MR. STARR: This is an interview with Ron Wunibald, former manager of the Lower Republican Natural Resources District and currently working for the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality. This interview is being conducted for the Nebraska Natural Resources District Oral History Interview Project. The interviewer is Gayle Starr. The interview is being conducted on July 26th at Mr.Wunibald's office in Holdrege, Nebraska. So, first of all, thanks for doing this, Ron. Appreciate you taking the time. Why don't you give me a little idea of your background and what you've been up to in your life?
MR. WUNIBALD: Okay. Be happy to do that, Gayle. Thanks for the opportunity to do this. My background is that I grew up on a dairy farm south of Lincoln, Nebraska, just north of Hickman, Nebraska. And from the dairy farm, then, I graduated from Norris Public Schools and, after I graduated from Norris Schools, I went to school for a year at Nebraska Wesleyan University and then spent three years in the Army and one year in Vietnam. So then, after that, I basically went back to school again, but I went to the University of Nebraska and majored in natural resources, which was a new major at that point in time for the University. And started into forestry, and my counselor, who was a forester, encouraged me to maybe consider something else. And at that time, we had a class as a senior where you would -- different people could come and present different occupations that they had available in that field that we were studying in. And a person named Dwayne Chamberlain made a presentation to that class and I thought, “You know, maybe that's something I'd like to do.” And they were, at that point, looking for managers, the NRDs. This was in early fall of 1972. NRDs were just recently formed and they were looking for managers. I was looking for a job. And so, that's what I did. I interviewed for a couple of different NRD positions, and interviewed for the one in Alma, Nebraska, for the Lower Republican Natural Resources District and began to work the first of January, 1973, for the Lower Republican NRD as a manager of that NRD. And then, I served at that capacity until February -- well, I take that back -- August of 1973 -- 1998. So, at that point in time, I went to work at -- with the Department of Natural -- or Environmental Quality, and I'm still working with them and soon to have spent 15 years with them this next month. So --
MR. STARR: When you first went to work for the NRD -- the Lower Republican NRD down in Alma, what was your first impression of the job? What was your reaction of what the role was?
MR. WUNIBALD: I was impressed when I found out -- actually, when I interviewed, I probably didn't have a clue what I was getting into. I was right out of college and moving into a manager's position. My staff consisted of one person, the -- a secretary, the administrative secretary. Thank goodness that she'd been around with the soil and water conservation districts for a while, so she pretty well helped me manage the NRD for the first, at least, couple of years. Actually, she did while she was my administrative secretary. The NRDs at that time -- my board consisted of over 37 directors. And that was overwhelming. I never got to meet all of my directors because they not -- they never came -- some of them didn't come to a board meeting while I was the manager. Maybe I had something to do with that, I don't know. But I got to meet most of them, and that, yeah, that was a pretty overwhelming thing. I thought, probably, at that point in time I could handle anything, and I made mistakes and found things out. And, thank goodness, I had some other managers in the state who were able to help me out, people like Ron Bishop. Ron would -- I'd call him and I'd say, “Okay, we've got this going on. What do I need to do?” or, “What do you think?” and -- But you pretty much had a list of responsibilities by the State of Nebraska. Most of those responsibilities probably were not being addressed much or at all by the district that I was involved with. These were not things that these directors had had any experience working with. So, when you get involved in some of those areas, especially recreation kinds of things, that was kind of a “we don't have time for that” type of thing. But -- So, my challenge was, I guess, was taking a look at those responsibilities, trying to address those things and to try to come up with programs that our NRD could answer to all of our constituency that, you know, we have your interest in heart too. I mean, we believe these responsibilities are things that will benefit you. So we, you know, we really got involved in some things that -- and we all stumbled through some of those things as we tried to figure out, you know, just what our roles were in those areas and how do we go about addressing them. Shortly after I started, within about a year after I started, we were told that we were going to have political subdivisions for voting purposes. We had to go through the general election process. So, that was a challenge that I remember going through and trying to determine, you know, how we would divide our district up so that we would come up with ways for us to address the law the way it was set up and come up with elected directors that would represent in our entire NRD. And spent quite a bit of time doing that early on. And that was interesting. But --
MR. STARR: Was it a real challenge for those directors moving from their previous jobs with the soil and water conservation districts and the like into a whole lot more authority and a whole lot more responsibility?
MR. WUNIBALD: I think it was, Gayle. You know, and I don't -- some of them, I'm not sure they ever got it. But I don't know that they realized the tremendous amount of authority given to NRDs by the legislature. It's pretty open and pretty wide open, if you really want to pursue things. And, no, they -- I'm sure they didn't understand all those things. They didn't have those kinds of authorities in the soil and water conservation district set ups, and we -- obviously, with the soil and water conservation set up, it was a county by county basis. A big challenge was, is to take people from multiple counties, some of which didn't really care so much for the adjoining county, and then transfer their assets to the natural resources district, and you're working with money as a whole, and not everybody's individual little pot that they had set -- you know, set up through different programs that they might administer. We had some NR- -- We had some soil and water conservation districts that were actually pretty aggressive in making money for that district. And they did that by having terracing equipment, they did that through tree planting, they did that through grass seeding and sales. And a lot of those same kinds of things were carried over and some weren't, but the transition of those kinds of things into what we were doing. And, now, my, it's way -- they -- a lot of them still do that. Probably most of them still do some of those things with the tree planting, grass seeding, and stuff, but they've gone way more into more administrative kinds of things with natural resources and making real tough important, but tough, decisions for the state of Nebraska.
MR. STARR: Did -- When you were with the Lower Republican through '98, did the Kansas-Nebraska water issues come up while you were there or has that been since you were there?
MR. WUNIBALD: No, it certainly came up before I left in 1998. We had many discussions over those issues and that specific issue. And I had the opportunity as a manager to attend some of the Compact, the annual Compact meetings that they had, those Department of Water Resources and Department of Natural Resources now. And tried to relay some of that information back to the board so they could make informed decisions. It was pretty obvious to me, and I think probably most of the managers in the basin, if not all of them, that Kansas seemed very serious about trying to get their fair share of the water through the Compact. And that they were absolutely convinced that groundwater was part of the deal. Part of the Compact deal, even though it wasn't written in the Compact, as such, but it was part of the deal. And that, I knew and the other managers knew, would have a significant potential impact on the irrigators of our NRD.
MR. STARR: Was there much discussion among your board about the need to have the NRD involved in any regulation of irrigators or water use of any kind?
MR. WUNIBALD: There was some at that time. Yes, we had some discussions. Because, obviously, what -- we had a director on our board, and his name was Terry Wolan (phonetic), and he actually was part of a task force from the state of Nebraska and represented irrigators to try to, I think the goal was to try and negotiate a little bit with the state of Kansas over the Republican River Compact things. And with that in -- with that representative in some of the meetings I would go to, you know, we would discuss with our board some potential things that were coming down the road. Things like alluvial well restrictions. And then, how we would handle, you know, would we -- if we set up restrictions, would we set it up just for the alluvial-well people, the closest ones to the Republican River? And, again, that was pretty seriously being discussed at that point. Or would we go beyond that and would we impact all the people within the area or within our NRD? And we had quite a few discussions over that. We had discussions over, are we really fully-appropriated, whatever that meant. We had quite a limited amount, we felt, of state information available to us to make an informed decision on some of these things. And, obviously, you don't implement those things and meet public approval within your NRD unless you have a game plan or suspected game plan for the future and a need for that. And, of course, there were groups out there that were trying to encourage us not to get involved with anything to do with groundwater regulation. And our board was, as other boards would be, they were tempted to listen to those groups and believe those groups. And we even had some pretty high state officials who tried to indicate to us that we were silly for thinking about groundwater regulations because of the Compact. At that point in time, Gayle, we really didn't have any conflicts, that we knew of. Maybe there was a couple places in the NRD, if I try and recall. Really any conflicts that, within the groundwater irrigators, that would justify setting up groundwater restrictions because of a decrease in groundwater that affected the people in that area. So, what we really were talking about if we were doing that was it was because of the Compact and the issues of the Compact.
MR. STARR: Was there much interaction between you, as the manager, or your board members with the irrigation districts in that area, the Bostwicks (phonetic) and those folks? Was there much interaction between the two of you or how was that? How did you see that?
MR. WUNIBALD: Well, one of the things is the challenge working as a manager in the Lower Republican NRD, there's two surface irrigation districts, one upstream from the Harlan County Reservoir and one downstream from the Harlan County Reservoir. And, obviously, the water -- surface water needs upstream, if they were to be met, then that could affect the people downstream. And then, you complicate the fact that, really, natural resources districts are primarily, at least were particularly then, more centered around groundwater development and groundwater interests because that's part of our specific responsibility, is groundwater issues. But with the Compact discussions that related to both ground and surface water issues for our state, we formed a group of both the NRDs and the irrigation districts, the two irrigation districts. Actually, all the irrigation districts within the whole valley, the whole Republican Valley. And we started -- with those meetings, we started discussions over things of common interests, common concerns. You voiced your feelings about what's going on as far as the water issues. And I'm hoping that those kinds of things helped to develop a comprehensive view of the water resources in the state of Nebraska. I think it's the Republican River Coalition, or something like that. I don't remember exactly the name of it, but I was -- I feel I had a part in putting that together, because I discussed that with both of the two surface irrigation districts at different times, where I'd go and meet with them personally and said, “We need to get together.” We felt we need to get together to go into battle with, maybe, the state of Nebraska, but, for sure, with the idea of helping to team up with, maybe, the state of Nebraska in protecting the basin's interest as far as Kansas and the Compact's concerned.
MR. STARR: Obviously an issue that involved the whole valley, not just the Lower Republican.
MR. WUNIBALD. Uh-huh. It -- Yes. We kind of started that way and I discussed it with the other managers, and then all three NRDs and all the surface water irrigation districts were part of that group. We really never got to the point where we had any official legal status, but it was more of a way to try and determine how we were going to address both of our interests, if we could.
MR. STARR: How did you see your board evolve from that first board and then the elected board and then to what you had in -- 25 years later? How did you see that evolution? What kind of a change or no change did you see?
MR. WUNIBALD: Well, one of the things that -- I saw a change in the fact that they realized they had to keep, if they really were going to make informed decisions, they needed to keep up with more water law stuff and things that were changing and bills that would relate to water issues. The water issues were the big things. I mean, that's where we really, really changed from. We changed from cost sharing on just terraces and waterways and things like that to more water-conserving practices for irrigators. And we did that -- And then, we also set up a special protection area with the Little Blue NRD. And that was the second, maybe, special protec- -- first or second special protection area that was set up in the state of Nebraska, and it was set up for water quality reasons. And so, we really -- When I first started, we weren't talking water quality. We really weren't talking water conservation. The water conservation they mention is -- was triggered as much by the Compact as anything. The water quality thing is because we were to come up with making plans for our district. We had to show the State of Nebraska that we were doing things in that area of responsibility that was given to us to address. And we had some problems in the superiority area, and that's where we set up a special protection area. So, we had to work with two NRDs then, and that was the first time we really had to work together, teamwork. And then, of course, then later on, they're trying to work together now as -- with the Compact stuff. But --
MR. STARR: Looking back, how do you see that -- what you thought the NRD was back in 1973 when you finally got acquainted with it, and as you see it now? What do you see as the evolution they've come through or what's happened in your view?
MR. WUNIBALD: I think what I see, after I realized, like you mention, and I don't know how long it took me to realize what all -- what kind of responsibility the NRDs were given by the State of Nebraska. I think what I see is that, I think the NRDs, and we saw that somewhat with our board and I try to keep up a little bit with the Lower Republican NRD Board still because I'm still interested in what they're doing. I think their -- the responsibilities and the authorities that are given to the NRD are huge. I think it's a real challenge for the NRDs to make really, really tough decisions that I think a lot of people think they should be making because they live in the area where they're making those decisions. It's easier for Lincoln -- and I work for a state agency now -- it's easier for Lincoln to make the decisions and go home and you never see those people you made those decisions for. But that isn't true with the NRD. The NRDs, those directors go home. They may be on school boards with these people. They certainly live within those communities. Those decisions that they make not only affect those people, but they affect themselves, too, a lot. And I think it's tough for the NRD directors, and a lot of them -- and our board was made up primarily of farmers on the board. Maybe some ranchers and stuff. But these people serve -- they serve basically without pay. So, they make a decision. So, they're sacrificing their time and they have to believe in what they do. If they don't believe in what they do, they don't stick around very long. And I had directors who were on the board for years who believed in what -- the cause, and some who didn't as much and just found out it was too time consuming. They just didn't have the time to do it. The challenge is, too, is finding younger people for the boards that are going to be affected for years by the decisions that are made or -- and they can look, maybe down the road. Maybe they've had recent classes or something through their university set up or educational set up, and they realize this is going to affect me and, certainly, my kids. Whatever decision I make today is going to affect them. So, I think that's -- I think that, as far as my board, I think they are starting to realize more and more, and maybe even since I've left, maybe there's a reason for that, but they're seeing that they've got that big or bigger decisions to make all the time. And they're not -- the easy part of doing -- buying another grass drill. Can we afford another grass drill? Do we still sell grass seed? They -- that might be part of some of the decisions that are made now. Or what pickup do I buy? Or do we buy a pickup? They've got way bigger, longer-term decisions to make in natural resources, and especially in the water arena. Big-time decisions.
MR. STARR: And what you see and hear now of the -- not just the board, but the general population in the Lower Republican area in regards to the water issue with Kansas, what is the general feeling in that regard?
MR. WUNIBALD: I can tell you a little bit about before I changed occupations, what the feeling was. And I think some of that feeling has still carried over until now. I think part of it is, you really don't know what your problems are until you live close to them. You don't know what it's like to farm in that area unless you farm in that area. There's similarities, but there's definitely differences. I think they -- Let's see, how do I answer this? I think the people in the state of Nebraska, and it started before I changed occupations, feel critical of the Lower Republican NRD. And because of some decisions that have been made in the past and various different things. Maybe some personalities. That's possible that that had something to do with it. I don't live in Alma, Nebraska, any more. I live in Holdrege, Nebraska. And that's real close. It's only 25 miles apart. But the area here and the farming here, even though you use the same equipment pretty much, is different. And it's more -- it's easier to be involved in farming. Some people will probably be upset with me. And it's not easy. It's hard work. I grew up on the farm. I know it's hard work. But it's easier if your resources are such that it produces better than the struggles that you have, and it changes as you go south of Holdrege into the Lower Republican NRD. And it very much changes the closer you get to the river because, instead of having an abundance of groundwater, closer to the river you don't. You don't have much of an aquifer in that area. So, instead of getting a thousand-gallon-a-minute well if you live close to the Platte River, you don't get that when you go close to the Republican. It's just not there. So, there is differences and stuff, and I think it's -- I think that's caused some frustrations. I think that the frustrations is -- that I used to hear and I see as valid is, if we're setting up controls, and there has been controls that have been set up on groundwater use in that NRD now, as you know, they're not doing it, as I mentioned before, because they're running out of groundwater in their area necessarily. They're doing it because they're being told they need to do it for the state of Kansas -- well for the State of Nebraska's obligation to the State of Kansas because of this Compact. And that makes it more challenging to feel good about that situation. And I can understand that, since I was part of that area for 25 and a half years of my life.
MR. STARR: How do you feel about how the individual NRDs interact with, not the state agencies, but the state in terms of the legislature, in terms of the governor, in terms of your -- the association that the NRDs have? Is that a -- how do you feel about that relationship and working with all the NRDs in the state, not just those in the Republican?
MR. WUNIBALD: Well, certainly, the formation of the association, the Nebraska Association of Resources Districts, helped considerably, I think. It hasn't solved the issues. There's still problems, animosities, between NRDs because water's pretty darned important. And, I mean, water is important. And so, you're going to try and look after your own interests. I don't know that that's any different than what happens in the legislature. I don't know that that's any different than what happens in Congress. You're representing a certain group of people, and they expect you to try to take care of and protect their interests and their needs. But as far as getting along with the NRDs, I'm not sure how that's working now. I -- What I see, the way I see it now, you know, and I, like I said, I try to keep up a little bit on it, I think most of them make a real attempt to try to work things out. If you don't work things out, if you can't do your job, you won't have a job to do. And I see that with the NRDs. If they can't take on the responsibilities that are given to them, and they're getting tougher all the time. Especially in dry years, we know how tough they are. But tougher all along. They won't be in a position to do that. And the way I used to look at it is, the NRD set up -- or the legislature set up our responsibilities. They created us and they can take it away. Giveth and taketh away, you know? I'm not saying they're God, but I'm just saying that, you know, they do have the authority to do that. And I think that could be done if it isn't -- if they don't take on those responsibilities. And I think that most of the NRDs realize that. And I think they're trying to work together. And they realize there is -- certainly, water doesn't stop at anybody's NRD line or county line or state line. It's -- So, it's just important as we try and share that important resource and do it wisely and protect it as far as water quality is concerned. Because that's just as big a deal. Of course, I'm really plugging that now
because of where I work. But --
MR. STARR: The changes that were made over the years from 1972 on, for the most part, gave NRDs more authority and more responsibility. How did those various changes, in terms of groundwater regulation, et cetera, impact what the Lower Republican NRD did or how they looked at things?
MR. WUNIBALD: Yeah. I think in the area, at least when I -- I can speak when I was there and before '98, those extra areas of responsibility were met also with accountability by the state. And that's why these comprehensive plans that we had to develop for ground and surf- -- in groundwater quantity and quality reasons, those were always reviewed by the State of Nebraska to see if we were trying to impose something that would not be in the best interest of the State of Nebraska. So, I feel that the state was still monitoring what we were doing, and I think that was right for that to be that way because, like I mentioned, groundwater doesn't stop at a certain place. I mean, you've got this sharing. So, they had that. So, yes, there was more responsibilities.
MR. STARR: The Groundwater Management Act, which I don't recall --
MR. WUNIBALD: The Groundwater Management Act had a lot to do with it.
MR. STARR: -- what year it was passed, but it had a huge impact on the NRDs.
MR. WUNIBALD: Uh-huh. It really did. Yes. And so, that forced us -- I mean, you can be happy about -- I don't know. You had to take this and try and figure out whether this was a good thing or bad thing, as far as the NRD. You might feel good that the State of Nebraska thinks, “You guys can handle this.” In the same respect, you might go, “I don't want to handle this.” And yet, we had to handle it. I mean, we were given that responsibility and if we didn't do things, you know, state funding and everything else could be affected by that. So, there were -- Yes, you're right, Gayle, there were additional responsibilities given to us. And the reason, I'm sure, that they did that -- well, at least one of the reasons they did that, is because, I feel, the NRDs up to that point in time had a vote of confidence from the majority of, at least, the legislators. Not all of them, but the majority of the legislators that said, “You know what? This system is a good thing. This system can work. This system allows for local input where, oftentimes, you hear the state makes the decision, Lincoln makes the decision, and we have to live with it. We don't have anything to say about it, and it's silly or it's stupid, a decision.” But that's where I guess I see it. So --
MR. STARR: As you know, in many states both the groundwater control and the surface water control is kept in the state, and Nebraska is somewhat unique in that it's shared. Granted, as you know, the state has a lot of oversight over the groundwater, but do you feel that that was a good decision to provide that authority to the natural resources districts as opposed to keeping it at the state
MR. WUNIBALD: There's days that I change my answer on that. I think what you need to have is the state needs to have some generalized goals and, of course, with the Compact thing, that brings you into pulling everybody together. And you have to work together, because if you don't, you die otherwise through the Compact. But it's -- technically, it should be a good thing. I mean, on,you know, philosophically, I should say, it should be a good thing. I think, for the most part, it is. It makes it really challenging where you've got a different way to administer groundwater than surface water, where one's “first in time, first in right” with the surface water and groundwater it's more a “share and share alike”. I think it's good that a lot of the NRDs now are starting to get enough data together that you can start modeling things and you can see what groundwater pumping can do to surface water areas. And I think the challenge is, is the state always has to decide, if you're going to have to give up something, what do -- who's going to make the decision to give it up? Certainly, in the Lower Republican NRD, even though there's two surface water irrigation districts here, still the vast majority of the irrigators are groundwater irrigators. That's true for the state of Nebraska. So there's a lot of political clout with trying to not mess with groundwater any more than you have to. You better have a really, really, really good reason to mess around with my -- how much water I can pump before I'm just going to not pump it so there's water that runs in the stream for whatever purpose. And especially, if you don't see any of those surface water benefits yourself, it's pretty hard to handle that.
MR. STARR: Well, Ron, I've kept you here for nearly 45 minutes now. And is there any --
MR. WUNIBALD: It's been enjoyable.
MR. STARR: Is there anything else you'd like to impart?
MR. WUNIBALD: No. I still believe the NRD system is the thing to keep going. I'd be opposed, if I'd be asked, I'd be opposed to eliminating the NRD system. I do talk to people all the time who are critical of the NRD system because they don't think they can handle it. They don't think they're doing enough. And some of those people are real interested in surface water and think that the NRDs are strictly focused on just groundwater or the state's groundwater resources. And I try to remind them that that's their primary responsibility, but I don't think that that's true. And you're seeing some of the NRDs in the state who are setting up groundwater restrictions with the idea of providing for surface water benefits in the future. But the challenge is, is somebody still has to say, “We've got this much water to work with, whether it's ground or surface water. How are we best going to manage that resource for the benefit of the state of Nebraska?”
MR. STARR: Well, thank you very much, Ron.
MR. WUNIBALD: You're welcome.
MR. STARR: I appreciate your cooperation.