MR. STARR: This is an interview with Jerry Vap, a long-time member of the Middle Republican NRD Board and active in conservation activities both statewide and nationwide, including a term as the president of the National Association of Conservation District. This is being conducted as part of the Natural Resources Districts oral history interview project and the interviewer is Gayle Starr. The interview is being done at Jerry's office at the Public Service Commission in Lincoln, Nebraska on September 25, 2013. Okay, Jerry, I guess first of all I'd like to have you just give a little brief resume of your life, where you came from, what you've done, and then without a whole lot of detail.
MR. VAP: Born and raised in McCook, Nebraska. Graduated from McCook High School, University of Nebraska College of Business Administration with a BA degree, or BS, I'm not sure what they want to -- but spent the majority of my life employed by Vap Seed and Hardware, which is a company started by my father over 75 years ago. And in that time period, I served in many capacities as far as public service is concerned. I was a member of the McCook Chamber of Commerce, was president of that organization at one time. I was also a member of the McCook Rotary Club and president of that organization. I was originally asked by the McCook City Council to -- back in the early '70s to go to a meeting that was being held about this new entity called a Natural Resources District that the legislature had created. I went to that first meeting and decided this looked pretty interesting. It's a totally different concept, apparently, from what the rest of the nation was engaged in as far as conservation was concerned, and so I thought, “Well, I'll see if I can maybe get elected to that first elected board,” and I got elected to a two-year term to begin with. And subsequently, I ran for election for however many times it takes to serve 27 years. And I did do 27 years on that board and saw a lot of changes over those years in the roles and responsibilities of NRDs. In the beginning, we basically were looking at conservation practices, terracing, and windbreaks and things of that type, and the PL566 small watershed program was high on the list of priorities that we were dealing with. I think we built some 20-some dams in my time on that board, which subsequently saved a tremendous amount of damage to crop land and homes in the Republican Valley. I served as a member of the Board of the Nebraska Association of Natural Resources Districts, NARD, and ended up being the president of that organization. And while doing that, I also became a member of the board of directors of the National Association of Conservation Districts and ended up -- subsequently I ended up as vice-president of the National Association of Conservation Districts. I served three years as vice-president and then three years as the president of that organization. A tremendous experience. I believe I represented Nebraska in the nation very well in that capacity. Had the privilege of testifying before several congressional committees and senate committees on conservation issues. It was a great thing to have because Congressman Bill Barrett was in the -- was well known to me and we enjoyed getting together occasionally in Washington, but he served as a vice -- as a chair of one of the subcommittees of the Ag committee that dealt with conservation issues and we were able to make a lot of strides in conservation national programs with the help of Bill Barrett and his staff. When I retired as the president of NACD, I spent about a year -- because I had been traveling about 160 days a year for that organization, and I spent about a year just recouping myself and my life, and I was asked by the chief of the Natural Resources Conservation District, Pearly Reed (phonetic), to work for him as an advisor, which I did for about -- close to two years, and then was appointed to the Public Service Commission by then Governor Mike Johanns. About the time we were getting close to the end of our work on the PL566 project and were getting mostly into the maintenance, Kansas decided they would -- they'd won a great victory in Colorado on the Arkansas River and they said, “You know what, let's go after Nebraska and Colorado on the Republican side of this,” and that's when things really started to heat up. The districts in the Republican Basin, the Upper and Lower and Middle Republican, and the Tri-Basin all had been working on groundwater management plans. We all done model studies of the aquifer. We had done spring and fall water measurements for close to 20 years. And the Upper Republican had had the largest declines at that point in time in the water levels in the aquifer. Middle Republican, when I left the board, our total overall decline in the aquifer at that time was about one foot. The people of that district had managed it pretty well, but then there also were half as many wells in the Middle Republican district, irrigation wells, as there were in the Upper Republican. And the aquifer wasn't quite as, I guess, deep and wide in that area. There were some areas in the Middle Republican that there is no aquifer to speak of. And so a lot of the land that could have been developed had no water under it so we didn't put that much pressure compared to the Upper Republican on the resource. But it's -- it became abundantly clear to the board that we weren't quite to the point where we was to restrict pumping, but we decided everybody better have a meter and start collecting data as far as how much water was actually being used. And I think, at that time, many farmers weren't happy about it, but at the same time many of them, the progressive ones, said, “You know, if I can figure out a better way to manage this water, I can make myself more money by not spending money on pumping and all this.” So that was the era when a lot of farmers were converting from gated pipe to center pivot irrigation, new technologies were being developed and most of the farmers -- many of them would wait to see how the neighbor did with this new technology before they adopted it, but eventually they did, and it helped quite a bit. But the case between Nebraska and Colorado just really pinpointed the fact that management was not a haphazard thing. It had to be done scientifically. It had to be done on a well-thought-out and well-governed basis. I think the districts now -- and I've been out of it for about 15 years now, but I think they probably have done a pretty good job, not satisfactory to a lot of people obviously, but I don't think you're ever going to be able to completely satisfy everyone in these areas. In some cases, the attitudes of a lot of the groundwater users and even other states are going to have to wait for a generational change for attitudes to change, and in the meantime actual regulation probably is going to be the way things are going to be managed for quite some time now.
MR. STARR: If my math is correct, you went off the NRD board in the late '90s sometime?
MR. VAP Yeah.
MR. STARR: When you started back in '72 or whenever it was you started, what was the attitude of all the board members? Were they pretty well into the NRD process or were they just still thinking about their county?
MR. VAP: Well, many of them from around the areas were -- they were not accustomed to being regulators and that's essentially what an NRD does is, they're responsible for the groundwater resources, they're responsible for water quality problems, they're responsible for erosion and flooding and all kinds of things. And many of those districts had none of those responsibilities at that time, they basically were promoting conservation type practices. And the local district conservationists kind of run the show at that time. They told those board members what needed to be done and they pretty much concurred and agreed. And then when the NRD system came along, the district conservationists would sit over on the side and all they were allowed to do was give a report as to what was going on or what Washington was saying, but any decisions about what that district was going to do from now on were made by those board members. It took a couple -- I know two or three of the early board members decided they didn't want to stay on doing that because they didn't like the idea of telling their neighbors potentially what they could and couldn't do.
MR. STARR: Probably not a whole lot of people do.
MR. VAP: And not many people didn't relish that, but a good number of them stayed on that board, and with the help of capable people like Wayne Heathers and Dan Smith and others in the state, it developed and it evolved. I still am a firm believer that the NRDs are the way to go. I spent six years at the national level and I would go to other states and give talks about what I thought the future of a conservation district would look like and I was in South Carolina, I remember, and they wanted me to say, “Well, what do you think the future holds for conservation districts?” so I gave a talk to -- I suppose there were 6-, 700 people there, and I described the NRDs in Nebraska. Didn't say what they were, I just said, “I think -- here's the way districts may, in the future, have to be managed, and what they do, the responsibilities, the taxing authority, the management or regulation, if you will.” Then I'd ask the question, “How many of you out there think this is what a future district will be like?” and, “Oh, no, that can't be.” And I said, “Well, you're right, it's not a future district, it's a current present district,” and I said, “This is the way we operate in Nebraska and we have operated that way for probably the last 15, 16 years, maybe more, and it's working just fine. We think the districts laid out on a watershed basis would really make a lot of sense and it's working pretty well for the state of Nebraska.” Well, these were -- in most states the conservation districts were still mostly elderly people and -- that had been on those local district boards for years and years and years, and that was kind of their social event for some of them. And because they did not have a lot of granted responsibilities by their state legislatures, they basically were back where Nebraska was back in the early '70s with the district conservationists operating the program.
MR. STARR: Ask you a question you may or may not want to answer. Back when the -- when they were first passing the NRD law, there were a number of directors that were involved in state-wide -- Warren Hayfield (phonetic), Jim Cook, Wes Herpolsheimer (phonetic), you probably know at least some of those, said, “Well, we're concerned that when NRDs come into effect and we all hire managers, managers are going to have control, not board members.” Like I say, you may or may not want to answer that, but if you have any impressions of that issue --
MR. VAP: Well, having been on -- like the Chamber of Commerce Board and the -- I've been the president of the Chamber of Commerce and a couple of other things. Generally, any entity that has a hired manager is going to appear to some that the manager is running the program.
MR. STARR: Fair enough.
MR. VAP: And I found that generally there are things that are responsibilities of the board and personnel management is not one of those, that's why you have a manager. Personnel management is their job. And micromanaging by board members is not acceptable in my mind. No matter where I've been, whether it's here at the Public Service Commission, there's a reason you have those people and that's not the job of the board or the commissioner or whoever it happens to be.
MR. STARR: Yeah. But when you got involved in the National Association -- and you touched on it a little bit, the South Carolina situation, I know there was a lot of Nebraskans -- well, I shouldn't say a lot, some Nebraskans who, at national conventions, regional conventions, et cetera, were pretty strong in saying that “NRDs are great. You ought to all do this,” and there were some of us who said, “You know, it works for us. It may or may not work for you.” What were your impressions when you were involved at that level?
MR. VAP: Well, I had to be pretty much diplomatic when I was in the officer level of NACD. And I never ever gave a talk in which I said, “You really ought to not do it this way any more, you ought to be doing what Nebraska is doing.” I never did that because I knew it would not be well accepted. Every state in the country seems to think they've got the best way to do it, and to have an outsider come in and tell them they're wrong is not what they want to hear. I recall I was in Colorado and I was giving a talk about what, really, conservation districts did. And I said, “How many of you think you're in the water quality business?” and, “Oh, no, we don't have that. That's the EPA or that's the Department of Environmental Quality.” I said, “No, you've been in the water quality business ever since you built the first terrace and ever since you started conservation tillage or no tillage. You got into the water quality business that way. And you may think all you are is a soil and water conservation district, but you're in water quality as well.” And many of them said, “Well, you know, that sounds about right,” but others said, “No, no, all we do is, we save soil and we save water.”
MR. STARR: Yeah.
MR. VAP: So I learned that you can go so far and then you just say, “Okay.”
MR. STARR: While you're away -- I know you're away from the Republican, but a lot has happened in the 15 years or however long since you've been out of that realm, but I'm sure you keep track of what you see in the paper and what you hear from friends --
MR. VAP: I do.
MR. STARR: -- and so forth. What's your impression of what's the NRDs involvement now and what's -- without -- I know there's a lawsuit there that's hanging.
MR. VAP: Yeah, that lawsuit has been around for over 15 years.
MR. STARR: A long time.
MR. VAP: Probably closer to 20 years now. And the people that are in those board positions now are the people that should be. They're young farmers. They're young people that are there to protect their future. And I think, reluctantly in some cases, they're doing exactly what they need to do. But most of them that I've talked to understand that you can't farm or you can't irrigate for today, you've got to do it for the future. And they're going to do what's necessary. It's going to be painful probably in some cases because the decisions, even though they are the board members' decisions, they're being driven by entities that they have no control over; the courts. And I think one of the biggest fears is that the State Department of Natural Resources would have to come in and run the show, run it for them, and most of them don't want that. When I was on the board, I'd have people come in to me and say, “You really got to do this?” I said, “No, we don't, but if we don't the law says the State will,” and every one of them would then say, “No, you guys are doing a great job, just keep on doing it.”
MR. STARR: Well, I've been gone from the State for a few years. The State doesn't want to do that either.
MR. VAP: No, they don't.
MR. STARR: I guarantee you they don't want to do that.
MR. VAP: No, they sure don't.
MR. STARR: One of the things that's happened out there in the last year or so is that the NRDs bought a bunch of center pivots, the old Prudential properties up there in Lincoln and whatever counties those are in. What do you hear about that or what are your -- do you have any thoughts about that?
MR. VAP: I've heard a few people say it's the dumbest thing they've ever heard of. Others say, “Why would you want to pump water out of an aquifer that is not necessarily that renewable just to run down the creek and half of it evaporate and go -- and give the other half to Kansas?” And I've got mixed emotions whether that's the right thing to do. It appears in times like the last two years in southwest Nebraska, of drought, it would be very helpful. Because, really, the crux, in my mind, of the Kansas lawsuit is not that they haven't gotten the amount of water they were entitled to most of the years, because they did, but they looked at the records kept by Nebraska and Colorado and themselves and discovered that Nebraska used more water than the compact said they could. And what Kansas really wanted is their share of that additional water Nebraska used, because they can't argue that they didn't get the water that they were entitled to because they did most years. In the last 60 years, there was probably less than five years that they didn't get the proper amount. So, if we're tied to that, that may be an option. The thing about that particular program, it appears to me, is that it also gives the Twin Platte NRD an option to get water out of that, send it over to the Platte Valley as well --
MR. STARR: Right.
MR. VAP: -- which is interesting because years ago there was a move in the Enders (phonetic) area in southwest Nebraska, I was involved in it, to try and get trans-basin diversion done, and we were told by the courts, “No, you're not going to do that.” And so, “Is this trans-basin diversion when you're pumping it or” --
MR. STARR: Yeah.
MR. VAP: It is not coming out of a flowing stream so --
MR. STARR: That's right.
MR. VAPP: But I'm not sure -- it remains to be seen whether it's going to be a viable situation or not.
MR. STARR: Right, the jury's still out.
MR. VAPP: Yeah.
MR. STARR: There's another group of people out there that we haven't talked about and that's the surfacewater irrigators, the Frenchman Cambridge, the Bostwicks, and so forth, that have some different views than the groundwater irrigators and some real concerns with regard to the lawsuit.
MR. VAP: Right.
MR. STARR: What do you -- what's your feeling there or what do you hear about those folks?
MR. VAP: Well, it's -- because Nebraska is a first-in-time, first-in-right state for water rights, the groundwater users essentially have been accused of drying up the springs and the flowing streams where these groundwater -- these surfacewater irrigators were getting their irrigation water. And so I think they've got a good argument from that standpoint, and they did for quite some time. And then, when you get into the realm of, “Okay, that's a co-mingle resource, pretty much, surfacewater, groundwater, they're one in the same.” One of them --
MR. STARR: Water is water.
MR. VAP: A water -- flowing stream that comes from spring flow is nothing more than a leak in the aquifer, and if the aquifer built up high enough, it started leaking out of the side of the river bank.
MR. STARR: Sure.
MR. VAP: And they feel they're justified in getting their water. A couple things happened, you know, the lake at Trenton is really not spring-fed that much, it is some, but early on the majority of that was run-off, storm water run-off, that filled those lakes. And the advent of no-till farming and terracing and all those kinds of things changed the landscape, if you will, on how that water -- where it goes when it rains, and most of it stays right where it falls now so you don't have that resource. And for years I can remember the ditch water irrigators, they'd set tubes -- irrigation tubes and just let them run all summer because that was cheaper than hiring help to change it because they could get all the water they wanted. And they had a lot of it running back into the river and that's -- everybody was happy that way. But those times aren't there. There's no water running much into that Trenton Lake from the standpoint of storm water, unless it's a huge -- one of those 50-year storm events, which is what that lake was designed for.
MR. STARR: Sure.
MR. VAP: But a lot of things have changed and I think probably they have some justification, but many of them are groundwater users as well. Most of them, they drilled a well because they knew that their surfacewater was going away so they're kind of right in the middle of everything.
MR. STARR: So at the state level of the NRD, the State Association of the NRDs has become a very active group in terms of getting laws changed, getting appropriations, and all of that. Has that evolution been a proper one or have they become a lot stronger than they should have?
MR. VAP: Well, they've become very strong, but the NRDs basically -- they got two masters. They serve agriculture definitely, but they also serve the cities in their boundaries. And because agriculture is the lifeblood of those cities, I don't think it's necessarily that bad that they do have a lot of political power. Early on, that's why the State Association of NRDs was formed, was so that they would have a political voice in Lincoln.
MR. STARR: Right.
MR. VAP: And it's no different than any other -- the school boards or the Nebraska Education Association, or NACO, the County Officials Association. No different. They all need to have a political voice to make sure things work properly.
MR. STARR: Yeah. Well, Jerry, I said I wouldn't take more than half an hour and I already have.
MR. VAP: Well, I talk a lot.
MR. STARR: That's good. Is there anything else you'd like to add?
MR. VAP: I just think that it was an unprecedented move back in 1971 when they did this and I'm somewhat disappointed -- there's a few states in the travels I did for NACD, a few states around the nation that have come a little closer to that kind of a model. Some of them do have a little bit of taxing authority, but the majority of the 50 states have not gone there, or -- and even Puerto Rico and Marianas Islands and Guam, they haven't gone that direction. And I think it's partly -- people say, “Well, how could you get a law passed like that?” I said, “Well, we only need to convince 25 people that it's a good idea, and 26 with the Governor. And you people, you may have to convince 200 legislators, like in the state of Illinois or somewhere else, California, you're chances of getting that done are pretty slim.”
MR. STARR: Exactly. I don't know how close a contact you have any more, but how strong or how active a group is NACD now? I know at one time they were having some pretty severe financial problems and really --
MR. VAP: When I left as president and my successor, Rudy Rice (phonetic) was there, we left them in very good financial condition. A group -- and this happens in a lot of organizations, but a group from the south and to a certain extent some from the west, the mountain areas and those, they decided that the corn growers and all those people throughout the -- we didn't want them running the show any more.
MR. STARR: Yeah.
MR. VAP: And I was the -- in the history of NACD, I was the only president that was not a farmer.
MR. STARR: Is that right?
MR. VAP: Yeah. And some of those folks resented it, but I -- when I did my swan song at the national meeting, when I retired as president, there was 3,000 people there. Now, maybe they wanted to make sure I was going to be gone, but I had a great deal of support from a lot of people. But there were some that -- some people who were narrow thinkers, small-minded people. They didn't like the executive director or they didn't like this, didn't like that, and they finally gained some -- a foothold in. Then they went in -- and because they were having trouble getting money in, they started spending the assets. NACD owned a building in League City, Texas. It was worth, I don't know, close to half a million dollars. And the family that donated the building decided, “If you're going to sell it, we want something out of it,” so they got some of it, but basically they just took that money and spent it, which was the wrong thing to do. And it's not as powerful an organization as it was. You've got a lot of commodity groups, a lot of people trying to do things in agriculture, and it's not what it was in my opinion.
MR. STARR: Well, thank you very much, Jerry. I'll turn it off.
MR. VAP: Okay.