MR. STARR: Well, the first thing I'd like to ask you to do, Glenn, is just to give a little brief resumé of what you've done with your life from where you grew up, what education, when you started with the district without a whole lot of a detail.
MR. JOHNSON: I grew up on a small farm in northeast Nebraska, near Wakefield. My dad was, from about my earliest days I remember, a member on the county -- Wayne County Conservation Board. I grew up farming two-row terraces and lots and lots of point rows. When we got a little farther along, we started growing four-row, then we increased the size of the terraces. We even got to some steep back (indiscernible). And then I had actually almost left the farm to go to school, but then dad was one of the first that converted over to conservation tillage, the Buffalo planters came out then, and the neighbors all scoffed at him and now you go up there and everybody's doing no-till and conservation tillage. So I grew up in that kind of an ethic and when I graduated out of high school, decided I really was mostly interested in engineering and I thought it was probably agricultural engineering. Came down to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, got a degree in agricultural engineering in 1972. Graduated on a Saturday, went to work on Mon- -- the next Monday for the Salt Valley Watershed District, where I worked for about six weeks before it transitioned into the Natural Resource District on July 1st of 1972, and I've been here ever since. And I have gone back and -- at UNO in the middle -- early and middle '90s to get a master's degree in public administration.
MR. STARR: What -- I'm sure when you graduated that, as a good young engineer, you had some other opportunities. What prompted you to go with Hal Schroeder (phonetic) and Salt Valley originally and then the NRD?
MR. JOHNSON: Well, actually, I had three job opportunities and three job proposals. One was with what was then the Soil and Water Conservation Commission still in May, and -- working with Carol Hammond (phonetic) in planning, and another was with the Department of Environmental Control, at that time, and if I recall it would have been in the livestock waste. And I had done some of that when I was in college and, in doing some of my work there in college, I worked in that area. I just saw the -- what I thought was an exciting opportunity with a brand new entity being created with the kind of focus -- I think Hal Schroeder was an interesting person that really peaked my interest and so that's kind of why I selected that one.
MR. STARR: As I recall, your office at that point in time was up in the -- near the Crosby Law Firm with a total office not a whole lot bigger than your office now. It's pretty small. You and Hal and Opal.
MR. JOHNSON: That's right. Hal and Opal and I. And actually, Hal and Opal were on the same floor as Crosby and shared a corner -- a couple of offices on that same fourth floor. The law firm is still there today. I had a closet up on the eighth floor right across from the elevator with a drafting table and some file cabinets and a calendar on the wall, as I recall, and that's about it. A couple years into it, then, we actually got some -- an additional larger office, two-room suite, and so -- it was still just the three of us, but then we started utilizing Curtis students for work experience and one of the first students we utilized was Rod DeBoer (phonetic) and so Rod worked for us during his work experience and then after he graduated, came back to work for us permanently, so Rod was our fourth employee.
MR. STARR: When was it that you moved out of the downtown -- did you move just out here from downtown or was there an interim?
MR. JOHNSON: We moved a couple of different -- we were several different places downtown. After we left that building, we moved across the street to the south into the Sharp Building, where we were on the 14th floor. Actually, the NARD office kind of moved around with us because they were on a different floor in that building and then we moved over to North 11th Street, and then they moved into that building also. And so it's probably been, golly, 1985, I suppose, that we moved out here to this location. And then we've expanded and built on in this location and remodeled it several different times.
MR. STARR: When you started, what did you see -- you and Hal see as the biggest challenge facing you at that point in time? What were the challenges? I'm sure there were multiple, but --
MR. JOHNSON: Yeah. I think that, obviously, the focus at that time when -- just starting in 1972, the Salt Valley Watershed District had quite a few -- had completed some projects, had several different projects going, and studies, and a couple of different watershed projects, the Oak Middle watershed project, which was partially completed, the North Oak project, which hadn't yet been started, the Salt Valley project, Salt Wahoo watershed project, which was completed, and so there was a variety of different levels of those activities from doing operation and maintenance on existing projects. Some of them, even at that time, had been built in -- as early as 1955, so there was a lot of -- some of those projects that were dams that were getting, actually, mature even in 1972. Others were just being constructed at that time and then there were several different watersheds we were looking at. And the Salt Valley Watershed District had been working with the different watershed conservancy districts and soil conservation districts jointly on these various watershed projects and basically just -- when they merged into the NRD, the NRD just picked up the sponsorship of those particular studies. So there was a lot of activity going on with watershed projects at that time. The only other major activity was in Lincoln with the Salt Creek flood control project to improve Salt Creek channel and the levies, and then continue to work on stream stabilization on the major tributaries to Salt Creek in Lincoln. So there was -- that really was just a lot of activity going on.
MR. STARR: As you recall, what was Hal's -- what was his vision of what the NRD was to become? How did he see it?
MR. JOHNSON: Hal certainly saw it as a much more robust organization than any of the previous organizations had been. When -- he saw the potential in, like, continuing to build the dams, but also making them multipurpose. And so adding recreation -- he saw the whole focus of increasing emphasis on conservation practices and being able to provide more technical assistance, more cost share assistance than had been available previously to supplement what was available through the federal government. I guess an acceleration of that, there were -- and completion of some of these urban storm water projects. There have been a lot of other things that have taken place since then that probably weren't on his radar screen.
MR. STARR: The initial board, I think we referred to it as an interim board until they had an election, in your case I think it was fairly large.
MR. JOHNSON: Yeah, 68.
MR. STARR: That's fairly large. How -- did they have a good understanding of what the responsibilities were and was there a lot of negative opinion or was it extremely positive? How would you view the viewpoint of that initial interim board?
MR. JOHNSON: I think that, for the most part, it was very positive. I think there was a little fear and protectionism of losing some of those who had been on particularly watershed conservancy boards, where they were either studying or trying to be the sponsors of a watershed project and were afraid that they may -- their project may get lost, may not have continued emphasis on it. And I think there was some concern, not a lot, because I think it was dispelled very quickly with the members of the soil conservation district boards, afraid that the Natural Resources District maybe wouldn't have the continued focus on land conservation, but found very quickly that that was a very strong emphasis point. I think what the district did to organize and regionalize, maybe, they respected those watersheds and actually divided the district directors into working groups in four different -- five different areas actually, one being the urban area of Lincoln and the other four being outside of Lincoln, but primarily combinations of water -- of sub-watersheds. And each one of -- all the directors that lived in each of those were organized as a focus group or as an area group to work in that area as a committee. And then the board -- each of those areas was represented, then, on an executive sub-committee and on the -- which was, I think, 17 maybe, or maybe as much as 21, I can't remember, I think it was like 17 on the executive committee. But, again, it had representatives from all of the five sub-districts -- all the five sub-areas. And then the board met as a whole, all 68 met quarterly. And I think there was enough communication and I didn't sense that any of them were -- really drifted away, didn't feel that they had lost a sense of what their mission was in the organization that they came from.
MR. STARR: How did the -- the merger process provided for the merger of whatever the assets were of those various -- and they were split up with other NRDs because of the boundaries and so forth, whether their assets were money in the bank or equipment or buildings or whatever? How did that process go? Did that take a long time?
MR. JOHNSON: Yeah, it did take quite a while. This district may have been fortunate in that the big dog, the Salt Valley Watershed District, had a fairly good bank account and a good tax base. And so it wasn't critical to pool all of those merged funds immediately to be able to have cash flow and operate your organization.
MR. STARR: You had some working capital.
MR. JOHNSON: So we were able to maintain those funds in local banks where they had previously been invested and really just changed the name on the CD or whatever the instrument was, and maintain those for many, many years.
MR. STARR: Well, there was a provision in the law that those monies were supposed to be spent, although there's flexibility as to how you
MR. JOHNSON: Right, and we did track them carefully and it took us probably 10 years of -- and doing good accounting, but we did spend those funds in the areas where they were generated.
MR. STARR: When the first election came around and you established 21 as your board size, and then you had to divide up sub-districts, how they got elected, how painful or easy was that process?
MR. JOHNSON: I had to count all the beans. You know, sitting down with all of the census information, and you didn't have computers, you didn't have -- you're doing it all on paper with an adding machine or a very simple calculator, and it really didn't go too badly. We did -- I think we developed three or four different alternative ways of doing it. I mean, we did go into each one of the five sub-areas that we had in the district and held public hearings in each of those to get input on how the new boundaries, the new sub-districts, should be set up. And it was -- we spent a lot of time talking about the -- and really took into account all the factors of where are the problems, where are the projects, where are the people, where does the money come from, and what are the wishes of the people in the district. Those were really, I believe, kind of like the five criteria that you were allowed within the law to consider. You were not constrained, at that point, by a one-person/one-vote, or equal population, because you were presumed to meet the one-person/one-vote because they were nominated by a sub-district and elected at-large ultimately, which was a very cumbersome election but --
MR. STARR: Expensive.
MR. JOHNSON: Expensive, yes, it was.
MR. STARR: When -- I know at the state level, when we looked at the various then 24 districts state-wide, and those issues, because there was concern by some in the legislature about moving to the one-person/one-vote process, and I think, if memory is correct, this district had the biggest disparity in terms of the fact that Lincoln really overpowered the rest of the -- there really wasn't much population as compared to a lot of the districts, it really didn't make much difference. Even Omaha was not quite as -- because of all their urban -- suburban areas, it wasn't quite the disparity there was here. You had the biggest issue, as I recall, looking at it. I think that's probably right. But -- and I think my recollection is, originally, this district looked at half the directors in Lincoln and half outside of Lincoln.
MR. JOHNSON: That's exactly right. We have five -- 10 sub-districts and --
MR. STARR: But then there were several iterations of what you had to do in terms of ratios, and how was -- how did that process go, those various changes?
MR. JOHNSON: We never were -- well, those changes took a lot of thought, I guess, and the philosophy that the board had was kind of an interesting one. They -- and it's really still there today. They wanted to maximize the -- to create the opportunity for the maximum number of non-Lincoln directors to serve on the board, to be elected to the board, and -- but it was also meant that potentially you might have none non-Lincoln directors serving on the board or only one or two because what you had to do was to create your -- the sub-districts generally and carve out a piece of Lincoln to put in with a much, much larger geographically rural area with a smaller population base to get you to that 35,000 population in each of the sub-districts, 30- to 35,000. And we still actually have that today and so -- and it, I think, has served the district very well. It's just always been a challenge, I think, for this district to get true production agriculture folks on the board even in those districts where there's plenty of opportunity.
MR. STARR: Did the 20- -- the latest census, 2010, require you to make a whole lot of change or --
MR. JOHNSON: No, not a lot of changes. We did some -- again, some tweaking and came out really pretty well, I think.
MR. STARR: Over the years from that first elected board until the 21 folks you have today, how would you characterize the progression of the board in terms of their knowledge, their attitude, their thinking?
MR. JOHNSON: Well, certainly, it's not a straight line because we've had a lot of changeover in board members over the years. I mean, we would have anywhere from three to seven new board members come on each time we had an election, so -- and we had a lot of competition. And particularly in the first 25 years, we had a lot more competition for the seats on the board. The -- I think we had -- even one time we had as many as eight or 10 candidates in one sub-district for that position. Must have been a very coveted position. It's always been interesting and exciting, and refreshing, to come through an election and have some new ideas and new folks coming onto the board.
MR. STARR: Who is your most experienced board member now?
MR. JOHNSON: Bob Anderson (phonetic) would be the longest serving board member now.
MR. STARR: Twenty years or so?
MR. JOHNSON: Yeah, Bob and then Ron Svoboda (phonetic), probably. Elaine Hammer's (phonetic) been on a long time.
MR. STARR: Yeah, she sure has.
MR. JOHNSON: A couple of interesting stories, in that original sub-district -- drawing up of the sub-district boundaries, the district was taken to court on the constitutionality of -- and challenged on the constitutionality of the sub-district boundaries, and that was a challenge brought by the League of Women Voters. And one of the active members of the League of Women Voters was Elaine Hammer.
MR. STARR: And Ann Bleed (phonetic).
MR. JOHNSON: And Ann Bleed. And now they're both on the board and have served -- Elaine's been on a long time and has served in many positions and served extremely well for the board. The chief lead in the legislature of getting the elections changed to one-person/one-vote that is now the mayor of Lincoln, but his cohort in that is Dave Landis and he's on my board now, too. Dave's on the board for the second time --
MR. STARR: He was re-elected.
MR. JOHNSON: -- because he was on the board before he went to the legislature.
MR. STARR: Way back when, yeah.
MR. JOHNSON: He was on the very first board.
MR. STARR: Some of the districts have had contested elections over a single issue. Have you ever had that or has that not been --
MR. JOHNSON: Yeah, we've had some of those. We did have -- on a couple of particular projects, one was the Stevens Creek watershed project and the other was -- I'd say the Weeping Water project, but it was narrower than that, it was the one dam down by Elmwood that was never completed. I think those are two projects where there were slates of candidates put together and organized -- and some organized opposition to particular projects that ran for the board. Earlier even, there was some slates that ran several times that weren't really related to any particular project, but they were the green slate. It was more, I think, just a -- kind of an environmental persuasion. And all of them were, to some degree, successful in putting -- in electing candidates to the board.
MR. STARR: A lot of districts have had individuals come on who had, themselves, a real agenda all the way from firing the manager to changing things, to cut the mill levy in half, to whatever, and then after being on the board for a four-year term, by the end of the four years they were some of the better board members. Has that happened to you, too?
MR. JOHNSON: Yeah, that has happened, you know, several different occasions. But I've also had it happen where they gain no traction and they decided, “I'm getting off” and they didn't fight it any longer, and that was a couple of cases where you had that or, in some cases, they were elected -- or defeated in the election before they were ever a -- maybe the most contributing member that we've had on the board. The -- I think that's been one of the benefits of having -- and continues to be a benefit of having a large board, is that individuals who are motivated by a personal agenda, it's just much more difficult to push that agenda very hard effectively with the larger board.
MR. STARR: When did Hal retire?
MR. JOHNSON: Hal retired in '82.
MR. STARR: So he was 10 years?
MR. JOHNSON: Right.
MR. STARR: And then you became the manager at that point?
MR. JOHNSON: Correct.
MR. STARR: So you're just over 30 years as their manager?
MR. JOHNSON: Uh-huh.
MR. STARR: Friday or Thursday, whenever it was, I was with John Myoshi. He's almost 30 years with the NRD, not as the manager, but he was a manager virtually all that time because Ray left very shortly after John came on and so forth. So what would you think if Hal could walk in here now and see what this was, what do you think his reaction would be?
MR. JOHNSON: My desk and my office is patterned after him, unfortunately, but I think, like him, I know I can find the things in here. A clean desk wasn't necessarily the most important thing to either one of us. I think he would be surprised in some respects by some of the projects that we're involved with, some of the things we're involved with. I don't believe Hal was really ever tuned in, and didn't need to be, to the groundwater issues. They really didn't become very high on the agenda until after he had left. Yeah, we were developing a groundwater management plan because the State said we had to, but their -- it just looked like, where we had groundwater, people were developing it, where we didn't have it, they weren't, but they were getting along fine. I think he would have had some frustrations with having to deal with endangered species issues and certainly with permitting issues that we do today. I think that would have frustrated him even more than it frustrates -- particularly the permitting issues frustrate me. The challenges that are there today, I think he would have bought in to all of the different urban type of activities. Trails? I don't know where he would have been on that. But, you know, we -- really, I came out of -- and he was still in the era where -- and that's where I started was, we were still draining wetlands. We were straightening streams. We were building big dams for flood control.
MR. STARR: And flood control only.
MR. JOHNSON: And flood control only, and today we're restoring wetlands. Today we are focusing on re-meandering those same streams that we straightened. Instead of building dams, we're looking at, what else can we do to protect the flood plain by either preserving it in advance of development with conservation easements or stronger floodplain mapping and floodplain zoning, or doing some buyouts, let it flood rather -- but manage the flood, manage the flood damages rather than trying to prevent the flood. So it's -- there's been that shift in direction.
MR. STARR: That's kind of the change that the Corps of Engineers have had over the years --
MR. JOHNSON: Exactly.
MR. STARR: -- which is where Hal came from, although he was on the military side of the Corps and not on the stream flood control, et cetera, side of the Corps of Engineers. So what -- you've got this (indiscernible) Antelope project done. What's the district's next big thing?
MR. JOHNSON: Well, I think our biggest thing that we're doing right now is this voluntary integrated management plan for the district. We decided to take that on even though our district is not fully appropriated or not been -- and don't know if and when it might be designated, but the board has been very proactive in their groundwater management plan and in their groundwater management responsibilities. We've got nine areas in the district where we've got nitrate problems and we're managing those in different -- three different phases of controls and incentives and regulations. We -- just last month, the board approved a moratorium on any additional new irrigation wells in one area of the district and are looking at -- because last year and this year is really the first we've seen -- we saw a little bit back in the 1970s in this same area of not enough -- in dry times, there's a shortage of groundwater that's just -- or there's some conflicts that take place so we're starting to deal with that. But looking at not just groundwater, but surface water, and looking farther into the future in this integrated management plan and on how -- what we have for a water supply in the future, what we have for water needs in the future, and I think the board's very excited about it. The State's very excited. The Department of Natural Resources, I think, is a fantastic partner with us in this and I think they're really excited about having an opportunity to look at a proactive approach rather than where they've had to be, on all the rest of them, is reactive, and having to go back or reverse trends or at least stop where we're at. I think that's one of the big ones. I think the other, in terms of a project, is on the Dead Man's Run floodplain through Lincoln, from 27th or 29th and Cornhusker Highway back south and east, through the east campus and through the Gateway Shopping Center area, back through that way.
MR. STARR: You have, over the years, have done some things that are --
MR. JOHNSON: We've done a lot of stream bank stabilization. It was a very -- over the years as the city grew, they simply just took the small meandering channel that went through farm fields, golf courses, plant nurseries, and basically straightened it. And when you straighten it and then urbanize the drainage area, all of a sudden it becomes a chasm, just straight vertical sides and deep, and very erosive, so we -- that was a major focus in the 1970s through the -- 1970s and 1980s finishing doing that, basically stabilizing that stream and -- to a position where it's very, very stable now. But, unfortunately, the watershed is all urbanized and the channel and the bridges can't convey all that water without some significant flooding. There's a major, major floodplain area starting, really, at 52nd and Holdrege that kind of bulges out in that area as you go north and west. And then, really, from 48th Street to 33rd Street, north from the east campus, through that whole area, is -- there's 900-and-some structures in that 100-year floodplain, houses, buildings, so forth, and it's a very challenging floodplain to reconstruct in and build because you've got to meet the new construction standards. And there's a lot of older homes, small, substandard, you know, that -- so it's -- the neighborhood's not going to probably be able to get a lot better just because of the economic disincentives from rebuilding the floodplain. We, and the city, did a study looking at that watershed more at water quality and also -- and water quantity, and identified what we think is a potential project that could take as many as 800 of those structures out of the 100-year floodplain. It primarily involves doing some off-stream detention in one or two sites and then improving the bridge openings, improving the conveyance of the channel so it will capture and contain more of the flood waters, but it's got a price tag of about $50,000,000. We've been working with the Corps of Engineers on that project to initiate a study, just like we did on Antelope Creek. Unfortunately, we're in the timeframe -- we're in the era of no earmarks and the Corps of Engineers and Congress have not been able to resolve that issue as to how to deal with Corps of Engineers' projects that traditionally were always designated by name, authorized by name, funded by name, even though they were all thoroughly vetted with economic analysis and studies, and environmental studies, but they weren't what were the bad earmarks, but they were combined in with all the earmarks. So we've been (indiscernible) at getting that one started that way. We did include this year, in our budget, a joint study with the City. Basically, we're going to initiate that same type of a study on our own. If, subsequently, we can -- things change at the federal level and we can bring in some federal funding or the new funding study at the State comes up with a big pot of gold at the end of the rainbow and we can quality for that --
MR. STARR: I wouldn't spend it yet.
MR. JOHNSON: -- it's a great candidate project for resource development funds. But, again, the long -- the line is long and the pot isn't very big.
MR. STARR: It ain't 50,000,000, that's for sure.
MR. JOHNSON: So we're -- the need is critical enough that our board is -- and the City have decided that they were at least willing to start out on that study by themselves and it's a big project.
MR. STARR: Back in Hal Schroeder's day, my observation was that Hal was inclined to do things by hiring engineers, professionals, to do studies, hiring people to do work and so forth, and I know that's evolved some, but I think my observation is that that's still kind of the board and your philosophy.
MR. JOHNSON: Yes. We've had the discussion many, many, many times as to -- and this kind of goes with new board members coming on -- and when they are brought some recommendations before the board for consideration for engineering studies and they look at the price of the engineering they go, “My goodness, why can't we put some staff on to do that engineering in-house?” And I said, “Okay, here's the reality of it. We may have anywhere from eight to 15 studies going on with six, seven different firms all at the same time.”
MR. STARR: With different expertises.
MR. JOHNSON: With different expertise. I said, “Which two of those do you want the in-house engineering staff to work on and we've still got to farm out the rest because we just -- we cannot afford to hire a staff that can do -- that has that multiple expertise,” and it -- so we're still keeping the engineering industry in business.
MR. STARR: It's really appreciated.
MR. JOHNSON: And we've -- we do the same thing with construction and contracting. We've never gotten into the construction end of it ourselves. We have minimal equipment and we hire most of that done.
MR. STARR: And you're in a position where the availability of those folks, both from the planning and construction side, are available, whereas some of the districts don't have that luxury.
MR. JOHNSON: That's absolutely true. That's a real asset we've had here. One of the other assets we have here is the Department of Corrections. And since at least 1980, and maybe earlier than that, we've had one or two crews of inmates from the Department of Corrections working for the District year-round doing -- assisting doing operation and maintenance. We've had a really good relationship with the Department. It's been beneficial definitely for us and we think for them, and I think we've got a good record.
MR. STARR: Glenn, I've about run out of questions. Is there anything else that you'd like to put on record or anything other thoughts that you have about the 40-plus years of the NRDs?
MR. JOHNSON: Well, I will say that in the 40 years, the board of directors of this district have always been, in my opinion, very willing to tackle the tough issues. They've been progressive. They have been good partners. I think they've been willing to partner with anybody and everybody on projects, and not really feeling like they need to take the credit for it. They feel that there's -- they can leverage a lot more through working with people than they can by themselves. But they've always done -- they've made good decisions. They've done valuable projects and they haven't gone off in what, you know, I think might be -- some people would have considered wrong directions.
MR. STARR: Good. Well, I sure thank you, Glenn. I appreciate your time.