Steve Oltmans

Interviewee:


Interviewee Steve Oltmans, Manager, Maple Creek Watershed Advisory Board, late 1960s - 1972; Manager, Lower Elkhorn NRD, 1972 - 1986; Manager, Papio-Missouri NRD, 1986-2006

Steve Oltmans

Position Held: Manager, Maple Creek Watershed Advisory Board, late 1960s - 1972; Manager, Lower Elkhorn NRD, 1972 - 1986; Manager, Papio-Missouri NRD, 1986-2006

Full Interview:


Interviewer(s):

Ron Fleecs

Associated NRDs:

Papio Missouri River

Transcript:

MR. FLEECS: I'm Ron Fleecs. I've got a little history project involving natural resource districts, and I'm visiting with Steve Oltmans here in Omaha, Nebraska, and going over with him, some of his past experiences and what he's been involved with in the natural resource field. So, Steve, I would ask you to state your name and address and go from there.
MR. OLTMANS: Okay, very good. Good morning, everybody, Steve Oltmans, lives in Omaha at 15733 O Circle, 68135. I’ve been here since 1986. First of all, I was a farm boy in Nuckolls County. I graduated from Nelson, Nebraska High School and then enrolled at the University of Nebraska. I received a lot out of the high school “blue coat program”, I call it, the FFA. All the contests and competitiveness that I participated in really helped me in my UNL experience and career.
MR. FLEECS: Oh, yeah, it's good experience.
MR. OLTMANS: So I went on to the University and received a degree in agriculture with emphasis in soil and water conservation, resources management. While I was in college I worked for the Agriculture Research Service there on campus. We did contracted soil erosion research for the Federal government. Most of it was for the defense department because that was during the Cold War when we were building bases all over the world and they would ship in boxes of soil from the sites that they wanted to build an air base.
MR. FLEECS: When was that?
MR. OLTMANS: That would have been in the early '60s.
MR. FLEECS: Early '60s, okay.
MR. OLTMANS: And we would then model the slopes and tell them the steepest slopes they could cut and still try to get some vegetation. We would then give them recommendations on that. And how did we do that? Well, we did some of the research in the lab, but we also had research land east of Lincoln in the Stephens Creek Watershed. The research we used was one of the best of the universities in the world doing that type of soil erosion research. Our big competitor were Purdue and Penn State which had similar programs of research. It was a great experience. I received a degree in soil and water management and water resources, with emphasis in water resources. And I learned a lot from that. I worked closely with engineers.
MR. FLEECS: We all love engineers.
MR. OLTMANS: Yeah, right. So that was great experience. And then I got on a couple summers or two with the Soil Conservation Service in Nuckolls County and did some basic surveying. I love surveying. Of course, we didn't have GPS and all that stuff. We would survey with the old stadium board in the morning and then in the afternoon when it was hot we would take all them in and plot out our work. So, anyway, great, great basic experience.
Duane Chamberlain hired me to work for the State of Nebraska along with Dayle Williamson, and, of course, Mr. Fairchild who was the director of the Soil and Water Conservation Commission in those days. I ran a lot of summer employment programs with the conservation districts across the state. So I traveled the whole state quite a little bit and, even though I grew up in Nebraska, I really didn't know Nebraska.
MR. FLEECS: That's right. None of us did.
MR. OLTMANS: It was a great experience. I got to every county. And in those days we had this great frame, you know, aluminum frame with a picture of the award winner from each county. We went to every county fair. I drew that straw a lot. I'll never forget one experience that I had, and not that this is important, but I was coming back from Box Butte County and the interstate was, most of the interstate was open then. So I was traveling on that, pulling a trailer with that --
MR. FLEECS: Big trailer with that big --
MR. OLTMANS: -- big trailer. And I got pulled over and got a speeding ticket. I was doing about 80 miles an hour in that thing. I'll never forget that. So I paid the ticket. You know, I was guilty. Morrison was governor then and he had a policy that if you got any traffic violation as a state employee, you got to talk with the governor. Well, I didn't know that. So one morning Dayle calls me in and he says -- Dayle Williamson says, well, Steve, you're going to have a good day. You've got a three o'clock appointment with Governor Morrison. I thought, holy crap, what -- so I went down there and he says, young man, you've got a heavy foot and that's not a good thing. Of course, he's a foot taller than I am. I am sitting there shaking in my shoes, you know. And, of course, in those days state government was pretty simple. All the state agencies, other than the highway department, was located in the Capitol. There was no State Office Building. There was no Game and Parks building. Game and Parks was up on ninth floor.
MR. FLEECS: We were on, what, sixth?
MR. OLTMANS: Sixth and --
MR. FLEECS: Fifth, fifth and sixth.
MR. OLTMANS: Fifth and sixth. The sixth is around the top of that Rotunda in the Capital. So, anyway, that was -- I'd go in the south door every morning. That's where I parked. And Morrison was the first governor in the new mansion, and he'd go in the south door. Well, every once in a while we would run into each other and he'd put his hands around me and say, how is that heavy foot of yours doing, Steve?
(End of first recording. Begin second recording.)
MR. OLTMANS: All right, so that gets you -- so I learned to stay the lot. And it took me, Ron, until I was about 30 years old to appreciate the fact that I grew up on a farm. You know, now living in a concrete jungle city now most of my life, and, of course, it's not a big city compared to most but, you know, I had my own national park growing up on a farm, so to speak, didn't know it. So, anyway --
MR. FLEECS: Well, and that helped you communicate to most of the Soil and Water Conservation districts and the people you were out there visiting because of your farm background you could talk their language and that was 90 percent of gaining their confidence in what you were telling them was good fact, actual stuff.
MR. OLTMANS: And, you know, my dad was not a conservation farmer at the time we were growing up. He would send my brother out to plow every spring and said, now plow in those ditches first and then start going around the field. Well, at age about 15 or 16 I got to thinking, in my simple way of thinking in those days, this is crazy. What's the deal here? We just lose more topsoil every year and I'm proud to say that he was the Nuckolls County conservation farmer in 1969, he and mom, and they got the annual award at the annual Soil and Water Conservation Convention in South Sioux City, when the convention center was brand new. It was a big deal. And then he and two other farmers after they retired, they would go around the county after a hard rain and they would stop in and see their buddies and say, you know, you need another terrace line there. Before applying conservation measures to his land he would say “I can't”, so I was really proud of that because I pounded on him, the smart kid from the college.
MR. FLEECS: When you were working with the Commission back in the mid '60s, Warren Fairchild, of course, was the director at that time. When do you recall did they start talking, hearing about natural resource districts?
MR. OLTMANS: I think 1966 was the first that I heard it mentioned.
MR. FLEECS: Pretty close to that time.
MR. OLTMANS: Yes, and I remember I was, kind of a grunt employee, and I don't say that negatively. I was asked to draw some maps. Well, what would be the logical boundaries? The maps that I remember seeing, even after I left there and then came to Omaha the first time and worked for the Papio Watershed Advisory Board, when the 21 Corps reservoirs were originally authorized by Congress, thanks to Roman Hruska. Tthe maps that I saw were 66 districts, 44, 33, 24 and 16. Now as I look back on that, I think 16 would have been better because we were looking significantly at the areas in the state where you had an interstate compact, Republican Basin, Niobrara.
MR. FLEECS: Blues.
MR. OLTMANS: Now I can tell you that there is considerable difference in the topography, the groundwater in the Big Blue basin. So certainly there was some logic there, same thing in the Elkhorn. The legislature the first year after they passed the legislature in '68 on a 29 to 19 vote, Tiemann was governor and so he was supporting it. And if he had vetoed that, we may not have them today. He supported it.
MR. FLEECS: But he was supportive of multipurpose or consolidation, I think, to get some of these things. So I think that helped a lot.
MR. OLTMANS: It did.
MR. FLEECS: His support for natural resource districts.
MR. OLTMANS: So looking back I think the map of the 16 might have been better, but when you talk about consolidating government, it was phenomenal we got as far as we did, in my opinion.
MR. FLEECS: Well, look at how many we were looking at. Was it 150-some?
MR. OLTMANS: 154 mandatorily.
MR. FLEECS: Yeah, special purpose districts.
MR. OLTMANS: The Papio Watershed Advisory Board was written specifically so they could sponsor the Corps authorization project and then we had a PL 566 program above each of those sites, to get water quality involved. That was one of my main responsibilities while employed by the Papio Watershed Advisory Board. I was hired by John Neuberger, who was the general manager, he was the second general manager after Merlin England for the Papio Watershed Advisory Board, and he hired me away from the Commission then. And the Commission trained quite a few of us, as you know.
MR. FLEECS: Yeah.
MR. OLTMANS: I moved on from the State Commission to Papio, and that was a great three and a half years experience working for John Neuberger and getting things moving. I managed the PL566 program above the main Corps sites that were authorized by Congress in 1968. And then I had my chance to have my own leadership position. I was hired by the Maple Creek Watershed Advisory Board, which was organized the same way, three counties again, Stanton, Colfax and Dodge. They had had a major flood in '66.
MR. FLEECS: Was that back in that time when you were doing that?
MR. OLTMANS: Yes.
MR. FLEECS: It was before NRD legislation, basically.
MR. OLTMAN: Yes. The office was located in Clarkson, Nebraska in '69 to '72 when the NRDs operatively started. And ultimately I interviewed in five districts. The two that were the most serious ones for me were the Lower Loup in Ord, and then the Lower Elkhorn in Norfolk, where I ended up staying. I'll never forget the Loup and the power boys really lobbied me to come over there. The Lower Loup representatives flew me all over in an airplane looking at the district and everything and the wife and kids went over there. And who was the guy that really ram-rodded it? It was a state senator.
MR. FLEECS: Wasn't Burbach.
MR. OLTMANS: No.
MR. FLEECS: The guy you're thinking of is from Spalding.
MR. OLTMANS: Yeah.
MR. FLEECS: Good Irishman from Spalding.
MR. OLTMANS: I was hired by the Lower Elkhorn NRD. And I had a great 14 years in Norfolk, Nebraska. We organized a few programs, built some fairly significant projects for that day and I am really proud of the Maskenthine Reservoir north of Stanton and the Willow Creek project west of Pierce, because that's a state recreation now area, very popular. The resources development fund was the only reason those were built. Financially we would not have been able to do it because that was -- in the early '80s, the one at Pierce was an $8 million project.
MR. FLEECS: Going back to the mid '60s with the Papio Advisory Board, didn't that come about with the Commission at that time it seems like -- did we go to Papillion after that big flood in the middle '60s?
MR. OLTMANS: Yes.
MR. FLEECS: Took a bunch of pictures and see all that stuff.
MR. OLTMANS: Yes, I -- you and I did that.
MR. FLEECS: Wasn't that kind of what spearheaded the Papio Watershed Advisory Board?
MR. OLTMANS: It did. We had historic floods in the Papio watershed, which is a quarter million acres, three counties, parts of three counties, runs down through the metropolitan area. It still has some issues. There's enough reservoirs now built on the west branch that comes from the Elkhorn area down through Millard and Papillion that does some significant good on heavy rains. Then on the Little Papio you've got a channel project and Cunningham Lake that controls almost 30 square miles coming down out of Washington County. But there's still a big threat here in the Papio. The '64 flood killed seven people and that flood came down the Elkhorn. It was the historic -- the modern day historic flood. Yes, it started up at Bassett, a lot of hail that plugged pipes and the roads, and came right down the Elkhorn Valley and into the Papio system. (It) killed seven people. And I don't know, in those days I think it was like 6 or $7 million worth of damage. They had another 100-year flood that was in June, and in September of '65 they had another 100-year. Killed one person and, I don't know, about $2 million of damage. Those two back-to-back 100-year storms is what got the authorization done for the Corps in Washington.
MR. FLEECS: Now Milt Fricke was involved some time back on the advisory board.
MR. OLTMANS: Yes.
MR. FLEECS: Was he on an SWCD board?
MR. OLTMANS: Yes. Milt went back to the SWCD boards, helped organize the Papio Watershed Advisory Board. He was a super guy. He farmed a lot of land in the Big Papio Valley just immediately east of Papillion. And one of his boys still farms that land.
MR. FLEECS: Wasn't he also pretty active with the National Association of Conservation Districts?
MR. OLTMANS: Yes, he was --
MR. FLEECS: And I think he could see the importance of your advisory board and what was going to be needed in Nebraska to carry out the type of projects.
MR. OLTMANS: Yes.
MR. FLEECS: And I think, you know, having him supporting the NRDs was very important as far as Omaha goes.
MR. OLTMANS: It was. He had a lot of respect from numerous senators, and particularly the urban senators. And, of course, that was relatively right after the '64 and 5 floods. It's interesting, that watershed hasn't had a (hundred year flood since); I think the highest frequency storm they had was in '99, about a 10-year storm. So they are way overdue for something to happen, unfortunately. Milt was a major player there. You know, Herman Link from the Central Platte was another one, as I recall. Who was the one right east of Lincoln or right west of Lincoln? He's the one that got the -- was a major player in the Salt Valley.
MR. FLEECS: Yeah, Salt, yeah.
MR. OLTMANS: There were a lot of people there at the meeting. It was authorized in the '60s before we had EPA. We didn't have EPA and all the environmental requirements.
MR. FLEECS: Didn't have all these permits from the Corps and everything else that was needed.
MR. OLTMANS: Yeah. Papio got kind of caught up in that. So, anyway, I think the NRD -- and then I had an opportunity when my good friend, Jerry Wehrspan, developed a malignant brain tumor, inoperable, in 19- -- I was with him and we were having our September conference of NRDs at the new Hilton. It was brand new. Or not Hilton but --
MR. FLEECS: The Holiday --
MR. OLTMANS: In Lincoln, the new Cornhusker. We were out on a coffee break and his hand started shaking with the coffee cup and he said, Steve, I think something is happening to me. He said, would you take me to the emergency room at Lincoln General? Yeah. Well, we got out to the parking lot and he couldn't walk any more, he was shaking so bad. He was having a seizure, scared the heck out of me, of course. I went with him and emergency doctor came out in about 20 minutes and said, you need to call his wife and have her come down here. Of course, I wasn't a family member so he wouldn't tell me. But that was a -- poor guy lived six months, so 43 years old when we buried him.
MR. FLEECS: And that's when you became manager?
MR. OLTMANS: Yes, I applied for the position while I was in Norfolk. I had managed the Lower Elkhorn district there about as far as it could go at the time, I pushed that district as hard as you could. I was ready for the next step, so to speak, and I was fortunate. Actually, I competed with John Neuberger for that job, because John had moved on to the University.
MR. FLEECS: Yeah, he was with the environment -- Natural Resources Director.
MR. OLTMANS: Yes.
MR. FLEECS: When you were at the Papio Advisory Board -- not Papio, I mean the Maple Creek Advisory Board when all the NRD stuff was starting in the late '60s, was there much support or much opposition? What was there between the SWCDs back at that time before --
MR. OLTMANS: Yes, there was. There was an organizational effort that there where a lawsuit was filed, as you know, that went to the Supreme Court. A lot of that opposition came from the soil and water conservation districts that were the most active ones. A lot of them, as you know, are in southeast Nebraska where they sponsored watershed projects. I remember Burt County Soil and Water Conservation District was one of the main opponents, so they weren't just southeast. And that was a miserable year and a half because we didn't know if we were coming or going as it went through the Supreme Court. The League of Women Voters in the state of Nebraska, mostly Lincoln and Omaha, really got behind that lawsuit on the side of the NRDs and that was a major factor. Art Cohart was the manager of the retired military. Hal Schroeder was a key factor in that because he could see the benefits that the Corps had done there in Lincoln with the 10 Corps reservoirs. Many lawsuits that have been involved in the Lower Elkhorn and the Papio were attached to the lawsuit the Supreme Court decision that was constitutional. I don't think a lot of people thought of that, but that was pretty important.
MR. FLEECS: Well, like you and I, maybe not so much you, but like I took a job as manager of the Lower Blue NRD before that lawsuit was settled.
MR. OLTMANS: I did the same thing.
MR. FLEECS: I never mentioned anything to Murray at the time, that, hey, we might move down here. We had a house bought. If the thing goes the other way I'd have to tell her, well, I don't have a job.
MR. OLTMANS: We did the same thing when we moved from Clarkson to Norfolk.
MR. FLEECS: You look at some of the people that were around at that time, like the Hal Schroeder and the Harold Sieck.
MR. OLTMANS: That's the name.
MR. FLEECS: Harold Sieck from Seward County.
MR. OLTMANS: Yes, he was from Pleasant Dale.
MR. FLEECS: Pleasant Dale.
MR. OLTMANS: Right west of Lincoln.
MR. FLEECS: And Milton Fricke and some of these people in those urban areas and working with those urban senators, we would have had a very hard time getting, I think, personally, NRD legislation passed without those people and the respect that those senators had for the Hal Schroeder, the Harold Sieck, the Milton Fricke and the people -- some of the people down in my area, Chad Ellis and, you know, some of those guys that -- Duane Allington and the people out west. You know, some of them were supporters.
MR. OLTMANS: Well, and then Warren Fairchild was a great marketer, you know, and Dayle was a fantastic lieutenant for him, I guess I'd say.
MR. FLEECS: Putting out fires.
MR. OLTMANS: Yes. Dayle was just super at that and they both were workaholics. We had good mentors there. I'll tell you, Warren Fairchild and Dayle and Duane Chamberlain and John Neuberger were great mentors for me.
MR. FLEECS: They had this good state senator out of York (Sen. Kremer of Aurora). What was his name? He was the head of the natural resource committee or the ag committee that was?
MR. OLTMANS: Yes.
MR. FLEECS: He was always coming up to see Fairchild and say, we don't have the votes today and --
MR. OLTMANS: Right, right.
MR. FLEECS: And then Duane said -- or not Duane, but Warren would say, boy, we're working on it. We'll be okay.
MR. OLTMANS: Let me tell you a story about Senator Carpenter who voted against the NRD legislation.
MR. FLEECS: I've got that at home, of everybody that voted -- I've got the roll call.
MR. OLTMANS: He voted against it. So, years later I was flying to a watershed conference in Denver and, of course, in those days that was the original Frontier (Airline). We'd go Lincoln, Grand Island, North Platte, and Scottsbluff and then to Denver, call it the puddle jumper. I was flying back from that one Friday and there sat Senator Carpenter and one of his sons. And we were waiting, of course, and I said, well, senator -- and he wasn't a senator any more at that time. They were in the petroleum business primarily. So I said, do you mind if we talk a little natural resource business for a little bit? No, not at all, he says. I remember you bringing stuff over from Dayle Williamson and Warren Fairchild to the old Cornhusker where he always stayed. And, of course, in those days Lincoln was dry and so you had bottle clubs.
MR. FLEECS: That's right, yeah.
MR. OLTMANS: So I was the delivery boy from -- to him. A lot of times, always six o'clock is when he wanted it. So I'd stay around and do that. And he was usually in the bottle club and having a hot toddy and that's where I would take the stuff to him. So he said, I remember you. He says, you've still got that flattop. At that time I had that, you know.
MR. FLEECS: Yeah, we all did.
MR. OLTMANS: We all did.
MR. FLEECS: Yeah.
MR. OLTMANS: So I say, well, I just was curious, if I may ask. You didn't vote for the legislation. No. He says, I'll tell you why. So he took about 15 minutes, Ron, and told me why. He said, you guys tried to write such perfect legislation it's a wonder you got that thing passed. He said, when you write major legislation like that was, he said it's like building a nice barn. You build the framework, put a good roof on it, but you don't worry about how fancy the doors are and certainly you don't put shutters on it. You guys are trying to put shutters on it. And he says, the real reason I voted against it, you eliminated mosquito abatement districts. And I said, well, our goal was to clean up any old legislation that did anything with water that wasn't functioning or should be consolidated. And I said I remember very well that that legislation was almost 10 years old, I think, if I remember right, and there had never been one farm and they could levy one cent property tax to do that. And, of course, I said I understand that purpose because the little town I grew up by, we were always fogging for mosquitoes and stuff. We were all breathing the spray. And he says, well, what you say is accurate but he said, you know, none of you ever asked me if that was all right. If you would have asked me, I probably would have voted for it. He said, now keep that in mind in the future. When you want to pass major legislation, just make sure you have a good framework and a good roof. Don't worry about the rest of it. You can add that later or you won't get it passed. I never forgot that.
MR. FLEECS: It's just like a bond issue I was involved with when I was working on the county board down there to get the courthouse going. I wanted to go to organizations that I had a hunch might be against it because I've always been under -- just working with watersheds, if you don't go to opposition and explain what you're doing --
MR. OLTMANS: They'll kill you.
MR. FLEECS: -- you'll stop all that bad information out there and this is probably what we had maybe a little bit of with the NRDs, was that we had people from SWCDs and even some federal agencies out there doing opposition to us, but we probably should have got them set down.
MR. OLTMANS: There were people in USDA agencies that were not for this.
MR. FLEECS: Absolutely.
MR. OLTMANS: Because the structure nationwide was the soil and water conservation districts on a county basis. And, yes, so why hasn't this spread to other states? Well, because I think the difficulty in getting that type of legislation passed is not easy.
MR. FLEECS: Well, two things generally would be hard to get passed today, even in Nebraska; number one, the mill levy.
MR. OLTMANS: Yes.
MR. FLEECS: And, number two, eminent domain.
MR. OLTMANS: Yes.
MR. FLEECS: We were very fortunate to have that in that legislation to get that, because without that, we would never have been able to do the projects that we had to do, even though down in my district we had it, but very few times that we ever had to use it, you know. But if we needed it, we needed it, and that was the big talking point on that. It isn't something evil. It's really something to protect that landowner out there, that there is a right out there that he has because of that law.
MR. OLTMANS: Yes.
MR. FLEECS: We just can't go out and take his land without going through a good process.
MR. OLTMAN: If he gets a 15 percent increase in the award he doesn't have to pay court costs.
MR. FLEECS: That's right.
MR. OLTMANS: So it's there to protect the landowner and property rights.
MR. FLEECS: So you've been involved with it now for a few years.
MR. OLTMANS: I came from Norfolk, Ron, yes. I was 14 years in Norfolk and I served on the City Council every year I was there, and that was good experience as well. Then we moved back to Omaha when I replaced Jerry Wehrspan and was there for 20 years and pushed hard. And then I worked four years for Olson Engineering. We were trying to establish an office in Omaha and I'm happy to say that I think I helped that happen. They've got a very successful office here now. I've been told recently that they are adding 17 more people to staff, so they are going to be close to having 100 people here already. So then I had the opportunity to recruit the staff for Mayor Suttle and that was a great four years. Of course, when I took that you always know there's a risk of not having eight years because you've got to get re-elected. But I cherished all those experiences. I learned something from every single one of them. And, of course, when you have people like Fairchild and Williamson and Chamberlain setting the first examples of work ethic. I’ve had great role models.
MR. FLEECS: Well, this is kind of why we're doing this little historical thing to talk to people, you know. They did interview Fairchild a few years ago and we have that.
MR. OLTMANS: Yes, that’s fantastic.
MR. FLEECS: Which will be part of this historical thing, of all this that happened back at that time. And it's too bad that Duane wasn't around to do the same thing that we're doing today, of getting his upbeats and -- when you talk about your speeding ticket, that's probably where you found it from, was Duane and his heavy foot.
MR. OLTMANS: Yep.
MR. FLEECS: He had to go from the west to the east.
MR. OLTMANS: Yes. He drove -- yes, when he was out at the Alliance office there. So I was fortunate to have those kinds of mentors. It's just -- and the work that the NRDs -- not all of them are doing it yet as well as I would like to see, but most of them now have the programs with cities, and I think that's important. That is the base in most districts, even in Norfolk where I had all or parts of 15 counties. The tax base there, over 50 percent of it was in the towns. I assume that is similar, although the land valuations that we have now might change that to some degree. It protected towns from flooding and so forth, pretty important to everybody, whether you live in town or not because all your services are there, financial and others.
MR. FLEECS: Well, and I think the NRD, having people, professional people managing those districts. Like you and I were involved in the start of them and knew what our intentions were and what we had to do and what the law says we had a right to do. You were involved with rural water, I'm sure.
MR. OLTMANS: Yep.
MR. FLEECS: And so was I down there. And these were things that we wouldn't have been able to do under the old single purpose deal.
MR. OLTMANS: Oh, no.
MR. FLEECS: Recreation areas. Look at the recreation areas that NRDs now have that are responsible for. Never would have happened. That was one of the important things in my NRD, was the old first Rockford Lake area, the first PL566 in the country that was financed with federal funds. That would have never been able to do without the NRDs managing those things.
MR. OLTMANS: Look at the state recreation areas. Those would have water-based recreation. Almost all of those are either Corps, or Bureau of Reclamation or NRD projects. The one at Willow Creek at Pierce, an example of water based recration. That's a fantastic state recreation area now and it serves a much broader area than just that NRD. So it's important that the state does that. Game and Parks has never built a major reservoir. Somebody else always built them.
MR. FLEECS: If it wasn't for the power districts, you wouldn't have Lake McConaughy.
MR. OLTMANS: That's right. So the joint ventures and another thing I think really helped the districts along and other governmental entities in Nebraska, too, is I remember working on this a little bit with Bereuter when he was the state senator, is the Inter-Agency Agreement Act. It doesn't sound very glamorous, but I'll tell you what. You could join hands with any entities and do almost anything in the state of Nebraska through the Inter-Agency Agreement. When I was chief of staff for Mayor Suttle I bet we did three or four of those a month with MUD and with other neighboring cities.
MR. FLEECS: The good thing about it was those Inter-Agency Agreements always involved projects that may had a conflict with that other agency that you were able, through that agreement, work them out.
MR. OLTMANS: It spells out who, how, what, why, when and where.
MR. FLEECS: That's right.
MR. OLTMANS: And like you mentioned rural water. You know, one of the unique rural water projects that they were involved in was the one for folks in Washington County. That is supplied by MUD water. Blair now -- when the flood was on in '11 they were just about having to shut down their water plant on the Missouri River. That rural water project would have piped MUD water to Blair; to the new water tower right on Highway 133 just southwest of Blair and it would have supplied the whole city of Blair with pressure and everything. They never had to do it, but they were ready. They were ready to do it.
MR. FLEECS: And under the old former government that would have never happened through an old rural water district that was on the books at that time.
MR. OLTMANS: No, and you've got a city manager in Blair that was an NRD manager.
MR. FLEECS: That was an NRD person.
MR. OLTMANS: And how many of those have we had across the state?
MR. FLEECS: One at Grand Island.
MR. OLTMANS: Grand Island, Sidney.
MR. FLEECS: Sidney.
MR. OLTMANS: Couple others, I think, and so that has been extremely helpful. They drink in that rural water they drink the same water that we do in Omaha. And so, yes, the NRDs are and I'm sure it's even beyond what Williamson and Fairchild and Chamberlain ever dreamed. It's been a very positive experience. I do think that there are some districts yet that need to be a little more aggressive, especially with those that have interstate compacts.
MR. FLEECS: It's something that will come over time. I know the Republicans are having a bad time, but up in the Big Blue we had the Kansas people to worry about. And the 1993 flood that we had down there and into Kansas pretty much convinced the people in Kansas, and they tried to pull some stuff on us down in there and finally one of the meetings, we had a basin meeting about sediments or something that we weren't controlling our sediments. I said, hey, we got 250 structures up here and we're controlling a lot more sediment with those than you are ever going to control. And I says, the next time we have a flood, if you don't like what we're doing up here, we'll just open the gates of 250 reservoirs and we'll see how long Cuddle Creek reservoir will still be there. And I said, we need to cooperate on these things, not saying point fingers back. I never had a problem with them --
MR. OLTMANS: After that?
MR. FLEECS: -- after that in 1993 with Kansas and the Big Blue River because you have to lay out things to them and say, this is the way it is, guys, and we're here to help you, not to do something against you.
MR. OLTMANS: The groundwater issue that the NRD picked up later then in the '80s, early '80s added to their authority. I'm really proud of the districts that have really stepped up and done that. The best example I would give would be -- and there are others, but I'll never forget when John Turnbull at the Upper Big Blue had his public meetings, I think he had like 19 public meetings on whether they were going to have regulations on the Groundwater Management Act. I had happened to go down and do some paperwork at the USDA in the little town of Nelson at our family farm and I said, John, would you mind if I just stop at your meetings at Geneva and just sit in the back row? He said, no. He was my little brother in the fraternity at the University of Nebraska, so we had that in common. He started with a 50-minute PowerPoint and I thought he was nuts.
MR. FLEECS: Fifty minutes?
MR. OLTMANS: Yes. But he started with irrigation in Egypt, did two or three minutes on that, but here is how we first learned as human beings to do this. And I could tell -- I was watching, about 90 people. He averaged 90 people at those. And he said, our board is about ready to adopt rules and regulations, but if you don't want regulations you have the opportunity here, because our district is totally developed, there's very few acres that could be irrigated yet, and had the most irrigation wells of any district in the state, I don't know, like 29,000 or something. He says, they're likely to adopt the 1956 water levels, was when we first started -- had any records, and irrigation was really just getting started in this area. And he says, we're above that now. With modern methods if more of you convert to center pivots versus gravity, which is, of course, happening very rapidly, he says the NRD board probably won't trigger this. So it's up to you guys whether you want regulations. Now other districts don't have this opportunity because they don't have the groundwater that we have.
MR. FLEECS: Some of them were too far gone almost.
MR. OLTMANS: Right. So he said, it is't going to happen everywhere, but he says I'm really confident that we could do this. Well, so far, you know, the regulation is still sitting there but they haven't been triggered because they've been efficient enough. But I'm so proud of him when I walked out of there that night. Of course, they had 50 questions, you know, and he had heard them all before.
MR. FLEECS: Yeah, John had some good background and he had a way of -- it was his military background. He had a way of working with those people and when to come out with both barrels and when to hold both barrels back.
MR. OLTMANS: I worried about him because he flew choppers in Vietnam and was always going down to pick up wounded soldiers.
MR. FLEECS: Well, to sum it up, Steve, pretty well know the NRDs and pretty well strengthened them since the legislation was passed back in the late '60s. And we even had some governors probably that changed their mind even though they didn't support it and you probably know who those are.
MR. OLTMANS: Well, I think Exon certainly was one of them.
MR. FLEECS: That's one of them.
MR. OLTMANS: He used that as a campaign tactic against Tiemann and I probably would have done the same thing. But, you know, he was a strong supporter by the end of his eight years as governor and senator.
MR. FLEECS: Yes, but I think a lot of people saw that after we got into the business and we weren't going to be levying the big mills, tax things like some of the districts thought we were going to do down in southeast Nebraska, and we were going to have local control even though they said we were going to lose it. But I think that's probably what made things probably work good, was that we had some good people on those boards to start with, for the most part, that were visionaries and what could be done.
MR. OLTMANS: Well, I can tell you in the city of Omaha, Ron, there are a lot of significant projects being built today because of the NRD. It would not be done. The city would not have the money. And the best example now is coming forward. They're going to build one of the original Corps sites again and with the land development and the park development around it and cost of the dam, the Papio NRD will spend about $40 million on that one site. The city will operate the park as a city park and pay for part of the development with the NRD.
MR. FLEECS: Well, and that's what is important about those inter-local agreements.
MR. OLTMANS: Absolutely.
MR. FLEECS: And it's the same thing down in Lincoln with the project that they just got done completing.
MR. OLTMANS: The Antelope Creek project?
MR. FLEECS: Yeah, the Antelope Creek project.
MR. OLTMANS: The way that Lower Platte South and Glen Johnson got that done, unbelievable.
MR. FLEECS: And the money and the agencies working together and getting that improvement done.
MR. OLTMANS: And there's another one. I don't think the city of Lincoln would have ever accomplished that alone.
MR. FLEECS: Absolutely. I mean, because there was too many agencies involved and how are you going to do it without it, without all the people that were involved with it.
MR. OLTMANS: And that was an inter-agency agreement again.
MR. FLEECS: Yeah, everything was set up with special organization for that.
MR. OLTMANS: So I just think, yes. I'm really proud to have been one of many that completed a lot of projects. And as a whole, the NRDs have done a pretty good job on maintenance. But that's something they need to develop and work on. I see that in the city government, the elected folks have a tendency to put off operation and maintenance costs. It's not glamorous. It's not a new project. It's just kick the can down the street. All you have to do is study the European countries, which I've had that opportunity in recent years to go there a couple times, and talk about ancient infrastructure that hasn't been maintained. It's a real problem. And we're moving in the same trap in this country. We just don't have a tendency to do that. We have to do a better job. And so, the NRDs need to concentrate on the physical, whether rural water projects, or reservoirs, or trails that they are responsible for. A lot of the trails here in Omaha, by the way, would not be here if it wasn't for the NRD. But in most cases the cities maintain -- the various cities maintain them.
MR. FLEECS: Just like the ones down in my area, you know. Most of those trails back to the Lower Platte South. Basically got the first one going outside from Lincoln east, and a lot of them have developed because of that. Now they're all the way to Beatrice on that.
MR. OLTMAN: And it's a quality life that you need when you have a concrete jungle and you're concentrating people. Those projects that become public reservoirs and public trails are income neutral. You can be a multi-millionaire and enjoy them or you could be a little bit on the poor side. You can buy a pretty good bike these days from Goodwill for 25 bucks.
MR. FLEECS: And giving them away sometimes, police departments.
MR. OLTMANS: Yes, right. I saw a couple out of Wehrspan when we were just moving out there to the headquarters for the Papio Missouri River NRD. Another success story was when we merged with the Missouri Tributaries District, which was just too small, not a tax base that was able to get anything done. And I didn't know if we would pull that off, but I had some good leadership on the board.
MR. FLEECS: And you had some good leaders up there on the Missouri.
MR. OLTMANS: Vince Kramper, super guy.
MR. FLEECS: Yeah, that really promoted that, and they could see that they couldn't do a whole lot without going togeher and hopefully they had enough confidence that they weren't going to be controlled by the city of Omaha.
MR. OLTMANS: Yes.
MR. FLEECS: And same way with most of these districts. If you'd just work with them, they gain your trust and as long as they got your trust, they'll work with you. You know, what's good for rural Omaha is good for Omaha, you know. All these projects, there's a lot of them outside Omaha, but they're good -- it's good for Omaha.
MR. OLTMANS: They couldn't do it without the tax base.
MR. FLEECS: Absolutely not.
MR. OLTMANS: There's a project that I got started before I left the Papio NRD and that is being built right now. It's going to be a major 240-acre recreation lake in Dakota County. And if it wasn't for the tax base of Omaha, that wouldn't be built.
MR. FLEECS: Absolutely.
MR. OLTMANS: I mean, Omaha's tax base is 70, almost 80 percent of the tax base in the Papio NRD.
MR. FLEECS: And look what it is in the state of Nebraska.
MR. OLTMANS: Well, it's a third of the --
MR. FLEECS: Just the income tax and the sales tax and all that.
MR. OLTMANS: Right, right.
MR. FLEECS: Everybody has got to work with each other. Well, Steve, it's been my pleasure to have you sit down with me for the last almost an hour now.
MR. OLTMANS: Yes, I've enjoyed it.
MR. FLEECS: Shared how some of these good programs and how we were involved and how important the state of Nebraska is now I think because of natural resource districts.
MR. OLTMANS: Yep.
MR. FLEECS: You know, so good. Thank you.
MR. OLTMANS: Enjoyed it, Ron.