train leaders, some are not so good leaders. And that's true of any governmental situation.
MR. BARR: Well, thank you.
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