MR. WILLIAMSON: This is Dayle Williamson and I'm joined today by John Turnbull of the Upper Big Blue Natural Resources District, and we have the pleasure of interviewing Ron Cacek. Ron's a former manager of the North Platte Natural Resource District with headquarters in Gering, Nebraska. We're conducting this interview on December the 10th, 2014, and we're in the Upper Big Blue Natural Resources District office in York, Nebraska. Mr. Cacek is on his way to Omaha today and we made arrangements to conduct the interview at a very convenient place for all parties. I appreciate John with me on this interview as we've conducted several others. And we'll start the interview, Ron, by asking you to tell us something about yourself, where you grew up, where you attended college. I'd like to ask you a little about your military experience, because that's very important, and how you became involved with the Nebraska Natural Resources Districts. So, Ron, it's all yours.
MR. CACEK: I was born and raised at Odell, Nebraska. And I graduated from high school there. Went on to the University of Nebraska and hold a bachelor's degree in agriculture and a master's degree in intercultural economics from the University. Between the two degrees, I served in the military, was in the Army Signal Corps, and went to school at Fort Gordon, Georgia. And then was assigned to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, assigned to the 36th Signal Battalion, and hadn't been there two months and we shipped out for Vietnam. Went over by ship, took 20 days to get there, and spent a year there, and then came back and finished out my two-year tour of duty at Fort Riley, Kansas. And then, due to Dayle Williamson, I got into the National Guard, and spent quite a few years with the National Guard or the Army Reserve, ended up in the Army Reserve.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Well, for the record, I want -- the historical record, I'm sitting with two Vietnam veterans here today. And it's a great pride. I've known both of these gentlemen and I guess I was sort of the recruiter for both of you. Wow!
MR. TURNBULL: That's right.
MR. CACEK: Yes, you were.
MR. WILLIAMSON: So, that's good. Well, we've had a great long relationship. Well, thanks for covering that. And, Ron, even before you start on the NRDs, can -- your dad was very active in the Big Indian Watershed down in the Odell area. It was in Gage and Jefferson County, and that was a forerunner of the NRDs. So, can you say something about things back then. I know you were busy going to high school and college and all that then.
MR. CACEK: Well, I remember that the Big Indian Creek would flood --
MR. WILLIAMSON: Yeah.
MR. CACEK: -- quite frequently all the time I was growing up. It seemed like with any rain of any size at all, it got out of its banks.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Right.
MR. CACEK: And my grandfather was also instrumental in that. Dell Colgrove.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Why sure. I knew him.
MR. CACEK: That was my grandfather. And my father then, were some of the original organizers of that --
MR. WILLIAMSON: Right.
MR. CACEK: -- and kind of got that going and got some dams built. And I think, today, from what I know, it's a pretty well controlled situation now.
MR. WILLIAMSON: It's a great watershed. It was large enough that they had some money. But there were so many watersheds around there wasn't any money to do anything. And you couldn't -- you know, you didn't have enough money to hire anyone, so that's one of the reasons the NRDs came along. We were always proud of Big Indian Creek, because it was large enough there was some tax money coming in.
MR. CACEK: Right.
MR. WILLIAMSON: And it had great board members, including your dad. And, gee, I hadn't realized that that was your grandfather.
MR. CACEK: Yes, it is.
MR. WILLIAMSON: That's good. That's why we do this historical thing.
MR. TURNBULL: Family traditions.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Well, tell us about your work with the NRDs. And John's furnished a very good thing, here. And you were the very first manager in 1973 of the North Platte NRD. And that NRD has only had two managers. After you retired in 2013, Mr. John Berge took over.
MR. CACEK: That's correct. After I got my master's degree, I went to work for the Nebraska Soil and Water Conservation Commission. And, Dayle, you were my boss.
And that was a good period of time. The Commission moved me, first, to Alliance as the western representative for the Commission. And then, after a short time, was moved to Scottsbluff. And then, in 1972, the NRDs were organized, and I went to work for the North Platte NRD, yes, in May of 1973. And it has seen a lot of changes in those first few years. And over the entire time. I remember discussions with the board of directors about how involved they were going to get in the tree program. There was concern about spending all those resources for about a 30-day to 60-day period of time, and took manpower and equipment to do that sort of thing. So, there was a big discussion about that. Finally agreed to do that. The other big thing I recall is I wanted to institute a program of water level measurements of the groundwater, although, I don't think we want to get involved in that.
That was the initial reaction, was the initial reaction. And I tried and tried and could not get them convinced to get involved in this sort of thing, because at that time, it looked like NRDs were going to start to assume some responsibilities there. And it didn't happen until Gerald Svoboda, who worked for the University of Nebraska, was out to one of the board meetings one time. And he said, “You guys really ought to look at this and really ought to do this.” It picked up from there and we went on and developed a really huge program today.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Oh, yeah.
MR. CACEK: And have something like 600 dedicated monitoring wells now in the NRD to monitor groundwater levels. So, it grew into really a big effort.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Ron, we'll ask you a question here. As manager, did you every have to measure any of those wells?
MR. CACEK: You know, only a couple of times.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Well, good. Well, I'm asking you that, because when we interviewed Bill Umberger, you know, that board would -- and John knows all about that board, but they just didn't hire many people. And so, Bill measured all the wells as manager in the three-county area.
MR. CACEK: Is that right?
MR. WILLIAMSON: That was one of his jobs.
MR. CACEK: We decided -- once they made the decision to do it, they said, “Well, if we're going to do it, let's do it right.” And we hired a person to help me, as manager, and part of his responsibilities was to measure the wells. And part of his responsibility was the tree program at that time. And so, you get off to a slow start, but it builds from there.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Well, you have a tremendous program going out there now.
MR. CACEK: Yeah, it is a good program. We have a pretty good idea what's going on with the aquifer in that area.
MR. TURNBULL: Around in the North Platte NRD, when the irrigation is there, there's a lot of it that's from canals and surface water, in addition to groundwater, is that right?
MR. CACEK: Yeah. In fact, there's quite a few more acres irrigated by surface water through a canal system than by -- than there is by groundwater. But the North Platte Valley is really unique within the state of Nebraska, because the groundwater, for the most part, is nonexistent except for the surface water projects that came in, oh, roughly about the turn of the century. And so, the water comes in and the water supply is snow melt from the mountains. The water melts and comes down through a series of dams in Wyoming. I think there's seven of them. And it's stored there until it can be used through irrigation. It's released to the river and then diverted into canals. And some of the diversions for Nebraska are actually in Wyoming. The first one is Whelan Dam, which is about 60 miles above the state line. It'd be west of Torrington. Yes, pretty close to Guernsey, just below Guernsey, Wyoming. And water's -- that particular diversion is diverted on both sides of the river for canals that eventually end up in Nebraska. And this water that comes in through this surface canal system, waters the crop, but also infiltrates the ground and forms the groundwater, most of the groundwater that's in our area. And then, of course, the return flows from the irrigation itself makes up the basic water supply for the North Platte Valley.
MR. WILLIAMSON: And so, you didn't want to line any of those ditches too much, then.
MR. CACEK: Absolutely not. If you line those ditches, it will have a significant impact on the system as it exists today. And eventually groundwater will be hurt by that.
MR. WILLIAMSON: And I know in the early irrigation projects, they had to make some drains. They made a Gering drain out there and then it became rather huge. Can you comment on anything like that? And that was -- I know the NRD has worked on that with the watershed there and so on.
MR. CACEK: Right, the Gering Valley is about -- approximately 55,000 acres. And there was no natural drainage in the Gering Valley area until irrigation came in and you got runoff from the irrigation.
MR. WILLIAMSON: (Indiscernible) basin.
MR. CACEK: Right. And so, then, a drain started to develop. And, of course, initially, it was totally uncontrolled. It just kind of wandered around wherever it wanted to, to the point where it got fairly large. And then, if there were rains, and sometimes we've had pretty sudden cloudbursts there, which they've created pretty severe flooding within Gering Valley. So, prior to the NRDs, the Gering Valley Watershed Conservancy District was organized. And the Army Corps of Engineers built part of the project, and the, what was then called the Soil Conservation Service, did the rest of the project. So, there was a series of ten dams that were built, and the Army Corps of Engineers went in and reconstructed the channels and stabilized it of the drain itself. Then the NRD took it over and finished the project. And there was a few things in the plan that were never completed. It just was decided not to complete that. The vast majority of the original plan is done and is ready to be closed out.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Yeah, well good. That was a major project. Can you tell us about some of the crops in your NRD and how -- and the importance of that area?
MR. CACEK: Well, the crops are -- some of the crops are different than the rest of the state. Corn, of course, is a major crop, but historically, sugar beets and dry edible beans have been a big crop as well. And the sugar industry grew to the point where there was several sugar factories in the North Platte NRD. Currently, there's only one that's left, but there were a number of sugar factories to produce Great Western Sugar from the sugar beet industry. And today, sugar beets are trucked into the factory in Scottsbluff from, I think, in some cases, almost 100 miles to process the beets and make it into sugar.
MR. TURNBULL: Where would those other plants have been, like Bridgeport?
MR. CACEK: Bayard and Mitchell, and Gering had one.
MR. TURNBULL: So, there were a lot of sugar beet factories out there at one time.
MR. CACEK: Yeah. A lot of beets are raised at Alliance yet, and trucked down. Alfalfa is probably the other big crop. Now you see some sunflowers being grown and some small grains, wheat, millet, and --
MR. WILLIAMSON: It's quite a diversified area. It's much different than other NRDs in Nebraska because of the crop diversification and the different --
MR. CACEK: We often talk about what the valley would look like without irrigation, and probably the principal crop would be small grains, wheat and other small grains, and just grassland. Without supplemental irrigation water coming in, there just is not enough water.
MR. WILLIAMSON: So, the NRD program would have been much different if, you know, the valley had ever been irrigated.
MR. CACEK: Oh, absolutely.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Just be planting more trees and more grass.
MR. TURNBULL: Probably not too many trees.
MR. CACEK: Yeah, that intensive crop production probably would not be happening without that irrigation. Dryland cropping of, like, sugar beets and corn and dry edible beans is pretty much nonexistent. There is some dryland corn grown at times, but in a really good year, they do pretty well, but it has to be a good wet year during the growing season.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Well, you might mention your average rainfall area there.
MR. CACEK: At Scottsbluff, it's between 14 and 15 inches, the average annual.
MR. WILLIAMSON: So, Nebraska varies a great deal from Scottsbluff to Falls City, which is 35 inches.
MR. CACEK: Yes.
MR. WILLIAMSON: And even northeast Nebraska now is really getting --
MR. TURNBULL: Well, the thing I like to point out to folks about that variation of 14 or 15 inches at Scottsbluff and, as you say 35 inches around Falls City, is that's more change in annual rainfall in that distance than it is from Omaha to Washington, D.C., which is around 40 inches. It always gets people's attention when they finally realize it's (indiscernible) number.
MR. WILLIAMSON: So, we have to have a lot of different management techniques in our own state here.
MR. CACEK: Absolutely. And why the university has to have a number of research centers across the state. And the one at Scottsbluff, you know, works in areas that the other research centers in the state do not.
MR. WILLIAMSON: It's very unique.
MR. CACEK: So, it's critical to economic development of the area. The other thing is, differences are, like, the growing period, the degreed growing days. You know, our growing season is much shorter than it is in eastern Nebraska.
MR. WILLIAMSON: You're at a higher altitude.
MR. CACEK: And a higher elevation, that's correct.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Ron, you mentioned that the board, you had to talk a lot to start measuring wells. You might tell how far you've advanced now in your NRD, all the other things you do with that water and modeling and so on.
MR. CACEK: Yes, we got to the point where we have a pretty sophisticated groundwater model that started out with the COHYST effort clear along the Upper Platte and then was further developed specifically in our area. And that model has developed to the point where it's really becoming a valuable tool in making water management decisions. We have in the area now, we started allocating of groundwater probably about six years ago, seven years ago now, and they're continuing with that at the present time. And rules and regulations had to be developed. And it really surprised me how well the people accepted moving to allocation of groundwater. Regulation is not the type of thing that most people like very well.
But, you know, I think they understood that if something wasn't done, that there could be serious problems down the road, and so, we needed to look at what could be done to continue to have water available for the future.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Can you say anything about the early day of the NRD? You were there, the first manager, and -- were people in that NRD fairly well accepting the idea of the natural resource district, because you had some -- had a very active soil conservation district in Scotts Bluff County.
MR. CACEK: Yes, there was -- I would say, for the most part, it was fairly well accepted when the NRDs came into existence, because it was a brand new concept and kind of far-reaching concept. There was some opposition.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Sure.
MR. CACEK: There was some opposition in the Gering Valley area in our NRD was the principal opposition. And in the Panhandle, there was some opposition in other places as well. But, you know, that all kind of worked itself out over time. I remember, of course, initially taking a lot of telephone calls from people saying, “Well, just what are you all about?”
MR. TURNBULL: Aren't those great questions to deal with?
MR. CACEK: It usually came when they got their tax statement. Which fortunately was pretty small, but it was pretty small in those days. In fact, if I remember correctly, the original budget, which I didn't have anything to do, that first year budget for the NRD was $93,000. And today, I don't know what the budget was exactly they just adopted, but it was -- it's probably in the range of four or five million.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Ninety-three thousand. And of course, boy the old Soil and Water Conservation Districts had to beg for money from the county boards, or they had to have drills and so on and so forth, and I know they did out in Scottsbluff, but it was difficult.
MR. CACEK: Yeah, we tried to figure out ways we could earn money, make some money to keep things going, but I'll tell you, without the taxing authority, what all has been done would have been totally --
MR. WILLIAMSON: Totally impossible.
MR. TURNBULL: Talk a little bit about how the staff has changed over the years, like, the size of staff when you first started and where it's at today.
MR. CACEK: Well, when I first started, there was four SCS clerks, and then I was brought on board in 1973. And so, that made five of us. And then we hired one additional person, probably within a year or so after that. And then responsibilities grow and grow in the groundwater management, takes a lot of people, and two people involved in tree planting full-time, and the GIS specialist today, and we've had groundwater modelers on staff and technicians on staff, and to the point where the staff today runs about 16 or 17 people.
MR. TURNBULL: Quite a change, isn't it?
MR. CACEK: Yeah, a huge change over the years.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Well, that's very significant, and how would this work -- how would work get done without the NRD in your area? Who'd be doing that this day after 50 years there?
MR. CACEK: The old districts that were combined to form the natural resource districts just simply did not have the ability, either financially or from a management standpoint to develop the kinds of programs that NRDs have been able to over the years.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Well, Ron, we really commend you for all your leadership out there, and likewise, John, in your district, and you've been in two districts. It's kind of a dual interview here. John's been interviewed before. But anything else you can think of that you'd like to leave on the record? It's going to be a great record. I hope historians 50-60 years from now will be listening to this and it's just a pleasure to be with you two gentlemen today to talk about this.
MR. CACEK: Maybe one of the other things that we should mention is the Pumpkin Creek area --
MR. WILLIAMSON: Yes, that's very important.
MR. CACEK: -- which is the area that covers a good share of Banner County and into part of Morrill County. Pumpkin Creek is just a small creek that starts -- actually the drainage starts in Wyoming. The defined banks of the stream don't start until Nebraska, but it still drains a part of Wyoming and it empties into the North Platte River just below the city of Bridgeport. But it was a situation that even back in the '70s, some residents down there were expressing concerns about what was going on in Pumpkin Creek. And they approached the NRD about that. And the NRD looked into it, and there were some people suggesting that some kind of management type actions needed to be taken. And we started to look into that, and when this was happening, we were kind of in the middle of a drought, and so, that made the situation even worse. But then we moved back into a wet period and the problem seemed to go away.
MR. TURNBULL: Are you talking about groundwater development in that Pumpkin Creek?
MR. CACEK: Yes, the groundwater development. There is no surface water irrigation in the Pumpkin Creek area. And the problem seemed to go away. So, everybody kind of forgot about it until about into the 1990s. And the water table started going down. And we were monitoring it, the NRD was monitoring it, pretty closely at that time, but our monitoring wells didn't seem to reflect what some people were telling us. So, it was -- the board was a little reluctant to take any kind of definite action because our monitoring wells didn't seem to show them that a problem existed. When, in fact, when you look back on it now, 20/20 hindsight is wonderful, isn't it?
MR. TURNBULL: It's terrific.
MR. CACEK: We recognized that we weren't looking at the total picture at the time, and I think that we were only looking at the groundwater side, and we needed to be looking at the total picture as to what was going on. Groundwater development was progressing right along in Pumpkin Creek. And what was happening is the wells were being pumped, but the water from the stream was moving then out into the aquifers. And so, in our monitoring wells, initially, we weren't picking it up that groundwater was declining. What was happening was streamflow was declining because the water was moving out of the stream instead of into the stream, out of the stream into the aquifers to the point where it virtually dried up. Why they've dried up, then the monitoring wells of the groundwater, then they'd started showing up there. And once we realized what was doing on and was able to explain that to the people, the majority of the people says, “Well, we've got to do something.” And so, allocation was put on fairly quickly, the allocation of groundwater, irrigation pumping, was put on fairly quickly. And I think it won't be back to where it was unless you stop irrigation. But, I think we've kind of stabilized the situation there. So, it is not getting worse. Now, it fluctuates. It has its ups and downs, but overall, I think it's pretty well stabilized at this point.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Boy, another good area your NRD has worked on and a very important area, Pumpkin Creek.
MR. TURNBULL: Well, Ron, one thing we've not talked about as managers is working with boards of directors. Got some thoughts on that for new guys coming along?
MR. CACEK: You have to kind of get a feel for your board and what their interest are. And at the same time, have to keep them well informed about what's going on. They need to be involved and well informed as to what the situations are. And if they are well informed and understand the situation, and sometimes that takes a real educational process to get the board up to speed, but if they're well informed and really understand the situation, I think they do a pretty good job of making appropriate decisions.
MR. TURNBULL: I would agree with that. I spend a great deal of my time just trying to figure out how to explain things to the board so they can understand it.
MR. CACEK: Right.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Well, both of you have done an excellent job with that.
MR. CACEK: Well, we tried.
MR. WILLIAMSON: And that is very important.
MR. TURNBULL: A few scars to show for it.
MR. CACEK: That's right.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Well, anything else, Ron? We don't want to take too long here, but we just -- it's just great to visit with you today.
MR. CACEK: Well, I think, you know, we could go on and on.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Oh, I know.
MR. CACEK: I think we've probably covered at least the key areas.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Yeah, well, I think you've covered really well the importance of the NRD in your area, the one that you worked in almost your whole professional career here.
MR. CACEK: Almost.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Other than the military and a little time with our old Soil and Water Conservation Commission. And we appreciate that.
As kind of a laugh line, Ron was a single guy in Alliance and when we moved him to Scottsbluff, why the Alliance Chamber of Commerce was really upset, because, man, we were taking an employee out of town. He must have spent a lot of money in Alliance.
And he traveled all the time, so I don't know. Do you remember that, Ron?
MR. CACEK: Well, not too much, because you didn't pay me that well.
MR. WILLIAMSON: I'm sure you made a good -- a lot more money working for the NRD starting out. It was pretty slim.
MR. TURNBULL: You've been waiting 40 years to say that one.
MR. WILLIAMSON: I gotcha. That's good, Ron. That's good. We need to add a little humor in all these things, but that was the truth. Well, anything else that you'd like to say before we conclude the interview?
MR. CACEK: Just that, you know, I've appreciated all the people I have been associated with, all the NRD managers, the Natural Resources Commission and the predecessors' organizations, and the leadership that we had there with you, Dayle, and Warren Fairchild originally. And I think we all together made a tremendous team that did some good things for Nebraska.
MR. WILLIAMSON: And I'm really pleased we're doing these oral interviews, because it's very important to be able to talk to people that helped get all this started and record some of these things.
MR. TURNBULL: One thing I have often felt about the managers of the districts is it's a pretty close-knit fraternity.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Right.
MR. CACEK: Yes.
MR. TURNBULL: If I had a question, I never hesitated to call Ron and ask his advice. Or people would call me. I've had lots of exchanges over the years. We made it a habit of getting together through our association five times a year for all these years. That's always paid off. As I tell my directors here, that's the one place where we can lean over a pickup hood and talk business and talk shop.
MR. CACEK: Sure.
MR. TURNBULL: There's nobody else in the country doing it.
MR. CACEK: You can learn a lot by just visiting with the other NRD managers, knowing and understanding what issues they are facing and how they are dealing with them.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Sure.
MR. CACEK: That helps back home, too.
MR. TURNBULL: Yep, it does.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Well, thanks to both of you. And it's just great to have you stop by here in York today, Ron, and we wish you the best in retirement. And we want John to work ten more years, for sure.
MR. CACEK: Sounds good to me.
MR. TURNBULL: That ain't gonna happen.
MR. WILLIAMSON: Well, it's been a great day and it's a personal pleasure for me to visit with both of you and so we'll cut off the interview here and hope everything turns out well. Thank you so much, Ron.
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