MS. BLEED: This is Ann Bleed and I'm sitting here with Kent Miller, the manager of the Twin Platte NRD. And he will be doing the interview with us today. The first thing I'd like you to do, Kent, is tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to be involved with the NRDs.
MR. MILLER: My involvement with the NRDs began when I worked with Nebraska Natural Resources Commission, at the time, which is the Department of Natural Resources now. When I graduated with a master's degree in civil engineering, I was hired by the Natural Resources Commission to work in the engineering department within the Natural Resources Conservation Service. So, I actually never worked in the Natural Resources Commission offices. And in working in the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Engineering Division, I learned that the -- Twin Platte Natural Resources District was going to be hiring a manager that would begin employment in July of 1973. And that information -- when I got that information, I applied for the job and began working for the Twin Platte Natural Resources District on July 1 of 1973.
MS. BLEED: So, you were in on some of the very earliest years of the District. Do you remember much discussion about the formation of the NRDs and all the discussions that went into that?
MR. MILLER: You know, I heard people talking about the creation of the NRDs. I know in the case of the Twin Platte Natural Resource District, they did not hire a manager the first year. The natural resources districts began July 1, 1972, and I think there was some belief within the Twin Platte Natural Resource District that would NRDs continue. I think that was part of the reason they didn't hire the first year. I think part of the reason was, is there wasn't complete support within the Twin Platte Natural Resource District Board for natural resource districts. You know, I was aware of that. Beyond that, it was just listening to Maurice Kremer talk, listening to Dale Williamson talk. You know, I learned some about the history. You know, Hazel Jenkins from the Department of Natural Resources, Natural Resources Commission then, was very helpful in the formation of the natural resource districts.
MS. BLEED: So, your board was skeptical. Do you have any understanding of why they felt that way?
MR. MILLER: No, I really don't. Because from the first day I went to work for the Twin Platte Natural Resource District Board, there was good support. There were never any issues that we weren't moving forward at that point.
MS. BLEED: So, what were the first -- some of the first issues you had to tackle, then, after that first year?
MR. MILLER: You know, in the early years of NRDs, you know, our involvement was working with Soil and Water Conservation. We had no regulatory authorities. And so, we were promoting conservation, promoting technical assistance from the Soil Conservation Service at that time. Our district had a full-time secretary. I think they called them clerks then, a full-time technician, in each of the Soil Conservation Service offices in Ogallala and North Platte, and so there was a lot of promotion of technical assistance for conservation measures. In the Twin Platte NRD, that was focused predominantly on range, promoting cross-fencing, promoting tree planting. In those days, we hired, basically, a farmer who would work for the District in the spring to plant trees. And the first Twin Platte NRD office, it was myself and a secretary, and then, the four individuals I mentioned in the Soil Conservation Service offices.
MS. BLEED: So, tell me how you moved on, then, from that point.
MR. MILLER: You know, it was to a large part, an evolution. You know, in the 1980s, regulatory came in. As the districts got more involved on the regulatory side, the Natural Resources Conservation Service was continuing to do a very good job on the technical assistance side.
MS. BLEED: Yeah.
MR. MILLER: And so, you know, as I've seen the Twin Platte Natural Resources District evolve, you know, we evolved from a huge amount of priority and efforts on the soil and water conservation side, the technical assistance, the tree planting, the habitat assistance, to water issues. And initially, our groundwater management plan -- and in the Twin Platte Natural Resources District, we did not see declines occurring in our groundwater. We really don't see declines occurring in our groundwater today. But we put together the monitoring programs. We put together for levels as well as quality, worked with other natural resource districts to begin the COHYST, the Cooperative Hydrology Study. And it was a very good foresight that we began that when we did, so we -- you know, one of the -- probably the more sophisticated groundwater, and now groundwater and surface water, models anywhere in the country. It was a lot of foresight there. But as we evolved to today, what -- a huge significant change for the Twin Platte Natural Resource District was the passage of LB962 in 2004, with the requirement of integrated management, because that significantly changed the priorities of the Twin Platte Natural Resource District, because we did not have groundwater declines occurring. We had no need for management dealing with groundwater issues. The majority of our district is Sandhills and even though you can irrigate the Sandhills, those lands are, for the most part, spread out. But with the requirement for an integrated management plan, that significantly changed the needs, if you will, in the Twin Platte Natural Resource District, because all of a sudden, the Platte Basin was over-appropriated. Having seen that come, our board put a moratorium on groundwater irrigation (indiscernible) which was good they did it, when they did it at the time. But, you know, in the Upper Platte Basin, the Twin Platte Natural Resource District and the North Platte Natural Resource District had the predominant offset water that has to be returned to the river. And we don't have the financial resources like the Central Platte Natural Resource District. So, I saw our District go from the lowest tax levy in the State to the second highest in the state today.
MS. BLEED: Wow.
MR. MILLER: And that occurred over, basically, a two-year period, because we had to develop financial resources to be able to implement our integrated management plan or we were into regulations. And regulations are very, very expensive for the producer. And so, we went from a -- I think it was a levy of 1.3 cents to 6.9 cents, literally, you know, over night.
MS. BLEED: And you survived?
MR. MILLER: I survived. Yeah.
MS. BLEED: That couldn't have been easy.
MR. MILLER: You know, it really wasn't as difficult as you might think, and part of it is, the folks in western Nebraska are -- they understand the value of agriculture. And they understood that we were working to stay out of regulations. And in our district, they saw regulations occurring to the south in the Republican River Basin, and we had a chance to explain to people that the additional need for tax dollars was to prevent regulations. That generally brought support. You know, we probably have seen a bigger level of concern, if you will, with the occupation tax that we are now levying this year. You know, we're the fourth NRD in the state, the first NRD out of the Republican basin to levy the occupation tax, and to levy the maximum of $10 per acre. And that has generated a lot of comments. But when we have a chance to explain to them why, we get -- they don't like it, but they'll support it.
MS. BLEED: And so, you're going to use that money for?
MR. MILLER: The occupation tax, the N-CORPE project, and is the project that was a joint effort between the Lower, Middle, and Upper Republican Natural Resource District and the Twin Platte Natural Resource Districts to purchase a 20,000-acre farm, dry up 16,000 acres of irrigated land, and provide that water to the Platte River and to the Republican River. The water to the Platte for the Twin Platte NRD was for our implementation of our integrated management plan. The occupation tax was intended and will fully fund the N-CORPE project, so the irrigators who are being protected from regulations are the ones who are paying for the Twin Platte NRD's share of the N-CORPE project. There is no property tax funds used for that project. Up front there had to be some, but those will be paid back from the occupation tax.
MS. BLEED: That's great. Have you been involved a lot with water quality issues?
MR. MILLER: No.
MS. BLEED: That's mostly --
MR. MILLER: We're very fortunate in our district. We have a very small area on the South Platte River in western Keith County that has higher nitrates, but not to the point requiring regulations. So, other than having a very extensive monitoring program, no, we have not had water quality issues.
MS. BLEED: I assume you're continuing to do your soil and water conservation activities, et cetera.
MR. MILLER: Oh, yeah, every one of those programs that began in the early years are ongoing. And it's interesting working with the board today. You know, our board meetings (were) from month to month water, water, water. And so, periodically, we'll go through cycles of having monthly reports on the other programs, because they are ongoing. They did not go away. It's just that the majority of our time, the majority of our money is going on the water side.
MS. BLEED: So, your district has changed over the years. I assume you have an increase of staff?
MR. MILLER: Yes. You know, we went from initially me and a secretary, to two technicians in the NRCS offices and two clerks, to now we have ten employees. Two of those ten are in the NRCS offices, and the rest are in our office. And they're, to a large extent, focused on the water side. We have an integrated management plan manager, a hydrologist, a GIS person, a field programs coordinator for the water programs. You know, another thing that's changed significantly is, in the early years, we had, basically, two secretaries. And now, we have one administrative assistant, which basically answers the phone, greets the people coming to our office and does the finances. The day of a secretary drafting letters, that's gone.
MS. BLEED: Yeah, the changes in technology in the office, yeah.
MR. MILLER: We don't do many letters to begin with, and what we do, we do ourselves. Fortunately, the computer can make an engineer's letter look pretty good.
MS. BLEED: Well, is there anything else you'd like to add for the record while the tape recorder's on?
MR. MILLER: The only thing is, I think natural resource districts have been very, very good for Nebraska. I think, particularly when you have a state that the eastern edge is predominantly urban and then you go west and it's predominantly rural. I think natural resource districts have been very good for Nebraska with that local control. What I've observed is that a local control is -- they take very serious the work of the natural resource districts. And I've known from day one folks said, well, “We don't necessarily like local control, but we'd much rather do it locally than have the State tell us what to do.” And I think that's been very, very good for Nebraska. And I think that there would be a lot more water quality problems, a lot more quantity problems, and a lot more regulations if it wasn't for the foresight of what natural resource districts were able to do.
MS. BLEED: Well, thank you very much, Kent. I appreciate that interview.