MS. BLEED: This is Ann Bleed and I am interviewing Rod Horn, who is the manager of the South Platte NRD. And, Rod, if we could just start out -- if you could just tell me a little bit about your background, where you came from, and how you got into this natural resources district business.
MR. HORN: I was born and raised in Fresno, California. When I was about 18 years old, graduating from high school, decided to come to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Spent five years there, received a bachelor's of science degree in natural resource in the College of Agriculture.
MS. BLEED: And you were on the football team, weren't you?
MR. HORN: I wasn't going to mention that, but I tried.
But thanks for reminding me, anyway. But anyway, during that period of time, I was very fortunate to have an excellent advisor, also teacher as well, Howard Wiegers, who's, I believe 98-99 years old. But during that period of time is the first time I was exposed to the NRD or natural resources district concept, I guess, coming from California. There were many factors in coming to the University, one was football, but also was obtaining an education in natural resources. And so, that was my first exposure to that. When I did graduate, I did play -- went on to play a little bit of pro ball, retired from that. First job I had was a temporary job with the southeastern part of Wyoming with the Game and Fish. That was just a very short stint, and accepted a position down at Forbes Tinchera Ranch as a natural resources manager on the ranch.
MS. BLEED: Is that in Wyoming?
MR. HORN: That was in southern Colorado, the San Luis Valley a Mexican land grant that Mr. Malcolm Forbes of Forbes magazine purchased. And he actually purchased it, had an acquisition of about another 90,000 acres on the north side of the ranch there, what's called Mount Blanca. It's probably the third, fourth highest peak. The property went through that. So, I spent a few years there and tried to gain some experience in natural resources. Wanted to try to get back to Nebraska, and there was an opening as -- with an assistant manager position under Marlin Ferguson, with the South Platte NRD. And went through an interview process there and was accepted. And January 2nd, actually, a Monday, 1986, is when I first started with the South Platte NRD. And main responsibility was to try to build up the conservation tree planting program. And at that time we just had a very small staff. Marlin Ferguson, and then our secretary, and myself, and had a couple field office secretaries, who were heavily involved with the tree planting program. Early on then, in the '80s, it seemed like water quality was coming on with a lot of legislation, chemigation, for example. And I think, just at that time, the groundwater management plan was required to be pulled together, and that was accepted. But that was prior -- that was, like, '85 when that took place, and was completed, I believe, in '86. And, you know, soil and sediment and erosion control took place. So, that's sort of the entrance into the NRD system, anyway. But my first exposure was somewhere in between 1978 and '80, and I remember Howard talking about that, and learning a little bit more about a local government, you know, your local, state, and federal government. Learned a little bit more about that, but did not really pull all that together until a little bit later when that -- when I was trying to get back -- I wanted to get back into Nebraska. And then had that exposure, had the opportunity with the South Platte. Here I am today, after 28 years later. I don't know if it's good or bad.
MS. BLEED: Did you hear any discussion or talk about those very early years and the formation of the District and what it was like before you got on the staff?
MR. HORN: Oh, probably just a little bit. It was probably a little bit more afterwards that I, in seeking the assistant manager position out there, doing more research and history and just the uniqueness of this concept. It was really fascinating.
MS. BLEED: So, since your early time when you're dealing with soil and water conservation, then you got into water quality, how have things changed over this time? I know your office has grown.
MR. HORN: Yes. You know, with all the over the period of time and the various legislation that's taken place and how the Nebraska Groundwater Management Protection Act was amended several times by, I understand, 1975. We have grown too, and our staff has enlarged in our office. We're up to nine individuals. At one time, we were at 10. Then we have two field office staff. It's just incredible, I think, as a smaller district, to grow the way we did. I give a lot of credit, like we were talking about a little bit ago with Ron Bishop, Ron Fleecs, Wayne Heathers, a lot of those that came along with the program I'd say. Ron Cacek would be another one, and their assistance to me as a younger manager, a new manager, sort of with open arms and helping out. You know, because we had a smaller staff. We were just trying to understand the technical aspect of it, that's an area that I'm definitely very limited on anyway. But, with their assistance and help with their staff, it really helped us grow. Not only that, the technology, I remember we didn't even have a computer when I first came on. I know, when I just graduated from UNL, that would have been 1980, I realized -- you know, we were working with punch cards programming. And, yeah, there are some computers coming online, and then, our copier, for example, just a single side copier with a flexible lid. You know, today, we duplex and color and print from our computers and everything else. But it just -- that has just been crazy trying to keep up with some of that technology. As a smaller district, we've had to work with some of the larger districts for the engineering aspects or modeling. Of course, now we're doing a lot of things with consultants, you know, to help us better manage the resource. And the dollars even we're involved with in leveraging for research and studies to better understand our groundwater. That's basically what our district is about is groundwater with a little bit of surface water.
MS. BLEED: So, groundwater now is your big issue, I would guess.
MR. HORN: It's a very big issue, but we're still involved with, obviously, the 962 issues and over appropriated, fully, and -- but it's, you know, leveraging water dollars with 319, water quality, and the Environmental Trust Fund dollars to provide us a substantial database to help us manage that better in looking at modeling. You know, shoot, over 10 years ago, it was very new to us, the South Platte NRD, and to begin with, I think the foresight of -- in working with the State also, the Department of Natural Resources now and DEQ and various agencies with the University. We're just at mach speed, it seems like, trying to get the best data that science -- that we can get the model to answer those natural resources questions and manage that resource, I think. With the droughts in 2002, for example, and 2012, opened a lot of eyes that this resource is not -- it is finite and we need to try to manage it the best to our abilities. And I think, with all the meetings that you were -- obviously, that you were involved with us out there in helping educate the public, was very instrumental with where we're at today, because 10-12 years ago, we had big targets on our back. You just didn't hear of moratoriums. We were like a sucking sound for Colorado and Wyoming that, well, they can -- producers or those interested in land holdings can come into Nebraska and buy ground and irrigate it. I mean, there were just very limited laws at that time. And so, we've come a long ways. And again, I don't think we could have done it if we didn't all work together starting with the NRD system. You know, the local control, but also guidance with the State agencies and other experts in the field.
MS. BLEED: So, as a small NRD, you have found it helpful and I assume not a problem to work with the larger, more wealthier NRDs. Is that a fair statement?
MR. HORN: Yeah, I think that's a very fair statement. I feel that that needs to be mentioned, because there was that guidance in helping some of us smaller districts, pulling us along. Hopefully, we weren't too much of a drag, but -- and then, individually having to work with our boards, elected officials. I think I really need to compliment our board because of where they've come through. When I first came on, we were at 13 and there was some difficulty in filling the vacancies out there, so we actually -- when I first became manager, we actually reduced that number. And we had six sub-districts, we increased it to seven, and we reduced from 13 directors down to seven, so it's one director nominated and elected per sub-district, so we moved into a one-person-one-vote concept. And out of that group, for the most part, mostly producers, but they wear many hats. Right now we have, out of the -- four of those seven involved in irrigation in some way. One's a dry land farmer, but also electrician. One's a retired Bureau of Land Management person that grew up in this area, and is retired, but involved in the community, but also a little bit of irrigation, dry land. And so there's a whole mixed bag there. And I'm real proud of them, because I know the irrigators get -- or the NRDs system, I know in the past, and even today you'll hear it, that the irrigators on the board manipulate and drive policy. And speaking for the South Platte NRD, that's totally inaccurate, is that these individuals have placed more burdens on themselves, more rules and regulations on themselves locally. It is a situation where they go to church with their neighbor, or they grocery shop with them. You run into them. The children are growing up. That becomes very difficult. All of a sudden now, you can place some regulations on somebody, your neighbor. And it's -- the last 10-12 years has been very difficult. However, they worked through that because of the water problems that we've had.
MS. BLEED: Well, and your board was one of the first people to get your integrated management plan finished and approved. So, that was a real accomplishment, I think.
MR. HORN: You know, I think it's a credit, again, to a number of people, but for them to try to take care of and resolve the problems locally instead of having it dictated in some other fashion. You know, I think a number of steps like that. I know that Central Platte pretty much provided the lead as far as (indiscernible) water quality. I think we're right up there, you know, second or third in establishing sub areas. And it's interesting. I've been with the system long enough to see, for example, the Big Springs area in Deuel County in the '90s, we were just seeing an explosion of nitrate nitrogen levels, in implementing some rules and regulations that was not readily acceptable, but I think in working with the local producers there on the problem. And then just last year, we went into a Phase Two, which is quite a bit more regulation, that it's soil sampling, if manure's applied, accounting that, the nitrate that's in the water, required to fill out a reporting form. Realizing the bottom line is just a recommendation what you put on the crop. But, a lot of those producers in the Big Springs area, for example, were hurting themselves a lot of times by just tightening things down. And then the day, last year, because three consecutive years, they hit below our second phase level, eight parts per million. And through Groundwater Advisory Committee and their recommendation and the board's acceptance is that the board then reduced it to a Phase One. And this was over, you might say, over a generation.
MS. BLEED: That's wonderful.
MR. HORN: That here's a very successful story locally. And it hasn't been without cause and effect kind of things, as well, because early on, just looking at those producers and pretty much telling them that this is the direction we're going. There's going to be some regulations applied locally. And some of those first steps weren't real pleasant. But I think they can see there's that dialog locally and here's a success story. And probably in a short time, even though you talk about a generation, 20 years or so, that it's -- those nitrates are being reduced. And I'd like to think it's all what we imposed, but I think there are other things, too. Precision ag could be some of that cost, maybe commodities through that period of time were low, cost of fertilizer. But I think working together like that and to see that shift has been very rewarding, I think.
MS. BLEED: Yeah, that's quite a story. It really is quite a story. So, then you got into a little bit of the water quality with the integrated management planning. And I know you've had surface water users who've lost their water supply. How is that going now?
MR. HORN: I think it's working out real well. At least, we're very proactive now. You know, we're about 12 years, I think. Initially, with some of our water quantity side, and then -- I'm sorry, yeah, quantity. And then with integrated management planning, looking at, you know, like they indicated 11-12 years ago, had the moratorium in place or at least -- what was it, 2002 probably? We initially started Lodgepole Creek, and then, you know, you sort of morph into that LB962 where we had integrated management planning and stuff like that. And I think people are seeing now some of the results that we have a system in place that we're all trying to work together. But we instituted a moratorium again, which was not -- unheard of 12-13 years ago, talk about that now. Moratorium on large capacity wells, expansion of use. And then administering meters and allocations, because we're one of the districts that sees that as a positive tool. That's not received with open arms with all districts, but in ours, through groundwater advisory groups and with the NRD board and other things, that that's the direction we went. And it's very interesting that hearing in various meetings that maybe were mentioned that we're measuring. And because of that measuring, we're able to manage. And that's from our perspective as far as our authorities within the NRD law and that kind of thing. And, you know, seeing acceptance of that now, and that you would demonstrate, “Hey, we're trying to protect all the water users out there.” You know, there's quite a bit of backlash initially because this is their water. We shouldn't have to be told how much. But what we're trying to do is protect those that have developed a resource, but also trying to remind them, too, that it may not mean that they get what they have had all the time, that it's maybe reduced. And so, I think those allocation numbers initially were probably high, just a matter of getting and moving this process forward. But now we have a system in place and a couple allocation period -- three allocation -- well, we have three year allocation periods, but we're on a couple of those now in discussion. And those have come down. The modeling aspect has ramped up quite a bit and improved over time. And that's where, again, as a smaller district -- it was a larger district, for example, Central Platte taking initiative, one of the districts to pull everybody together and start that modeling process, which is, you know, just very new to a lot of us. Now it's just everyday language. And we have a consultant to help us with this, and continue studies and leverage our dollars with Environmental Trust Fund dollars, 319, to get the best out of the science that we can, implement into that. So, it's -- once it's peer reviewed and recalibrated over and over again, I guess modeling just never ends, but at least it's a tool now that could help us try to manage that resource and justify why we may do certain things to those out there in the field. But at least we're at a point now that, you know, trying to really protect all the water users out there, you know, the irrigators, the dry land, livestock, domestic, environmental, and wildlife, municipalities, on and on.
MS. BLEED: Is there anything else you would like to add?
MR. HORN: I guess I just feel very fortunate to be part of this NRD concept in Nebraska. It's very unique to Nebraska and the working relationships that we have. As you know, there are a lot of times we may have to agree to disagree. At least that conversation is out there. And I think I've really grown as an individual over this period of time. Very fortunate to be part of this -- the natural resources system and all the people I've gotten to know over time. But, you know, we just keep trying to move forward and manage the resources the best we can at the local level.
MS. BLEED: Do you think what you have seen and what you've done in your district would have been done if we had simply State oversight and control and management?
MR. HORN: Oh, I think that crystal ball is pretty murky. But I can't help but say that -- and maybe this is biased and maybe its selfish position, but I think it probably could have been -- it may have been a lot slower. I think it's -- the districts have really grown up and taken care of -- by no means are we perfect, but I think we've really grown into adulthood as an NRD system from the very beginning in exposure and the confidence, hopefully, that the State has, and from legislators on down, administrators. And I think the local people see that somewhat. That's not to say that it couldn't have been done from the State. Whether it could have been financed that way or not, I don't know, but I think doing on that local level in little bits across the state, that probably helps accelerate it. I don't know. What're your thoughts on that?
MS. BLEED: I would agree with you. I don't think a lot of what's being done now by all the local districts would have ever been even attempted by the State. Some things would be, but it would have been from the top down and without the acceptance. So, I think very definitely that -- I don't want to get that on the interview, anything else?
MR. HORN: You know, it really is truly the grassroots level, but, you know, and credit to you, Ann, is that when you were the Director of the Department of Natural Resources, too, and Roger Patterson, and Brian Dunnigan today and previous administrators, and even, you know, Mike Linder over in NDEQ, and the various, you know, with the University and other agencies, that's helped us along the way. And I think we'd be fooling ourselves if we didn't say that. I think a lot of the guidance and expertise there, you know, I mentioned within the NRD system, with those that are still out there and have gone before me or us, you know, I think there needs to be adulations, I guess, or to commend, like yourself and others to help us along as well. I think it'd be a false notion if that wasn't mentioned.
MS. BLEED: What is the State's role, do you think? You mentioned technical help and expertise. Obviously, funding is important.
MR. HORN: Oh, yeah. You know, I think maybe as a, you know, from a State perspective, State planning, because we're all in it together. You know, each district gets tied together some way to others. And so, I think the State is important from a broad perspective and State planning. But as part of that, though, you have the local input and those kinds of things, as well.
MS. BLEED: That's good. Well, thank you very much, Rod. I really appreciate it. And I will get you a copy of this when it gets transcribed.
MR. HORN: Thank you.