Dan Smith

Position Held: Assistant Manager and Manager, Middle Republican NRD, 1975 - 2013

Interviewer: Ann Bleed

Associated NRDs:

Middle Republican


MS. BLEED: This is Ann Bleed and I'm here interviewing Dan Smith, who just retired as the manager of the Middle Republican NRD. So, my first question to Dan is, tell me a little bit about your background.

MR. SMITH: I grew up in Frontier County, southwest Nebraska. I lived in the little town of Maywood, was born there, still live there, never got more than seven blocks from where I was born. But grew up there, went to school there, went to college at Kearney, Kearney State College then. I had a double major in business and math. And, of course, at that time frame, I graduated in 1970, the Vietnam war was still going strong, and I ended up going into the Air Force, and spent seven years, three months, ten days, and about five hours in the Air Force. I was co-pilot of B-52s for most of that time and had just a little bit of combat experience at the tail end of the Vietnam War. Decided to get out of the service, go back to the small town where I'd grown up, and I'd hoped to buy a business there. That didn't work and a position became available at the Middle Republican NRD in Curtis. I interviewed and was selected as an assistant manager to replace Rod DeBuhr, who was moving to York. Wayne Heathers was the manager. Lucille Towne was our secretary. And it was just the three of us in that office in those days. The Middle Republican was probably a little bit unusual in the NRDs at that time, because we -- for a western NRD, because we had a fairly active watershed program. The '47 flood on the Medicine Creek that did a lot of damage down through Cambridge, Nebraska, had been probably the primary impetus for the watersheds on the Upper and Lower Medicine Creek. Construction was actually started by the Watershed Conservancy District. But we finished up those projects on the Medicine Watershed and probably built about, I think, 11 structures in that. It was so big, it had to be split into two watersheds. Federal USDA funding, of course, PL 566. We had another watershed over in Hayes and Hitchcock County, the Blackwood Watershed that we were actively working on and built about 11 or 13 structures over there. We also had two old watersheds, the Dry Creek South in Red Willow County, and then the Dry Creek Pilot that was in southern Frontier and Red Willow County. Now, those watersheds were already built (before the NRDs). We were responsible for the O&M on them. As I recall, the Dry Creek Pilot wasn't the first pilot watershed started in the United States, but I believe it was the first one completed in the United States. And those structures are still all viable, active structures, and we still do O&M on them. So, that, the watershed programs the relationship with SCS at that time, with technical assistance for helping that agency with layout and design of conservation practices, were probably the primary emphasis for the NRD. Now, just before I had started, the Middle Republican and the Twin Platte had got together to do a groundwater model because the water issues were just starting to come to the front.

MS. BLEED: These are groundwater issues?

MR. SMITH: Groundwater issues, yes. We didn't have a whole lot of development, but there in the middle to late '70s, things were really booming and everybody was concerned that if those types of development rates continued into the future, would there be an issue with groundwater? And fortunately, that trend slowed down considerably, but we contracted with USGS and Conservation and Survey, to put together the Platte-Republican Groundwater Model that basically went from the Platte River to the Republican River and included that portion of the Twin Platte NRD and 80 percent of the Middle Republican NRD. On other water issues, the Upper Republican was just getting started on their control area and were developing some of their rules and regulations. And I think one of the first meetings I went to after starting with the NRDs was one of their public hearings over in Imperial, and there was a crowd big enough that they had to use the high school gym to get everybody in and lots of testimony, lots of passion, lots of emotion. But they perservered through that whole process and put together a pretty good program for what we had in those days. And one of the things I've always said with regard to NRDs, I think, is that when somebody wants go get involved in what's going on, which is good, they will grab the statutes for groundwater management now and look at them and say, “My God, look at all of this ability, all this authority. Why hasn't something been done?” And I think you have to understand how those statutes matured over the years to what we've got now. And it was a long, slow process from back in the late ‘70s. The NRDs’ authorities with groundwater management were pretty limited. The old control area concept required approval of the Department of Water Resources or you couldn't do the plan. And the groundwater management areas that we have now, of course, don't require that approval. There's a tremendous amount of coordination, of course, but they don't require that approval. So, the way the statutes have matured over the years, the way NRDs have matured over the years, I think is admirable for the organization. There are lots of good people, lots of ideas all it takes is interest and then you can build that interest into programs and policies that work at the local level. We talk about local control and we have many examples. You've got your county commissioners and you've got your school districts, and they're local control, but they're focused more on a single issue, where NRDs now have so much broader responsibilities, so much broader authorities that there's any number of things that they can be doing. W tend to focus on a few and put our emphasis there. Groundwater management, of course, is one of those now, but, it's local control that addresses local issues with that local perspective of knowing what's going on and knowing what needs to be done that I think makes them so darn effective.

MS. BLEED: And I think what I also am hearing you say is that there's more chances for the local folks to get involved in the decision-making.

MR. SMITH: Absolutely. We all have an elected board of directors. They're all good people genuinely wanting to get something better for their area, for the district. Hopefully we stay away from too much neighborhood focus and look at the big picture. And I think, in general, that gets done across the state. People may start on a board with a single interest in mind, but I think over time, they learn that the big picture has more importance and that, if you don't get the big picture right, you can't get the local picture right, either. And directors, I think, have done an admirable job over that. I've known any number of directors not only from my district, of course, but across the state and I've had the good fortune of working with some of them on various projects. There were a number of directors on the Water Policy Task Force, as you know. Those were challenging times looking at that integrated management concept. And I'm still kind of amazed and wonder how we got it done in the way we did it, but I think it worked. We've got something out there that's the basis for good, sound management. It will always improve. There will always be changes made. But I think we were able to put together a program that gave us a good enough foundation that you could build on it, could change it, could amend it as time goes on, and get around to the point where we start managing the water in Nebraska instead of just managing groundwater or surface water. I honestly feel that, while we've had lots of comments about what we did or did not do, I think the Republican Basin has led the way in that aspect in a lot of things. We still have our issues. We still have our challenges out there, but we continue to move forward with programs, policies, projects, that I think will make the Republican Basin a strong, viable basin and one that can stay in compliance with the Compact, where Nebraska by itself couldn't stay in compliance. We can make it work, and I think we are doing it. And my involvement in that process is one of those things that, I'm proud to have had the opportunity to work with the other managers, with the other boards on projects in our basin.

MS. BLEED: One of the questions that comes up about the NRDs, and I know your NRD was intimately involved at one point, is where you have districts and you have different rules across boundaries. If I'm remembering correctly, there was a lawsuit on the across boundary issues between the Middle and the Upper, was it?

MR. SMITH: Ann, I'm not sure. I don't remember anything specific there. Early on, you mean?

MS. BLEED: I may be misremembering.

MR. SMITH: There was some -- I know one of the irrigation districts early on wanted to take some action against the Upper Republican NRD and decided that they couldn't do it just because of the way the legal -- they would have had to have sued each and every landowner rather than a district. And there have always been, and probably always will be challenges between districts. You can always say, “Well, if they'd do more, we wouldn't have to do as much.” But just like water, that all rolls downhill, too. Your neighbor below you could say, “Well, if you'd have done more, we wouldn't have to do as much.” But, no, I think we get along.

MS. BLEED: How do you deal with those issues?

MR. SMITH: Just to a certain extent, try to ride it through. You've got to keep an open dialog with your neighbors. And I feel we have always done that. Years ago in the Republican River Basin, we started an informal group that we later put together under an inter-local agreement, that included the four NRDs in the Republican Basin and the irrigation districts. And that group still meets. Initially, we put it together to share information, to figure out what each of us do, which was really beneficial. We became formal when Kansas sued Nebraska the first time over the Republican, hoping to file an amicus brief with the Court. We weren't allowed to file by the Court, but the group still worked together to just continue to keep an understanding of what each of our issues were and if we weren't addressing your issue, then why? Why couldn't we do what you thought we should have done? And that group still meets. You know, it's effective at times, it struggles at time. But it's still an opportunity to have an open discussion of what's going on. And they are going to continue to be, I don't care whether you're the Republican or any other basin. There will continue to be issues between groundwater and surface water simply because of the way it's administered in Nebraska. It's a relatively complex system. It's relatively unique, I guess, west of the Mississippi, as far as I know. And I think it will probably change over time, whether that's done legislatively or through the courts. Hopefully, it's legislatively with something we can work on, work together on.

MS. BLEED: How would you see that changing? What would you change about it?

MR. SMITH: I'm not exactly sure. My fear is that you end up with the courts somehow throwing the two systems together, and then, who manages what? Not that they can't be put together, not that they can't work that way, but, Nebraska's (groundwater) correlative rights, surface water with appropriation rights are so different. I don't see how we'd ever blend those together formally. Now, it could be done, I think, through the structure we've got now, through the integrated management plans that we've worked on. I know, in the Republican, we're considering going back to a basin integrated management plan, I guess, like you have to do on an over-appropriated designation under LB962. Similar to what we would have done under LB108, the old process that first recognized those conflicts between ground and surface water. And then, through that basin plan, I think we could better address some of the conflict issues between groundwater and surface water. We're never going to make them go away, I'm firmly convinced of that. Things have changed, and I don't think it's practical to restore the system to what it was, if you will, at whatever point in time you pick. But I think we could work -- with a basin plan, we could work on projects that focus on minimizing those conflicts, which, again, I don't think you can ever make them go away, but I think we can minimize them without having to mitigate them or litigate them either one. But I think that's where things will have to go. I don't think it has to be done legislatively. Once again, I think we can work through the integrated management plan concept on that basin plan. And it takes the commitment and the participation of all the parties involved. The NRDs just can't get together and say, “Here's our integrated management plan for the basin,” and expect everybody else to buy off on it. We've got to have their input, their support, their participation of all interests, and primarily those irrigation districts, whether they be big scale or small scale. We've got to have the individual appropriators that are out there involved in the whole process so that everybody understands what the plan could do and where it needs to go. You know, we've sort of been in a -- I don't want to say panic, but because we're relatively poor in the Republican River Basin, a penny of tax in my district doesn't raise quite 300,000, where a penny of tax in the Papio is, what, five million? So, you've got to build your programs within your financial abilities. We do use the occupation tax authority that we've had on our project, but we seem like we -- we, the Republican NRDs, kind of always been behind the power curve just on funding issues. We've been fortunate enough over the years to get some funding through the State DNR, and been able to use that to put together some of our projects. The Upper started their Rock Creek project on their own and got it up and running. We're working on the N-CORPE project now. Hopefully by the end or middle of February, we'll have some water going down the stream in Medicine Creek, once again, pushing that water through the system so that Nebraska can stay in compliance. Were it not for the occupation tax authority that we have, we wouldn't have been able to afford that project. But we've got those two projects out there. They've got the capability of taking the edge off of the panic, if you will. Now we can turn around and focus on programs that can bring about overall stability in the basin. And we can address, some of the issues with the surface water irrigation districts. Once again, I know we can't bring them back to where they were, but we can mitigate some of the issues that they might have. In an orderly program right now, not responding, not reacting to the year, the compact call year or problems with Compact compliance. You know, hopefully, the Supreme Court makes their decision on the Special Master Kayatta's report to them. If they accept it in whole, Nebraska's going to be in reasonably good shape. We've got some things we need to work forward with. Will we end up back in court on the Rock Creek and the N-CORPE and some of the other issues that are out there in arbitration now? Who knows? Those things just have to be worked with. But I think we've got a system in place in the Republican. Once again, the foundation's there that we can build on it and, I think, bring about a fair amount of stability in the basin. We can't make it rain.

MS. BLEED: We've tried.

MR. SMITH: It'd be nice to make some of the droughts go away, but we can't make it rain. And the dry years complicate the process Some of the minor issues are magnified so by a drought year that it's too easy to overreact to the problems that you have. They're compounded when they come on top of each other. But, I'm still confident that through the system, we can make things work in the Republican River Basin. Just look at the Platte. Ron Bishop, I truly, truly loved the man. He was, from my early days as a manager, was a mentor to me. If I had some issues that scared me, I called Ron or I called John Turnbull, and I said, “Hey, what should I be doing? What should I be looking at?” And they were always more than willing to give me help. But some of the things that Ron's done, put together for the Central Platte on the Platte River Basin.

MS. BLEED: The conjunctive management?

MR. SMITH: Yes, conjunctive management. The Central Platte should be extremely proud of what they've put together there.

MS. BLEED: So, essentially, that's working with surface water and groundwater together to augment --

MR. SMITH: Right. What they've done with the three or four canals that they've worked with in that district. And I know some of the people involved with those projects. I think is great. If you can get enough stability in your system so that you can turn around and then work on the other problems without having to panic, without having to overreact, without having to meet the challenges of the day, you could work on those things that will give you the ability to meet those challenges way into the future and not react at them one at a time.

MS. BLEED: So, let me ask you, if -- I mean, obviously, one of the keys to the natural resources districts is local control. Thinking about your NRD and the Republican Basin, do you think a lot of what you've done would have gotten done if this was all under State control and you didn't have local?

MR. SMITH: Would it -- yes, it would have been done. I think it would have been much more of a struggle. When we were looking at our first groundwater management area, in five days, we did five meetings in each of the counties in our district, and probably had 100 to 120 people at each one of those meetings, and a lot of comments. The local reaction to any control, whether it be your school board or your county or the ag society wanting to build a new building at the fairgrounds, is going to have some kickback. And we had a fair amount. But the ability, then, of those locally elected directors to visit with their friends and neighbors in the weeks after those meetings, brought about an understanding that you could move forward with a plan that I don't think the state could have done. You could have dropped the same plan in at the State level, but there would have been a lot more resistance to it, a lot more of a battle to get that level of understanding that you could do with people at the local level. And I think that's where local control will always be more effective than State control. Not necessarily better, but more effective, because you've got ability to build the support that you need. There are people that are well-informed, uninformed, and misinformed. Well-informed and uninformed you can work with easy. Misinformed, you have to make an extra effort to take apart what they think they know to try and bring them back into one of those other two categories. And that, I don't think you could do from the State level. I think you've got to have that local contact, that local office that you could call. Whenever we'd have a new issue, regardless of what it might be, the phone's going to ring off the wall for two weeks as soon as it becomes public. And that's been the case over the years, whatever it may be. There's always going to be somebody that wants to know, wants to be able to call, wants to be able to talk to a person and understand. And if you've got that local office out there, you can get that done more effectively than trying to call somebody in Lincoln.

MS. BLEED: Getting back to the early days of the NRD, do you remember any stories or discussions about the formation of the NRDs and what was going on?

MR. SMITH: Well, of course, that first legal challenge by the League of Women Voters, I believe, created a little bit of confusion from what I understand. There were two or three districts that never hired managers until it was settled. I think Twin Platte didn't hire a manager until January -- December or January. Kent Miller is the only manager they've ever had, but he was hired a little bit later. I think there were a couple other districts that also did that. You had massive boards because all those boards fro the merged districts had to continue to meet. I know our secretary talked about having to keep books, accounting, for 12 different groups that went into our NRD between the soil and water conservation districts and the watershed conservancy districts that we had out there. So just doing that, so, it was a struggle until they got through that challenge. Then the individual boards appointed people to an executive committee and then you had to get through the elections. You had two-year and four-year appointments and got through that process. And so, you were essentially two years into the existence of the districts before you had the first board that was elected to fully represent those districts. Then there were the later challenges of the sub-district issue of getting close to one to one.

MS. BLEED: The one person, one vote kind of issue?

MR. SMITH: One person, one vote, yes, was a challenge. Which, in the Middle Republican, we said, let's just go to at-large. And I think it's worked reasonably well for us. We would have had to have pin-wheeled sub-districts off of McCook. To make things generally easier election-wise, we just said, let's go to directors at large. And we are the only district in the state that doesn't have sub-districts. We elect all of our directors at-large, and it functions reasonably well for us now. We have a concentration of directors from Red Willow County now, which we would have if we'd have had sub-districts. There are areas in our district that don't feel like they're represented. And in working with those folks, you need to make sure they find a director of the existing ones that will listen to them. Doesn't necessarily have to agree with you, but find somebody that'll listen to you. You've got to make your concerns known. You just can't sit back in the woods and holler that I'm not being treated right. You've got to get out and participate in government if you want it to work well for you. You can't just stand back and watch it go by.

MS. BLEED: Is there anything else you can think of you'd like to add?

MR. SMITH: We're here at the Legislative Conference. We do a fall conference, and I know other groups have conferences, but, the last few years, I think especially since Dean Edson took over as NARD executive director, these conferences are an excellent opportunity to share experiences, share problems, and get a perspective on what -- not just what your issues are, but some of the challenges that other districts deal with. This Legislative Conference, there may be a piece of legislation out there that you think is just marvelous, but until you get the opportunity to sit down here and figure out what the impact of the same thing that's good for you is bad for a District 3, you know, 30 miles away, then you go, “Oh, yeah, I never thought about that.” And these conferences give us the ability to air out those issues. Figure out if our idea, is fixable? Is it totally broke? Can we change this into something? Can we move with something that can be good for both of us? Another thing that the NRD system does is our Managers' Committee. And I think we meet about five times a year. It gives us an opportunity once again to, kind of, in a smaller environment; to air out our concerns, figure out what's wrong, what needs to be fixed. Will that fix work for everybody? Once again, that blending new concepts into the existing programs of 23 districts and understanding that, yes, if it's good for me, it should be good for you. And if it isn't, we need to figure out how to do that. And I think the NRD system with these conferences, with the managers being able to get together; it's a good opportunity for that. We've just hired, of course, a new manager for the Middle Republican NRD, and one of the things I've done is -- with Jack is encouraged him to, through the Managers' Committee, to listen. And he's met a number of the managers already, but to find out who to talk to, and I said, “I'll work with you. I know who you need to go to if you have an urban program, if you have trails, if you have watershed issues, budgets.” There are managers out there that have unique skills within each of those areas and you don't have to learn everything new. You can go draw on some of that information, some of that background that the other parties have. And I think that's one of the things that's maybe unique for the NRD system is that we've got that relationship between the managers that we can have that open and free discussion and sharing. We don't get such an ownership in a program at the local level that we wouldn't tell anybody else what we do. And I think that's one of the good things about NRDs. And I think that works through the directors, too. Once again, a director will be as effective as they choose to be, will know as much, will be aware of as much as they want to get in and get involved. If you just want to go to a meeting once a month or a committee, if you're on one, and not get involved in everybody else's business, if you will, then you'll stay relatively low on the knowledge tree. But if you get out and get involved, I think you've got -- you have that ability to learn from others to figure out what their experiences are, to figure out what their problems are, and hopefully not make those same problems at your local district. And I think that's a good relationship in the NRD system.

MS. BLEED: One more question that I've got, and this is really not related to the topic at hand, but just out of curiosity, what do you think should be the role of the State?

MR. SMITH: Difficult question. We're dealing with the funding issue now, Senator Carlson's task force. We started that two years ago with whatever the LB was that the Natural Resources Committee put out. That didn't go far. The NRDs put together a tremendous amount of information, which Senator Carlson's task force was able to sweep in and use. But we do need some level of funding at the State level. Once again, some districts can handle startup of a new program just because of their valuation. For some of the districts, and mostly the western districts that are smaller have a little less valuation, it's tough to do something new. Now, we have extended authority for groundwater management, but if you want to just start a watershed program, it would be almost impossible. Of course, there's very little federal funding now, but anything that's not directly groundwater related, there's very little funding available to help you get the start. I've thought and worked a little bit on some legislation on a revolving loan fund I think would work for most of it. We don't need an outright grant from the State. Sure, if we can get it, great. But if you can just have the availability, the opportunity to go out and get money for your startup, get a loan, pay it back over time, most of us, I think, can handle new programs administratively, but that initial startup can stop a good project from happening just because -- and it may not be that it's that expensive. You just can't afford to get it started. You could afford to run it after it's going, but you just can't get it started and that's where we need that State help. Now, once again, it can't be an open checkbook. I think it's got to be a program where there's some review, there's some oversight. I think one of the things that one of the pieces of legislation this year looks at is the $50 million, as being used only for the projects that were identified through that task force process. So the one project that could save the State on everything could come up tomorrow, but it couldn't be funded because it wasn't one of the original ones considered. So, we need some more flexibility there. There has to be the opportunity to put together a program that technology has made possible now that changes -- there are things that change and we've got to be able to adapt with that. So, the State involvement has to be there on a number of other issues. I guess I look at it primarily as funding, but we need help with studies. Every NRD doesn't need a groundwater model or a hydrologist and a geologist. We need the ability to go through either DNR or Conservation and Survey or fund projects, studies through USGS. You know, there are a number of different groups out there that we can do that, but we need that state or federal help, in many cases, involvement just for that study, for that phase. Because, it would be foolish -- not foolish, I guess, but it's not practical for us to, for the Middle to hire a groundwater modeler. We could keep one busy, but we couldn't generate the output that would justify the cost. So, we need that ability, that relationship with the states -- with the State agencies to do that, not only on quantity issues, which I would typically associate with DNR, but the quality issues with DEQ. We need to have that State agency there can help or outright do the study, the modeling if it needs to be for various issues. So, there's a role there, an important role there for the State. And that I don't see ever going away. Could there be a different structure? We've looked at a variety of different things over the years. “We,” being the State of Nebraska, not just the NRDs. But do we need one giant agency with divisions? Do we need lots of separate agencies? And that question will always be asked, regardless of the system you have, you have to think that maybe there's something out there that would work better. Not change for change sake, but, regardless of how good you function, you can be better in some respect. It may not be practical, but you could do your job better if you think about it long enough. So, the State agencies are going to have to be involved in the local programs. I guess it's no different than the State Department of Education looking at curriculum for the local school. They could build things, science curriculum, on a scale that could apply to all schools that once again, you couldn't do at the -- you could do at the local level, but you couldn't necessarily afford it.

MS. BLEED: Anything else you'd like to add?

MR. SMITH: I don't know, Ann. Like I say, the NRDs, I knew very little about natural resources districts when I started with them. I'd been gone, like I said, again, I'd been in the service, so I hadn't been in Nebraska during those formative years. When I started with the district, we used to kind of loaf in the winter. We planted trees in the spring. We did our watershed work, our O&M or dam construction during the summer and a little bit of wildlife work in the fall, and the winter months we just kind of sat around, got ready for the next round. And now we stay busy all year long. The system, if you will, has morphed into where the meetings happen through those winter months, through the idle time that we used to have. The NRDs are unique to Nebraska. And I think they're unique in the role that they play. They can meet those challenges. We've got enough variation in authority that we can do things at the local level that couldn't be put together by the other -- not as effectively put together by the other subdivisions that may be out there. Some folks complain that, your district doesn't do anything with trails, and my district doesn't do anything with water issues. But you focus on those things that are important in the area. We don't have a whole lot of storm water run-off concerns out in Curtis, Nebraska.

MS. BLEED: At least not as a city.

MR. SMITH: Not at the moment.


We will never have the issues and the emphasis that the Lincoln and Omaha districts have. But we meet our challenges just as effectively. But there are different issues within those schemes. So, I think the NRDs are going to continue to function, are going to continue to be viable. We've got to meet those challenges to our effectiveness when they come up. And once again, I think it's mostly misinformed. People that look at the laws that are on the books now and say, “My God, why haven't you done something about this?” But when the issue may have started, you had very little authority. You may have just got the authority with the last session of the Legislature. But you've got to be able to meet those challenges to your effectiveness. You've got to work towards putting together the programs that you know meet the needs of your local area.

MS. BLEED: Thank you very much, Dan. Appreciate your input, and you'll be getting a copy.