MR. STARR: This is an interview with Rod Storm, former manager of the Middle Missouri Natural Resource District. And the interviewer in Gale Starr. The interview is being conducted on November 20th, 2013, at Mr. Storm's office as the City Manager in Blair, Nebraska. So, Rod, with that, how about giving me a little background of your life?
MR. STORM: Grew up, my family of six children to Lyle and Alice Storm. Grew up, went to elementary school at the Macy Public Schools, attended Walthill High School, graduated in '69, attended Wayne State College. And then went to work for the Natural Resource District in October of 1972 for roughly 12 years, and worked in private business, construction management for about two and a half years, City of Plainview, City Administrator for about two and a half years, and then with the City of Blair for the last 24 years.
MR. STARR: What got you interested in the Natural Resources District in the first place?
MR. STORM: To be honest with you, I was going to -- attending Wayne and our neighbor -- my dad has always worked in -- for the old ASCS, Agriculture Stabilization Service. We farmed. I was familiar with conservation. Our neighbor was Cloyd Boyston (phonetic), who was the local district conservationist there in Thurston County. And Cloyd seen me one day on the street and he said, “Would you be interested in a job with the Natural Resources District?” And I said, “What's that?” And he kind of explained a little bit and said, you know, he said, “I've seen some of the applications. You know more about conservation than most of those do. If you're interested, you should make an application.” So, I thought about it, I made an application, I was lucky enough to be interviewed. To put my side of the story on the interview, after we sat and visited for about an hour, Vinny Kramper essentially said, we're looking for somebody, which I've often told people was, and he didn't put it in those words, but somebody that doesn't know anything --
-- that we could train to do the job. And I said, “If you're looking for a dummy, you got one.” I says, “I'm your person.” A few days later, they called and offered the job.
MR. STARR: Very good. So you started in, I think you said October of '72. So, what was your first impression when you went on the job?
MR. STORM: Well, when I went into it, I went very blind. As a young individual, the age of about 21 or so, whatever I was at the time, 22 years old, I didn't realize the politics of what had went on. I didn't realize that you had a board of -- I can't remember whether it was 15 or 17 or whatever the number was, and that there was probably one more than half that wanted it to succeed, the NRD concept to succeed. And you had probably the rest of them that really was looking at hoping that it failed, because they wanted to go back to the old soil and water conservation days or the old watershed district that had been formed in the Tekamah area. So it was a real learning experience on the inter politics.
MR. STARR: So, what was your biggest challenge?
MR. STORM: I think the biggest challenge was trying to help make it successful. That, as I said earlier, that in the interview, it was kind of like, okay, we want to hire a dummy that we can train to do it our way. I was too dumb to know that we were supposed to let it fail, that we worked hard to try to make sure that everything operated as it was intended by the legislation that had been adopted by the Legislature. That included working closely with a lot of mentors, Steve Oltman, Ron Fleecs, Ron Bishop, and some of the others that were there to help make it successful, and not realizing that the amount of people across the state that was hoping that it would fail.
MR. STARR: So you worked with first the so-called interim board and the elected board.
MR. STORM: Right.
MR. STARR: So, what was that transition? How did that help or hurt?
MR. STORM: I think it was a seamless transition. I don't remember it being, you know, what do I want to say? I don't remember it being that controversial from one to the next. I think once the election was over, you still had some of the ones on there that were hoping that it would fail, and then you had those, of course, that were trying to do everything to help make it successful. And I think the best thing that, you know, to everybody's credit was, all of the meetings was amenable. There wasn't the name-calling and dissension and so forth. Even though some of them didn't want it to fail, they were there to help make sure that we were providing services for providing good conservation, wildlife management and those types of things.
MR. STARR: So, when the board, as it moved along for the few years, did you see much change in the outlook of the board or how was that --
MR. STORM: The board stayed fairly consistent and gradually changed. I think each two years or each four years you could see that you were generally running into boards that -- individuals that were supportive of the idea, that understood the concept of managing our natural resources by the hydrologic units rather than by the old ancient county lines that sometimes hindered those types of developments.
MR. STARR: What -- in those first few years, did you have any projects or things that your board had said, “Let's do this”?
MR. STORM: The early years in the NRD that, in the Middle Missouri, we worked primarily just those basic conservation type practices, tree plantings. Continued to work on the Tekamah Mud Creek Watershed, which was the major project for that district. The Middle Missouri always was challenged from a financial standpoint, never had a lot of money to be able to do projects just from the standpoint that it was a small district to start with and the fact that Thurston County made up about a third of that district, and out of that third, probably 60 percent of that area was non-taxable as far as property-tax-generated funds because of the reservation lands.
MR. STARR: Right. So, did you work any with the tribal folks, either the Winnebagos or Omahas?
MR. STORM: We worked a little bit directly with the tribes, more so with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They pretty much handled all of the farming leases and the conservation and so forth that had to be applied to the tribal lands, the individual allotments. So they were in charge of that. That's who the -- as staff that I worked with and who the local district conservationists and so forth worked with in those types of projects.
MR. STARR: The only significant urban community you had was South Sioux City. Did you work with them or how did that work?
MR. STORM: We tried to. Again, we had such limited financial resources that we had the major flood control project in the Tekamah area that needed to -- something happened. We had, you know, the normal conservation things that we were trying to provide additional dollars to and the limited funds there didn't make for a lot of urban projects. We tried doing a few little things with some park development with the city just to, lack of a better term, give them some assistance, some appeasement with the projects. South Sioux, being that urban dominated area of that district, being one of the primary funding areas of the district, created some problems in the fact that they were opposed then, to the Tekamah Mud Creek Watershed, because most of the money was being set aside to be able to develop that flood control to protect the city of Tekamah. Therefore, there was less dollars to be able to do things in the South Sioux area. So we worked on some things, some small wildlife areas, to do some improvements, Omadi Bend and different things. But the financial restrictions of that small district really caused a lot of problems trying to get anything done. In addition to the Tekamah Mud Creek Watershed, we got heavily into rural water. We had two projects, one in Dakota County, that ended up getting built, the Dakota County Rural Water Project. We've put a tremendous amount of time and effort helping work with those people to obtain good quality drinking water. And to make that feasible, we tried to connect a system that would have included South Sioux, Jackson, Hubbard, Homer, Dakota City, all into one treatment plant, distribution type system and everybody still owning their own. We weren't successful with the communities being involved, all of them, but we were able to build a successful rural water system to serve the rural needs. We also built the rural water system in Thurston County, which was a joint project between the Lower Elkhorn and the Middle Missouri, but because we had the project in Dakota County and our proximity to the western part of Thurston County, we took the lead on that project and did the project versus the Lower Elkhorn getting involved in it. So we were very heavily in those last, probably six, seven years, in the development of the two rural water systems and then the Tekamah Mud Creek Watershed with the construction of some of the smaller dams and then the main recreational, main flood control structure in Summit Lake.
MR. STARR: One of the big things that happened, of course, to the Middle Missouri was the merger with the Papio. And that was after your time. Did that ever come up when --
MR. STORM: You know, it never came up in the time that I was there. I can tell you that was probably the lack of funds to be able to do anything was one of the reasons that I looked at leaving and went to work for a contractor in Garden City, Kansas, to manage one of his construction companies, because I could see in the future that the limited funds that was going to be available would be barely enough to cover staffing costs, leaving nothing more to do than to shuffle paper from one side of the desk to the other. And I guess, I was looking for more of a challenge than that. And I had the opportunity to, what I thought, advance my career at that point in time. So I did that. And then it was shortly after that that the NRD got together with the Papio and completed the merger.
MR. STARR: One of the -- as I remember, one of the considerations at that time was not just to merge the two districts, but to merge the whole district or parts of the district with the Lewis and Clark. And that, of course, never happened.
MR. STORM: Yeah, you know, that was never a discussion that we had directly, although there was probably times in the early days when, you know, there was those discussions that it may have made more sense to have had one district that would have been Dakota County up more north and be a part of the Lewis and Clark district. And then the other three counties, going south -- the other two counties south with the Papio. Unfortunately, not knowing the politics when the lines was drawn being part of that when the Legislature did all that, pretty much the assumption is that probably nobody really wanted the Thurston County area.
Because there was just no financial basis there. There was just nothing there, you know, to support that. And 24 was a good number, and so they whittled out those three counties. But it was just probably never a real long-term viable district, so I always looked at it after I left is that I probably run it into the ground and that left them with only one choice, but you had some major projects that needed to be done there and the financial ability to do that was just limited.
MR. STARR: Yeah.
MR. STORM: The rural water was easy, because they were generating -- revenue generating and self-supporting. But when you looked at the need of the Summit -- of the Tekamah Mud Creek Watershed, and you looked at the needs of Elk Creek or the Omaha Creek Watersheds and others there, that there was just way more than would ever be funds to be able to do. So, from my standpoint, the merger with the Papio of those three areas have been tremendous, I think, for those areas. It's given them some sound financial, but has also given the Papio enough area to be able to expand beyond the Omaha area and to help have an impact on the management of the resources. We see it even here now today working with the Papio and their staff on things that being a part of that larger district gives the resources an ability to do things that otherwise, as individual counties and individual smaller districts, you wouldn't have the capabilities to accomplish.
MR. STARR: Yeah. And if I remember right, you said you were there about 12 years?
MR. STORM: Just roughly 12 years.
MR. STARR: What progress or what change, I should say, not progress, did you see in the board in that 12-year period? Did you see much change?
MR. STORM: There was -- the board was fairly stable if I remember right. We had a couple elections where we had two or three people that was elected that was maybe anti-watershed project, you know, type of thing. I know particularly one individual from South Sioux was elected for that purpose. Was actually a good board member, added a lot of insight and a lot of -- on most things. It's just that anything that was related to the Tekamah project, it was an automatic no, and wouldn't even listen to it. But throw that project aside and everything else, that individual was a good board member. The Middle Missouri, in my opinion, had the luxury of, in the 12 years that I was there, of having one chairman, and that chairman was Vince Kramper who was an outstanding individual as far as leadership and being able to conduct a public meeting. And I say that wholeheartedly. I think he just did a tremendous job in making that district as successful as it was, could be. I can remember once when we had to adopt some groundwater management regulations and stuff that the Legislature had just mandated that we look at. And we had a public hearing in the Tekamah area, which the Tekamah area was pretty much anti-regulations, particularly, “You're not going to tell me how I was going to use my land” in them days. And we had the meeting at 2:00 in the afternoon in a January or February time frame so that the farmers would all be able to be there. They wouldn't be in the fields and all those types of things. Unfortunately, we had it at 2:00 and a number of them had already been to a local tavern for two or three hours, and, you know, we went through our spiel and we took our licks through that hearing. Yeah, we heard people's opposition that you shouldn't be doing this and the name-calling and so forth. And the meeting was over, everything went great. One individual that came up afterwards and you knew he was still looking, for lack of a better term, for some skin. And he approached Vince and I, and we stand there talking and he come up and he goes, “You know,” in his slurred type speech, “You know, if somebody had called me the names and everything that I called you guys today,” he said, “I'd punch them right square in the face.” And Vinny looked at him and smiled and says, “You know, that's the difference between us, isn't it?” The guy dropped his hands to his side and, like, what do I do now, turned and walked away. And it was just that way that Vinny could work with people that really helped make that district as successful as it could be. And I know he served for a number of years after that on the Papio board and on the State Commission. I encouraged him to get on the State Commission, because he had that thoughtfulness and ability to work with people that not a lot of people, you know, really have.
MR. STARR: He could diffuse things easily, rather quickly. So, I guess I've just about run out of questions for you, Rod. Is there any other things that you would like to talk about in terms of --
MR. STORM: I think the only thing that I would add, Gale, is as a young kid growing up in the Thurston County area, you know, I grew up in the farming background. In high school, I used to, lack of a better term, cuss the old terraces, you know, working for my uncle and my granddad, you know, trying to farm those things. We knew why we were doing it. It still didn't make it easy. I can remember as a sixth grader that the BIA had a -- always had a conservation poster contest. I was lucky enough to win it one year, the art contest, because I drew some bulldozer or something that, for whatever that was worth. I mean, I was always aware of conservation and the need for conservation. And when I worked -- started with the NRD, I totally knew nothing about what went on. And it was a real, real experience. I've often told people it was not only conservation and wildlife and recreation 101, but 202, 303, 404, and it was the college of hard knocks, because you just -- to me it was, you know, I was going into education. I took into this job completely another direction. So it was a lot of hard work to get that. I had excellent, like I said before, mentors with Steve Oltman, Ron Bishop, Ron Fleecs, and some of the guys that you could call and ask, you know, get, you know, how did you do? How would you approach this? And they would never tell you, “This is how you need to do it.” They'd give you enough information that you needed, then go back and make it work for your area and for yourself. So, I think those were the things that I appreciated with the camaraderie that people had trying to help make the NRDs a success across the state of Nebraska.
MR. STARR: How is the -- in your view, what you see in your 12 years plus what you've seen since then, has the outlook of the farmers out there on the land changed in terms of acceptance of regulation, taking care of the land and so forth? Do you see that?
MR. STORM: I don't think anything has changed on the farmer from the standpoint of wanting to be good stewards. I think back in the '60s, the early '70s, prior to the NRDs and then the NRDs helped shape a lot of that opinion from farmers, but they didn't have the tools. Everybody had a moldboard plow. I can remember as a young 12-, 13-year-old, taking the tractor with the two-bottom plow and meeting Dad after work so that he could plow for four hours, five hours, and after work, you know, in town, and I don't think people had the tools. I think lack of some better knowledge that all of a sudden you had the (indiscernible) that came out with the minimum till and some of those things. And people started learning that maybe there's another way to do this. And then, as technology changed, I think most of the farmers, being the stewards that they are, the business people that they are, they adapted and changed because they knew that they could produce more with less, and at the same time, help preserve those resources for the future generations. Because I think across the state, I always thought that our farmers were good stewards. No different than every profession, you had somebody that was never going to change, but the 90 percent of the farmers were looking for better ways to do it, better ways to be better stewards of their land, and I think the NRD helped shape that. I think it did it better than what the old soil and water conservation districts did, because they were so narrowly focused that it allowed to have a broader environmental picture than what people had been centered on before. So, I think the NRDs, to me, helped shape that and bring people closer and give them the tools that they needed, that they wanted to be able to be better stewards.
MR. STARR: Very good. Well, I think that's a good place to end. Thanks a lot, Rod.