Lloyd Fischer

Interviewee:


Interviewee Lloyd Fischer, Professor, Agricultural Economics, UNL, 1955 - retirement

Lloyd Fischer

Position Held: Professor, Agricultural Economics, UNL, 1955 - retirement

Full Interview:


Interviewer(s):

Jim Barr

Associated NRDs:

All

Transcript:

MR. BARR: This is Jim Barr. It's July 9th and I'm in Lincoln, Nebraska, with Dr. Loyd Fischer. And one of the things we usually do is get a little background of the person to start off with, so if you would like to do that.
DR. FISCHER: I am a native of Nebraska. But like many Nebraskans my age, I am pretty recent because my father was brought here as a child and both of my parents had German as their first language. And my father ended up -- well, my mother's parents were so-called Germans from Russia and they homesteaded in eastern Colorado. And then my father later, his parents, my paternal grandparents were immigrants from Germany. And they came to Harlan County, Nebraska, if you know where that is --
MR. BARR: Sure.
DR. FISCHER: -- down by the Republican River. In fact, our address was Republican City. And they didn't homestead. They did what a lot of them did. They took over a homestead that was abandoned. But then later my father and his brother went from Nebraska and they homesteaded in eastern Colorado under the enlarged Homestead Act. They each got a half section. It wasn't too far from where my wife's grandparents, Germans from Russian so-called, had homesteaded and it was rather remarkable. My father was eight years old when his parents brought him here. And you wonder -- I wonder, in retrospect quite often, he spoke English without accent. And, you know, his first language obviously eight years old was German, and they didn't have English as a second language in those days. You know, and he went to school out in a country school which didn't have a real sophisticated curriculum, as you might imagine. And you wonder how he acquired his English, you know. I have lived in foreign countries and I know how difficult it is to acquire that. But then equally surprising after he and his brother homesteaded out in eastern Colorado he acquired a steam engine and a threshing machine and breaking plow. I am only partially so much chagrined or embarrassed by the fact that since my field is -- academic field is natural resources, you know, I know that he broke up a lot of sod out there in Colorado which never should have been plowed, you know, we know in retrospect.
MR. BARR: Sure.
DR. FISCHER: They were fed a line by the railroad and so on about, you know, the rain follows the plow and all that crap and so anyway I come from a big family. But my father died then of stomach cancer when I was only eight years old and left my widowed mother, his widow, with nine children, including basically a baby. By that time they had moved back to Nebraska in -- I don't know if you know those counties, but Franklin County is where my paternal grandparents had settled. So they moved back then and turned up to, I mentioned, Republican City, which was Harlan County and acquired a farm there, although they had been elsewhere. These old German families don't tell kids much, but it seemed obvious that my father's health was failing and he ended up going to the Mayo Clinic twice. The first time they diagnosed his stomach ulcers and the second time stomach cancer. And he died and left my mother. Then she lost the farm because not only was that a family tragedy but also that was the midst of not only the Great Depression but also dust storms, you know, the dust bowls. We had those God awful dust storms which is part of the reason probably that I became interested in natural resources. That was kind of my background. I grew up amongst those dust storms and my mother then took the family and we migrated to northeast Nebraska, which -- Thurston County, the Winnebago Indian Reservation. The fact is, we farmed some Indian land which again we also rented other land and really land that had been very severely abused. You know, the erosion and all the rest. And I often said, you know, my relatives that are still on the farm, they have no-till farming and so on. And, of course, people like to talk about how the family farmer protected the soil. The fact of the matter is that we ravaged the soil. But we didn't -- one, we didn't know any better. But the other thing is we didn't have equipment that, one, could control weeds without tillage and the other thing is we couldn't leave the crop residue on the surface. I spent plenty of time when I was a young guy, you know, particularly the bull board plow which farmers don't even have any more, digging the doggone stuff out from under that plow. The fact is, when we were in northeast Nebraska our crop for conservation was sweet clover, which you probably know is a biennial and we would leave it two years and let it grow up, and by that time that old sweet clover would have died the second winter -- was at least five feet tall. And you go in there and try to plow the doggone stuff and it would clog up under the plow. Anyway, it's not trying to rationalize the way we farmed then. It's just kind of explaining it. And part of it -- at least part of it was we had -- but, anyway, that farm that we rented up in northeast Nebraska was fouled by -- had quite a lot of bind weed on it. It had cockleburrs and sunflowers. And bindweed was a mean doggone weed. It had two characteristics that were bad. One of them, it's kind of a vine, you know, and you had the old shovels. They would move out in front of the shovel and it wouldn't cut them off, you know. And so basically we had a bunch of boys, we farmed that doggone -- we had 200 acres of corn and we farmed with a hoe. We hoed the cockleburs and sunflowers out of those farm fields. And cockleburs had another characteristic. I doubt there's very many people who ever fought that sucker who knew it. Each of those burrs had two seeds in it. And one of those seeds would germinate one year and the other one would wait and germinate the next year. So if you killed every cockeyed cockaburr in the field, you had just as big a crop the next year as you did the year before. Well, mother nature had devised that system for survival of that plant and it was a good one but it didn't make it easy. What I'm telling you is that I grew up at a time down south. Central Nebraska, we had the God awful dust storms and so on. In northeast Nebraska, because the only land available when we moved up there -- we didn't know anybody -- was a farm that was in very bad shape. So I have personal history of what now would most assuredly be called very bad husbandry, soil husbandry and so on, and I have always kind of chuckled when people talk about how the family farmer protected the soil. We wouldn't have had those dust storms if that soil had been protected, you know. Anyway, that's more than you probably wanted to know but --
MR. BARR: No, that's very interesting.
DR. FISCHER: But it does tell you something of the kind of background. I'll be 93 next month in August so I go back a ways. And people don't realize how new we are. When I was born, I was the first one in the family born after my parents had moved back down to Harlan County, and the reason they did that is my father actually -- they had gone to a store. They should have stayed there in Melmo, Nebraska, although again it seems kind of interesting how a kid that was brought here in a German-speaking family, how he even would have the capacity to have a general store. But his health continued to fail and most of his relatives, he had three brothers and two sisters and his mother all lived in that area of Harlan County and Franklin County and so on. And so in retrospect, obviously, his health has continued to fail and just went back there to be near the family. So, anyway, that's probably more history than you wanted to know.
MR. BARR: Well, that kind of explains why you may not have farmed all your life.
DR. FISCHER: Well, you're right. It wasn't quite as bad then as it is now, but it was pretty tough if you didn't come -- if you come from a non-farm or with a fairly ambiguous family to get established in farming. It wasn't as heavily capitalized as it is now, but still the lending system and so on, the bank and whatnot was worse than it is now. Consequently, it wasn't easy for a young guy to --
MR. BARR: Yeah.
DR. FISCHER: Although that also was heavily influenced by the fact that I was, you know -- second World War came along and they were going to -- they meaning the draft board was going to draft my one brother who was already farming and had a wife and kids. And my other brother was already started on his own, but he had lost an eye in an accident on the farm and so he wouldn't have been drafted. But then my next older brother and myself, they were going to draft all of us. And so Frances, my next oldest brother and I -- and all that left was a younger brother, a teenager, and there was no way that I don't think that mom could have survived the farm if they had taken all of us. So we went to the draft board and propositioned that if you will allow Lawrence, the next older brother who was married and had a child already to come back and we moved a house on the farm where mom was, even though it was a rental farm, and so he and his wife and basically baby moved back. And then Mel, the next -- was 17 and the two of them could take over this farm. And Frances, my next oldest brother, enlisted in the Marine Corps and I enlisted in the V5 program in the Navy because I had completed high school. None of my older siblings had even gone to high school. I was the first one that went to high school. So that was the minimum education requirement for the V5 program, so I became a Navy pilot and that's how I spent the second World War. And then I ended up in active duty. After the war ended I went to Pensacola, Florida, and was a flight instructor for a while. But then I became disenchanted with the peace time military but I stayed in the Reserves and I flew. I was a carrier-based pilot while I was on active duty, but I went into the Reserves and I continued to fly the torpedo bomb. As a matter of fact, I stayed in the Reserves and I retired. I'm a lieutenant commander, USNR Retired. So -- which, by the way, is a very nice benefit with health insurance and so on.
MR. BARR: Sure, sure.
DR. FISCHER: I don't think I was thinking of that very much at that time. Pretty hard for a 25-year-old to think much of retirement.
MR. BARR: Sure, sure.
DR. FISCHER: But anyway I did it and it worked out. So, anyway, that's a good -- by the way, I ended up then I got out of active duty and had the GI Bill. You had 48 months of GI Bill and I came back, actually went into the auto repair business with a brother-in-law but I got to thinking, you know, that's really pretty stupid to turn down that 48-month GI Bill. And so I did get 28 credits at the University for the education I had in the Navy. But then I went rather rapidly, I went to the University of Nebraska, College of Agriculture. My first major was actually agronomy. But then I decided ag econ seemed more attractive to me at that time so I got a double major. I got ag economics and I got my bachelor's and master's here at the University of Nebraska. Got the master's degree in 1952 and went over to Iowa State. I had a fellowship there and actually I even became an instructor. In 1955 I got my Ph.D. from Iowa State and I wrote my dissertation on the soil and water conservation districts of Iowa. So that has been my introduction to this. And I had a double minor, economics and what they call government. Most places they call it political science. At Iowa State they called it government. And so those were my minors. And I got -- well, I shouldn't say that because economics, of course, was my major. I got my Ph.D. in 1955 from Iowa State and then I came back to the University of Nebraska, on the faculty here in '55 and I had my whole career, although I spent time, some time out of the country in the University programs, including two years in Columbia, South America. An interesting thing, this may sound a bit pretentious but it was true, that I could identify with the peasant farmers in Columbia a heck of a lot better than the well off Colombians who were running things, you know, including the colleges, including the ag college, because after all I grew up, we farmed with horses, you know, and we didn't have electricity or running water. My life wasn't an awfully lot different when I was growing up than that peasant in Columbia. And so I could identify with him a heck of a lot better than that wealthy Colombian who was running the university, you know. I understood their life. I knew where they were coming from. We had no electricity, no running water, no tractors or anything else. We got our first tractor when we moved to northeast Nebraska in 1936. We got a -- well, actually '35, winter of '35. But then we did get a tractor, my mother did when we moved to northeast Nebraska. And so life changed. So in many ways I have two agricultural lives, the one prior to our move up to northeast Nebraska and I have often said that my younger siblings who weren't old enough to really appreciate it, they don't really comprehend the life we lived before we had electricity, before we had tractors and so on. Life was very different.
MR. BARR: What other things -- you said you had worked your dissertation on soil and water. Did you have any particular conclusions or -- on that paper or --
DR. FISCHER: Yes. As a matter of fact, what I did is I really appraised the soil and water conservation program of Iowa and I was quite proud of it. And the head of the soil conservation service there wasn't -- he wasn't happy with what I wrote because, well, for one thing, I said they called the so-called conservation practice that they spent far and away more money on than anything else. The fact is, more the other things was tiling. I said, well, I contended that tiling, I don't know how you call
that -- you know, that's -- it was conservation, wasn't going anyway.
MR. BARR: Yeah.
DR. FISCHER: And, furthermore, the basic error which was that they -- on purpose is that each time they established a practice on any of the farms they had in the program they counted those acres. They never subtracted any acres. You know, that rental farm would change operators and they would go out and plow down the terraces or whatever or put the -- there was never any subtraction.
MR. BARR: So it was always additive.
DR. FISCHER: Always adding.
MR. BARR: Interesting.
DR. FISCHER: So after a while they had more acres in a county in their program than there were acres in the county.
MR. BARR: Interesting.
DR. FISCHER: And they weren't damn happy when I was pointing out, that that was fictitious, you know, there was some real fiction there. But, fortunately, my major professor over at Iowa State, you know, basically challenged them to point out any errors, see if you can tell me what's wrong in this publication about so-called soil conservation. Most of what they were paying for would not meet any real definition of conservation, you know. They weren't very happy with that.
MR. BARR: -- was tiling, I take it.
DR. FISCHER: Yeah, well, that's what they spent the big money on. They spent more federal money on tiling than all other practices. But also a lot of what was set up on contour, rented farms, the next tenant --
MR. BARR: Would take them out?
DR. FISCHER: -- would take them out, yeah. And, you know, those terraces, early on they weren't very well designed. And if you got a big rain that took out some of those terraces you would get worse erosion than you would have if they had never been terraced. It just concentrated the water to really take it. So I was -- my dissertation was pretty doggone critical of --
MR. BARR: What about the organization of how they implemented the conservation districts and how they were run and that sort of thing?
DR. FISCHER: Yeah, well, I thought they did a pretty good job. By the way, they just did counties. A county was a district.
MR. BARR: Yeah.
DR. FISCHER: Now that's not what I proposed in Nebraska but I didn't propose what they did. But the organization I thought was better than what we had in Nebraska. Of course then I came to Nebraska and that's when we started organizing. Two standing arguments I had with Vince Driesen, one of them was the notion of trying to cut the state up in terms of watersheds, was really pretty silly. The implicit assumption was made that the only resource that the soil and water conservation districts were deemed with was surface water, which was silly on the face of it. And as a matter of fact, quite early we ran into pretty severe problem right here in this country, not very far south from Lincoln. There are some areas with poor groundwater. They don't have decent aquifers. Sometimes there just aren't any aquifers down there but sand. Also, sometimes there are -- problems. And I don't know if you remember, but actually they did something. They put some rural water districts in.
MR. BARR: Yes, yes.
DR. FISCHER: And I did some work on that, too, and I didn't argue with the rural water districts except it was a whole lot more costly if there was a decent aquifer in terms of -- I'm not talking about irrigation. There wasn't much irrigation. But I'm talking about just stock wells and so on. If there was water, decent quality water there, it was much less expensive to develop a farm water system than to put in one of those. I did some research on that and just come out all the time that these water districts -- now, if you didn't have decent water there, good water is good even for just a farmstead, you know. Particularly there were some places where they had iron in the water and other things that you know about.
MR. BARR: Yeah, sure.
DR. FISCHER: So I never quarreled with those rural water districts where they didn't have decent water. But I had one graduate student do some research on the cost, and any time you had a decent aquifer, decent both in terms of yield and --
MR. BARR: Quality.
DR. FISCHER: -- quality, that was the way to go.
MR. BARR: Yeah. One of your students must have looked at special purpose districts. And, in fact, part of this project we heard that maybe that seminar that Clayton Yeutter held might have even got Warren Fairchild thinking about the idea of a national resource multipurpose -- combining multipurpose districts into natural resource districts.
DR. FISCHER: Warren was a heck of a lot easier to deal with than Dreisen, you know. I used to -- one of the things that I kept promoting, without success, was the notion that we limit the withdrawal of groundwater from a sustainable yield. And I remember at least two different times on a panel discussion and Vince Driesen would come, you know, well, that's impossible. And I said, you know, it's not only possible, it's also ultimately inevitable, that any time you exhaust the groundwater resource, then in terms of the stored water in there, you are going to be on a sustainable basis because that's all you can get out of it, what comes in. And you would think he would shut up about it then because, you know, that was -- it wasn't something you needed to argue about because that's just the way it was. You could withdraw more water than was being charged as long as there was some water there in storage. But finally you're ending up sucking the water off the bottom of the aquifer, which is a very inefficient way to do it.
MR. BARR: Now we have, of course, and have had all along a separate system of legal rights for surface water and groundwater. And at the current time we have a different entity overseeing the surface water and then a different entity overseeing the groundwater. Do you have any thoughts on that general situation?
DR. FISCHER: I clearly think we ought to manage the water as an entity, you know. You really can't sensibly divide ground and surface. That was another thing that Vince Driesen, you know, was just dead wrong on when I would contend that you ought to manage your water if you got recharge, you ought to manage it in terms of what you could sustain, that it doesn't make any sense to exhaust that stored groundwater and then try to manage it in terms of just what comes in but also Vince's -- the State of Nebraska got in deep trouble with Kansas. And finally even the judges understood that the withdrawal of groundwater is going to impact the flow of surface water. And, you see, part of the reason again -- the one good thing we had about our farm down in Harlan County, we were just about a mile and a half from the Republican River, but we -- I don't know whether you know that area at all but Medicine Creek, the fact is there is a Medicine Creek campground on the Harlan County reservoir. The creek ran right through our farmstead. And we would have had a hell of a lot harder time making it through there had we not had that spring fed creek coming right through our farmstead so that -- and it had a fairly large floodplain there. And, by the way, it never quit flowing all through the '30s.
MR. BARR: Is that right?
DR. FISCHER: That creek didn't dry up. And we had -- down on the floodplain we had a big orchard and then the floodplain was -- you know, a kid's notion of size, but it was maybe as much as five acres. And down in the floodplain, in addition to the big orchard we had which, you know, those trees were totally indifferent to rainfall because the water table below those trees wasn't more than 10 feet, so those trees didn't have any problem growing up.
MR. BARR: Sure, sure.
DR. FISCHER: But we used to also, as differentiated from her garden, because we could farm that with a walking plow and so on and horses, we had our potatoes, our sweet corn, melons and cantaloupe and so on all grown down there on that. Now we had a garden up on the second bottom where the house was, but, you know, the tomatoes and all the rest which we watered from the old hand pump and buckets, you know. We would carry the water there. And, of course, we had plenty of labor around with all the boys. So we always -- and never did we have any -- well, for one thing, we simply didn't have the capacity to overdraw that aquifer, you know. So even though there wasn't much rain back in those days, I don't think -- we, unlike others, we always had drilled wells. We always had two, one up by the house, you know, with casing and so on, which meant I think that we had better quality water than a lot of those people getting their water out of dug wells.
MR. BARR: Sure.
DR. FISCHER: But it was only about 20 feet down to water. That is all the further we would have to go down to drill down and put in a casing. And we had one well down by the corral, we called it, and down there we did have, you know, a little one and a half horsepower Briggs & Stratton engine on a pump jack. We never had a windmill because we were down in the bottom and --
MR. BARR: No wind, probably.
DR. FISCHER: -- trees and so on, we just didn't get any wind down there. So we used to envy people up on the hill.
MR. BARR: Yeah. Well, they didn't have water either probably for --
DR. FISCHER: Yeah, but they had a heck of a lot harder time getting the water.
MR. BARR: Exactly.
DR. FISCHER: So, anyway --
MR. BARR: One of the things I was going to ask you about is in the mid '60s when, among other things, the natural resource district legislation was acted upon. What were some of the other natural resource related issues that were going on then and --
DR. FISCHER: Well, it is true, much of -- I guess, you know, that I advised not only Clayton Yeutter but two other, Norm Thorson and Doug Nelson, for Ph.D.'s. And Clayton Yeutter and I were classmates and he went back to the farm out at Eustis and he came -- after I was on the faculty he came to see me and he said, you know, one thing Clayton never suffered from was lack of ego. But it was true. He came, you know, and he said, I just don't believe that my talents are being well used out there driving a tractor. And who could argue with that? But so all three of them wrote their dissertations on western water law. And Doug Nelson is still working with water down in Phoenix, Arizona. And, of course, the shame was Norm Thorson died fairly soon which is -- because Norm, in my view, was the best student I advised in all my academic career. He really was an exceptional student and it caused me a great deal of grief when he died so young. But in Nebraska, you're in natural resources, you're almost, by definition, you're in water.
MR. BARR: Yeah, yeah.
DR. FISCHER: And so now we are starting to get some of these exotic materials developed. We haven't gone very far in Nebraska, but -- not as much as other states. But natural resources in Nebraska is soil and water really. That's what it comes down to. And so how much would you organize? I guess I think our potential, at least from anything we have found so far, is such that how that is organized publicly is probably not a great moment. I think basically we dang sure, you know -- this issue with Kansas, which of course you are familiar with, that they took us to court and the court decided, they couldn't decide otherwise, that when we continued to put high capacity wells, particularly down in a floodplain, we were going to diminish the flow of surface water. You know, you had to be a dummy to even argue against that notion.
MR. BARR: How much -- Kansas has a different water system in that both the ground and surface water are on an appropriation system, whereas we are correlative rights and appropriation on the ground and surface water. Is that an issue of any significance here or has that been part of the problem or not?
DR. FISCHER: Well, it is true that we did not, when we started getting high capacity wells and so on, you know, the old appropriation doctrine worked pretty good until we started getting high capacity wells. My own parents, they had moved -- when they moved back from Colorado they moved up into Holt County, a hay farm up there. And they had an artisan well on that which flowed all the time. And those people with artisan wells, when they started getting the high capacity wells in, boy those artisan wells would just go dry very quickly.
MR. BARR: Sure.
DR. FISCHER: So we didn't really have -- ahead of time we didn't really have a property system which handled that. We really didn't. And it should have been managed -- the ground and surface water ought to have been managed as one entity. Logic would say that. But it's hard to back up.
MR. BARR: Oh, yes, yes.
DR. FISCHER: It's very difficult.
MR. BARR: Is the market any potential role in those or --
DR. FISCHER: Well, Clayton had a lot of -- more faith in the market than I did. It's a pretty complex market because the interrelationship between the ground and surface water isn't that clear, you know. And you would have to have very good data to do an adequate job of managing it as one entity. But we should have been doing it. Unlike Vince Driesen, you know, just impossible. Can't take into account the impact on the flow of streams from the diminishing of groundwater aquifers, you know. That was his position. And, dammit, the legislature listened to him. It really was very difficult, as far as I was concerned, to get any sensible water law in Nebraska as long as the legislature was listening to Vince Driesen. You know, the very notion that -- well, he never even accepted -- at least he didn't admit to accepting, although it seemed logic that he really had to -- that there was any impact on spring flow off withdrawing water from -- with particularly these high capacity wells from groundwater aquifers. He never really conceded that. And he just simply insisted that you can't manage it as an entity. He used to actually say that. And when we were in panels and whatnot, there's no way that can be managed on a sustainable yield basis. He would say that. And, of course, my response was, which maybe wasn't a very good one, is that what I said before is not only will we -- not only is it ultimately going to be managed that way if we overdraft, overdraw our groundwater aquifers, but we won't have any choice. When you start getting rid of any surplus that is down there you're going to have to limit your withdrawal to whatever the recharge is during whatever time period you're talking about. Until you are willing to accept reality, you weren't very apt to come up with a sensible way to manage it. And I contended, of course, that all good sense would be you ought to be managing those groundwater aquifers while there was still substantial storage there.
MR. BARR: There seems to be a fair amount of interest in continuing to think about doing that at this point. How would you suggest that it might -- looking at how we have been over the last 50 years and so, how -- and granting that we've got certain things set up and probably can't back up on all that.
DR. FISCHER: Well, some of these aquifers are already depleted to the point --
MR. BARR: Yeah.
DR. FISCHER: It doesn't help a heck of a lot to say it ought to be done, you know, before you exhaust it --
MR. BARR: You can't really back up and do it.
DR. FISCHER: Yeah, and so the property system, I don't know but what -- we're probably doing about as well as -- because of the law, at least managing the water in the Republican watershed. I think we're probably doing about as well. We got saved by the fact that the compacts that divided up the water never mentioned groundwater. And, consequently, when the Court held that we've got to start taking into account the depletion of stream flows as a consequence of exploiting the groundwater, they also said but we don't have to go back. Nebraska doesn't have to make whole what we have already done, I guess, because the early compacts never said anything about this interrelationship. Well, you know, I can't argue with that. I thought I knew something about the groundwater law. I almost had to learn it after three Ph.D. candidates all writing their dissertations on western water law, and all three of them did. So you're asking me questions that there isn't a good answer to. It isn't helpful to say that, you know, we should have started out that way. We should have taken that into account when we were doing -- even though that's true, but it isn't very helpful. You don't get to start history over again. You have to go from where you are. But I still think that we ought to strive to wherever we are. There is no excuse. Nebraska is in better shape than a heck of a lot of other states. There is no excuse to pretend any longer that there isn't an interrelationship between groundwater and surface water.
MR. BARR: Should it be more -- is there -- I guess one of the things that I have been curious about is you have a completely different philosophical basis for surface and groundwater.
DR. FISCHER: That's true.
MR. BARR: How do you --
DR. FISCHER: Marry the two? How do you marry the two?
MR. BARR: -- construct a system with that kind of dichotomy? That's --
DR. FISCHER: To a certain extent I think we're kind of playing with that along the Republican River under the duress of law, the changing law in the sense that we no longer can pretend that withdrawal of water from streams -- excuse me, withdrawal of water from groundwater aquifers doesn't affect the flow of streams, you know. We can't even kid ourselves any longer like Vince Driesen managed to do his whole life, professional life. And to a certain extent, under the onus of court orders, we are integrating the management of surface water and groundwater, at least along the Republican River. That isn't a very satisfactory answer.
MR. BARR: Well, and that --
DR. FISCHER: You know, it's not very helpful to state the obvious. We should have done it, you know, going in. And it wasn't -- you know, it wasn't a great mystery. I was just a dumb farm kid but I knew very well that groundwater withdrawal, even when we had the modest withdrawals that we had when I was growing up, but you start getting these thousand gallons a minute water wells and then you just can't pretend any longer that, well, we'll just muck our way through, you know, but that's what we tried to do.
MR. BARR: Looking just back at the formation of the natural resource districts and how they were intended at the time originally, I guess, merging the soil and water conservation districts and some flood control and some other things, how have they worked out over time either in relation to what was expected at the beginning or just in general?
DR. FISCHER: Well, one thing I have to admit. I had an ulterior motive I didn't push very hard because it wasn't popular. But when we started this, that we got a bunch of counties that are public entities that make no sense. You know, dammit, we don't have to have the county seat within the distance that you can drive to in a horse drawn wagon any more. We don't need that. And I worked a little bit -- at one time I was on a committee that was looking at the merger of Lincoln and Lancaster County because -- the governance, because it doesn't make any sense. Why should each of these have their own motor pool? So we then, by default, went to what we call functional merger. Rather than merging everything, just certain functions that -- there's no reason why there has to be a county sheriff in Lancaster County and a police for the city of Lincoln, but we still have them. But we have merged a few things. We've merged the assessment of property and there's some other things, have merged the motor pools and some other things. Now that's a long way around what I was going to -- I had in mind that if we made these natural resource districts clusters of counties, that it would be a lot easier for those clusters of counties, they already would have a mechanism for merging these functions. They wouldn't have to try to have a county engineer in each of these little piddly -- you know, some farmer that went broke and you could really have for the whole district -- you could have one office of engineering which would take over the functions for the counties that are merged. So I wanted very much for those districts to be clusters of counties. It just seemed to make so much sense. And got around this, to a considerable extent, this notion that each of these little towns, each of these little counties was an independent entity, because you already had joined together in this natural resource district and you were already addressing the problems jointly associated with the natural resources, particularly water. And, by the way, there isn't anything that said you couldn't handle, you know, minerals and so on by the same mechanism. And it just made so much sense to me that why do we want to kid ourselves, go out here and have these natural resource districts cut counties in two, which, of course, they did.
MR. BARR: Would you think that's one of the reasons it's not caught on in other states, is that sort of thing? Or in a more general sense, why did it pass here in Nebraska and no place else?
DR. FISCHER: Vince Driesen. The notion, it was terribly frustrating to me that the notion -- for one thing, the notion was that we have what they call natural resource districts which doesn't say water districts, but they are organized around the notion of surface water. But then that's all screwed up, too, because inevitably, like I say, the whole State of Nebraska is in one water shed so you're going to cut up water sheds. No damn way you can keep from doing it. You're going to cut up water sheds and state lines applicable to the Republican is a classic case. But on the other hand, it -- to me, it became a lot more practical to deal with water as an entity as differentiated from groundwater or surface water. If you think you recognize at the start that you simply were handling water, you weren't handling groundwater and surface water, you simply were managing your water, dang it, water is water. But I don't know if there's any damn way we can back up and redo it.
MR. BARR: Well, probably not.
DR. FISCHER: Even back up and redo our counties, you know. They just make no sense at all when you look at them.
MR. BARR: Doesn't seem to be very popular at the local level to advocate --
DR. FISCHER: No, people have an emotional attachment, you know. It didn't mean a dang thing to me. When we moved up to northeast Nebraska, we were in Thurston County but we went in the boundary between Thurston and Wayne and Dixon County all when we went to town, all of them, you know. And that just seemed so silly.
MR. BARR: Sure.
DR. FISCHER: We had to go all -- well, my brother did, had to go all over Ponca. We went to Pender, you know, and then others went to Wayne. And so those counties just didn't make any sense then and they make even less sense now.
MR. BARR: Was there ever an issue with the reservation when you were there?
DR. FISCHER: No. They hadn't really established -- the reservations were autonomous, you know, governed themselves, which they didn't really do, but we played games with that, too. But the Indians haven't been given enough power. They can screw things up very bad. But, yeah, you know, Winnebago was, of course, the reservation, which is in Thurston County, and, of course, we didn't go very far south. Then you were in Omaha and you had Macy. And if you went north, although you didn't have a reservation up there at that time, you had the Poncas and so on. So they had kind of a screwed up system, too. And, by the way, the Bureau of Indian Affairs did a miserable job of managing that Indian land. It was pitiful. It just shows how -- when we rented that Indian land, which we always did, and for all practical purposes in those days you just automatically -- the lease was renewed, cash rent. Well, then the -- I think it's different now. I'm sure it's different now. I haven't been close enough to it to follow it. But the Bureau of Indian Affairs had a shift in management. I didn't follow it very closely. I wasn't any longer around there. But you're probably aware that they decided that they were going to have basically bidding for lease on the Indian land. But the only problem was with that, back in those days, which is no longer true -- you know, my nephew farming up in northeast Nebraska, he farms land that is strung out over 20 miles, and it's no longer your neighbor. But it used to be that tract we had of Indian land, none of our neighbors were going to bid against us. I mean, that just wasn't the custom in those days. You just simply do it.
MR. BARR: Yeah, yeah.
DR. FISCHER: And so theoretically they were creating a market for leases on Indian land. In reality it didn't work in those days. And even after -- well, they didn't even pretend. For years we just automatically signed up these. But when they went through the rigamarole of making people bid to it, none of our neighbors were going to bid against us for that land. So we continued to cheat the Indians. So you always have to deal with people and what people think. But that is all the more reason. If you can avoid it, you have a lock in the system that doesn't fit the world and that's the way we did with water law. We had one water law for groundwater and another one for surface water and they simply didn't mesh. And, boy, it's hard to this day to do much about it. The federal government kind of intervened in that when they started dealing with the Republican River in Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas and so on. But they have plenty of problems there, too.
MR. BARR: Yeah. Well, is there anything else in the general natural resource area that you would like to comment on?
DR. FISCHER: Not that I can think of offhand. You recognize that I am retired not only from the University but also military and so I have had a lot of interests that aren't basically natural resources for a good many years.
MR. BARR: Sure, sure.
DR. FISCHER: Now I still get letters regularly from Clayton Yeutter. I talk to Doug Nelson down in Phoenix every so often. I have even visited him down there and he has visited me because his sister still lives in Lincoln.
MR. BARR: Okay.
DR. FISCHER: And now Norm, I never really got to know his wife. I just saw her in the paper yesterday that she is a juvenile judge, you know. But I never have any occasion to see her or talk to her. She is a very nice lady and I was exceeding fond of Norm Thorson. I think you're aware that toward the end of my tenure at the University I did some teaching, joint teaching in the law school.
MR. BARR: Right.
DR. FISCHER: Primarily because of Dick Harnsberger.
MR. BARR: Yeah, yeah.
DR. FISCHER: Now I think the University did a good thing and I do believe that overall their service to the University and to the state has been positive. I think he has handled that about as well as he could. But anyway, that's life.
MR. BARR: Well, I don't want to overdo this, but I appreciate you taking some time and talking about some of these things. Is there any one last shot you want to make on anything or --
DR. FISCHER: No, I don't think so. I haven't -- I guess I feel one modest satisfaction, mixed up with frustration, but I don't believe that I was guilty of attempting to take the state down a prim rose path, you know. I haven't had to -- too stubborn. I haven't had to eat many of the principles that I think I tried to live by when I was on the faculty, and that might just be ego talking. Undoubtedly there would be people, certainly Vince Driesen, if he were still alive, would be among them who thought I was wrong.
MR. BARR: Well, thank you very much.