MR. STARR: I'm interviewing today John Miyoshi, the manager of the Lower Platte North NRD. The interview is conducted for the Natural Resources District's Oral History Interview Project. The interviewer is Gayle Starr. The interview is being conducted on September 27, 2013, at Mr. Miyoshi's office at the Lower Platte North NRD in Wahoo, Nebraska. And Miyoshi is spelled M-i-y-o-s-h-i. I got that right. So, John if you can give us a little run-down of what your life -- has happened in your life over the last X number of years?
MR. MIYOSHI: Okay. Well, I was raised on an orchard south of Nebraska City. I graduated Nebraska City High School. From there, I went to the University, where I received my bachelor's degree in agricultural education with a minor in business and food science and technology. Upon graduation, I taught vocational agriculture and coached basketball for five years at Columbus-Lakeview and then at Exeter. During the summers, I worked on my master's degree, completing my master's degree in six summers, and took a job with the University Cooperative Extension Service, after I received my master's, and was stationed in Cass County as the agricultural extension agent for five years. And in 1984, I applied for a position with the Lower Platte North NRD and have been with the NRD since that time.
MR. STARR: So, who was the manager when you first came to the Lower Platte North?
MR. MIYOSHI: Well, there was a little turmoil at that time. Ray Hartung (phonetic) had just been hired as manager, and I was hired as assistant manager. Just prior to Ray being manager, Al Smith was the original manager for the NRD.
MR. STARR: So, when you first started at the NRD, how much knowledge did you have of the NRDs and what was your expectations?
MR. MIYOSHI: You know, I had very little knowledge about the NRDs. Of course, growing up in Otoe County, we fished at some of the watershed structures located there, so knew that the NRD had taken that over and ran the soil conservation and flood control programs. But pretty limited knowledge at that time. And, of course, that changed fairly quickly.
MR. STARR: Was the NRD office in David City or Wahoo at that time?
MR. MIYOSHI: It was in David City, where it had been since the start of the NRDs in 1972. In 1989, the board made a decision to move the office to Wahoo, which occurred in 1990.
MR. STARR: Was that a pretty controversial happening and what was the dynamics of that and what were the positives and the negatives as far as the board was concerned?
MR. MIYOSHI: If you call an 11 to 10 vote, controversial, yes, it was. There was substantial discussion on that. Some of the reasoning behind that, a lot of the project work looking to the future was going to occur in Wahoo Creek. So, it just -- we were moving to a larger town. We talked and considered Schuyler, Fremont, and, actually, erecting an office at our recreation site near Prague at Czechland Lake. And so, all of this was taken under consideration. We actually looked for potential facilities or building sites in those towns and, when the final vote came down, it was between Wahoo, looking at the building we're in now, or remaining in David City.
MR. STARR: So, I think, if my memory serves me correctly, I think only the Nemaha is the only other NRD that actually changed towns as far as the location, and that was kind of a very early thing. But I don't think any other NRD has actually -- they've changed buildings, certainly, but not towns.
MR. MIYOSHI: I think you're right on that one. Yes.
MR. STARR: I think, but maybe I'm wrong. How, from the time you came on until today, how have your directors, as a group, evolved? I mean, in terms of their thinking and in terms of the types of things that they are willing to do?
MR. MIYOSHI: Well, it's fairly interesting. In 1984, we spent 90 percent of our time and effort on soil conservation and flood control. Those were the two big items. And over the years, it just evolved that much more emphasis was placed on water quality and, today, water quantity. So, the water issues have really taken over much more of our time than we had ever imagined back in 1984.
MR. STARR: Uh-huh. All of the changes in the state law in terms of groundwater management and all of the things that are attached to that issue have really been tremendous since 1972, when there was not much groundwater responsibility to the NRDs at that point in time.
MR. MIYOSHI: Yeah. Not only the state, but even the federal priorities. Previously, we did conservation work for soil conservation. Keep the soil on the land. Today, we do much the same work, but our justification is water quality. We're trying to keep the sediment, and nutrients, and pesticides on the land where it's applied.
MR. STARR: How has the staff changed in terms of what they do and their technical expertise in the, I guess, almost 30 years you've been here?
MR. MIYOSHI: Well, when I was hired in 1984, there was four of us: A secretary; a bookkeeper; Ray Hartung that did the management activities; and I was hired as the assistant manager, but really spent more of my time as a field person doing dam inspections, in charge of the tree planting program, and just wildlife programs. Just all the small programs and projects and, you know, construction inspections. Did all that. Today we have 16 full-time people here at the office; of course, some part-time people that run our recreation areas; and then, we still have, of course, the clerks at the NRCS offices.
MR. STARR: Has there been a lot of competition for NRD board directors? Have they been -- I've known a lot of NRDs' position went unchallenged. The one that was there before filed and that was it, particularly in some NRDs. Have you had enough issues that there has been a lot of competition for those positions?
MR. MIYOSHI: No, there has not been a lot of competition, although the type of person running for the board has changed. And, again, we had mostly farmers and retired farmers on the board. And now, we have a pretty good split, with some urban-type jobs or retired individuals. So, we have a much different flavor on the board today than we did 30 years ago.
MR. STARR: How has that changed what the board is interested in doing or willing to do?
MR. MIYOSHI: Well, there's much more of a urban presence. While we don't own any trails, we do give money for trail construction, and many of the urban projects when needs come up. I think the board is much more aware of where the tax dollars come from. They used to be most of our dollars were spent in the rural areas, and that's not the case today.
MR. STARR: Yeah. What things are the NRDs in total, not just the Lower Platte North, the 23 of you, what types of things are you really wanting to get going now? What, in addition to what you're doing now, are there areas where you'd like to get involved in terms of changing state law, either in terms of developing revenue, developing responsibilities, areas you think you ought to be involved in?
MR. MIYOSHI: Well, the transition, like I said, was from soil conservation to water quality to where, today, water quantity is the big issue. And we've watched that progress across the state. Of course, 30 years ago it was just starting to be a problem out west. It got to the point where some districts were declared fully appropriated. Us in the eastern part of the state are fortunate that none of our areas had been declared fully appropriated. But we'd been given the tools to work with to hopefully prevent us from ever reaching that tipping point where our water supply does not exceed our demand.
MR. STARR: Are there additional tools that you think you ought to have in terms of state law or other things?
MR. MIYOSHI: As we get into this more and more, the water quantity issue, it's different in eastern Nebraska in that not all of our water is connected. And so, there's much more demand for models to be more precise, where the lines between the different aquifers are. We have some lines on maps and, sometimes, we find that they're not as accurate as we had hoped. And so, funding we'd like to see in the eastern part of the state, of course, is more research dollars where groundwater models can be created. Department of Natural Resources is doing work to merge the existing groundwater models together and identify the gap areas where additional work is needed. So, that's kind of a change for us and we'd like to see funding for that.
MR. STARR: One of the things that Senator Carlson is looking at is identifying some source of state funds for water development, water research, water education, et cetera. And I don't know how successful that's going to be, but what's your view of that and what's the NARD's view of that?
MR. MIYOSHI: We think Senator Carlson's water funding task force is an important issue for the state. One of the problems is money has been dedicated to different areas, but the funding for this has grown stagnant. The Resource Development Fund has had only one increase in the last 25 years. And so, just inflation has eaten away at that total number of dollars. So, Senator Carlson is trying to identify the needs for different water issues, whether it's quality, quantity, or too much water, like flood control, and then try to find a source of funding that can stay in pace with inflation. And there's been talk of tying it to the sales tax; the idea of an occupation tax on irrigated acres has come up; a tax on water, which would be very controversial; a tax on bottled water. So, they're looking at a lot of different funding sources. But, again, the key thing here is something that could stay in pace with inflation.
MR. STARR: You've mentioned groundwater several times. What programs, controls, and so forth does this NRD have in place that you've been using to deal with groundwater issues?
MR. MIYOSHI: Well, since 1986, we've had a groundwater management plan that gets -- has had two major updates since its inception. And then, the rules and regulations that say how we're going to manage our groundwater. As with all the groundwater management plans across the state, we've got triggers on there on quantity. If our three consecutive spring readings fall below the trigger level, we need to take action. What we found out in 2012 and '13, maybe the three consecutive years is too liberal. We saw declines in 2012, one year alone, that was equal to the drought years of 2002 through 2006. So, our board's likely going to look at ways to, maybe, bring some of these sub-areas into control a little bit more or likely place a stay on any irrigation development in our district for next year while we try to work out how we can properly manage these sub-areas where, truly, no development should (indiscernible).
MR. STARR: The entire district or --
MR. MIYOSHI: No. We -- Right now, we could put those controls on district-wide. But what we can't do without the three consecutive years is put control on a sub-basin or an individual aquifer. And we need to be able to do that.
MR. STARR: You mentioned, you know, that you have a situation that's different from out west where your aquifers are confined or unconnected or non-existent in some cases. How has that been an issue to deal with or how have you dealt with those problems?
MR. MIYOSHI: Well, one, we had a study done by Olsson and Associates to identify our -- what we call our sub-basin delineation study. And so, that's the different aquifers within our district, and came up with 23 different areas within our district. And so, we should be managing those 23 areas separately, and we -- we're set up to do that, based on our trigger levels for three years. And when I talked about some lines might not be as exact, it's some of those that we get challenged on once in a while, and, again, those lines were drawn with the best available data.
MR. STARR: Well, the groundwater is -- can change dramatically in just a short distance and you can't always see it because it's underground. You can't see it. But they're -- the Lower Platte South is using some new technology that I don't understand to try to find that out. Are you getting involved in that, or is that --
MR. MIYOSHI: The helicopter electromagnetic surveys or HEM work. Actually, the first one of those that were done was done at an area that borders Lower Platte North and Lower Platte South near Swedeburg. And it was kind of amazing, some of the information we got from that. And that was part of an overall study in eastern Nebraska where seven NRDs went together to look at that. And so, it's been interesting. It's fairly expensive. The cost has come down, but we're still looking at about $160 per section to gain that information. And so, it's just a matter of cost versus what you can afford.
MR. STARR: Well, in the big picture, that's not too bad a cost, really.
MR. MIYOSHI: Well, where we really need to define those areas, it's invaluable information.
MR. STARR: Yes.
MR. MIYOSHI: Yes. It's just a matter of finding the cost.
MR. STARR: Do you have people on the staff here that are technically savvy enough that they are involved in modeling and that type of thing or do you have to bring in outside consultants for that?
MR. MIYOSHI: For any of the modeling work we've done -- worked with outside consultants, whether it be engineering firms or the University. We have two people on staff that have been to the classes, understand modeling. They don't do the modeling themselves, but they do, at least, understand the parameters and how they're put together so they can interpret the results.
MR. STARR: That's probably a good way to go, in my view anyway. Getting back to the history, when you came on board, the levy was probably much less than it is now. And where's your levy, your mill levy now?
MR. MIYOSHI: Well, if we go back historically, when I started with the district in 1984, looking back at the records then, we had taxed the maximum mill levy the NRDs could, which was three and a half cents. In the late '80s, that was increased to four and a half cents. And then, with the groundwater issues across the state, the legislature allowed us to tax an additional one cent for our groundwater needs, which would be a total of five and a half cents. Our levy has been one of the higher across the state. This next year, we're at 5.2 cents, and our maximum would be 5.5 cents. So, we're one of the few that's above five cents.
MR. STARR: What is your total budget, your annual budget?
MR. MIYOSHI: We're at about $7.5 million.
MR. STARR: That's from all sources.
MR. MIYOSHI: Yes. And about half of that money comes from a property tax. And I think that's one thing you have to say about the NRDs, is they've been -- we have been very aggressive about going after outside funds, whether it be state, federal, or other local dollars.
MR. STARR: Do you do a lot of cost sharing in terms of conservation practices, water meters, tree planting, or whatever it might be? Do you do that?
MR. MIYOSHI: Yes. All of those programs you mentioned, we do have cost share from -- we do receive some direct cost share money from the state. The state cost shares with the landowners and we administer the program, and that's the Nebraska Soil and Water Conservation Program. On top of that, we have our own cost share programs for soil conservation practices, water meters, wildlife habitat, just a whole series of programs like that. One of the newer items is the federal 319 program. That was done to -- for non-point source pollution and watershed protection. In the past, we haven't been able to use that money for best management practices. There's been a change with the 319 program, and you do an initial study. Once that study is approved, there's a substantial amount of money available for BMPs. So, we've taken advantage of that money.
MR. STARR: Do you require water meters on all irrigation wells?
MR. MIYOSHI: No, we don't. However, any well drilled since 2007 is required to put a meter on. And that's new wells as well as replacement wells must have a water meter.
MR. STARR: What has been the progression of irrigation development in the last five to 10 years? Has it been pretty rapid or has there been much?
MR. MIYOSHI: You know, there -- we went -- the last 10 years, we've averaged about 2500 acres a year. And we were marching along at about that pace and then, with the drought in -- well, first the part -- we had a preliminary determination of fully appropriated in 2008, which subsequently was overturned. But when that occurred, we saw a large demand for irrigated acres at that time. The legislature had put a bill in place which only -- which limited the districts to 2500 acres, which, fortunately, was about what we'd done prior to that. So, we kept going at that pace. And the demand for expanded acres was fairly close for most of that time for the demand. With 2012, though, we saw an extreme drought in that year and huge demand for increasing irrigated acres. Along with that, there was some fairly good crop prices at the time, so farmers had money to invest. And so, a lot of demand there. And, again, here in 2013 there's been a large demand. We had 2500 acres to give out, and we've received about 8000 acres in applications. And we really think the board probably will not allow any of those acres to be developed, just because the feeling is we need to take a timeout right now and assess where we are and which sub-areas we don't want to allow expansion in.
MR. STARR: How do you deal with it in terms of where those applications come from? In the Todd Valley area you've got a lot better situation than you do over here in the so-called Bohemian Alps (indiscernible).
MR. MIYOSHI: That's a very good question. We have a ranking system, and it takes into account if there's water there, the transmissivity, and several features like that. And one of them is the type of soil and the slope that you have on that land. How -- Is there any cost to the environment to allowing irrigation to occur on that land? And so, with that ranking system, we actually rank each of the applications that come in and would give the irrigation out to whoever ranked the highest.
MR. STARR: Do you do anything in terms of dealing with how they're going to irrigate, whether it be a pivot or a gravity or all the other things that are out there?
MR. MIYOSHI: Yes. If you're going to go, depending on the type of irrigation, you get bonus points. The lowest, of course, is gravity. You get bonus points if you go to a pivot. To a low-pressure pivot is even more. And if you go sub-surface drip, you get the highest number of bonus points. And then, we have people that want to convert from gravity to pivot, is fairly common. Many of those, of course, the size of your field changes because of the pivot, and we give a priority to any of those that want to convert from a low-efficiency to a high-efficiency system.
MR. STARR: With all this technology farmers are dealing with, you're dealing with, and so forth, how has your board come along in this progression of technology? You know, in 1972, which was before your time, but in 1972, there were very few pivots, very few water meters, very few of those types of technologies and the board, I assume, kind of had to be -- come along with that progression of technology as well?
MR. MIYOSHI: Well, many of our board members are people that have the time to spend on it, and many of those tend to be older farmers. But as we see younger farmers come on board, we're seeing much more buy-in to the precision agriculture, which now is leading to the precision application of water with your center-pivot. And so, we have a new generation out there, and it's very exciting to look at some of the technologies they're using for deficiency irrigation, meaning cutting back on your water, to a pivot that will actually put more water on the parts of your field that have more ability to produce.
MR. STARR: So, as you progress in this, I think when I talked to you the other day, you said that you were thinking that your board at the next meeting would make some changes in terms of limitations on irrigators. Is that going to happen? Or maybe that board meeting has already happened.
MR. MIYOSHI: No. Our water committee, actually, is next week where we'll make the decision for 2014. And that's just a recommendation to the board, which meets October 14th. But right now I'm fairly sure we're going to put a stay in place district-wide. And then, probably, make some changes to our rules and regulations which would allow us to not allow development in some of the sub-basins on a decision other than the three-year trigger level and, specifically, when we look in the eastern part of Butler County and the western edge of Saunders County is where we're having the most conflicts between irrigators and domestic users. We will likely slow or stop any development in that area. But we do have areas that are very well connected, like the Todd Valley and the Platte Valley, that can handle additional irrigation. I don't know if that will happen in 2014, but I think the goal of the directors is to identify these areas that should be shut off and which ones could allow development to occur.
MR. STARR: Do you read meters or do the farmers report what their -- the amount of water they've used or --
MR. MIYOSHI: The only areas we do that, we have two control areas, and both of those control areas are for quality, not quantity. But those areas, they do need to report that on an annual basis. And then, again, since any well that's gone in since 2007 that's required to have a meter, there's a reporting requirement on those wells. So, that's about 12 to 15 percent of our wells have a reporting requirement on it right now.
MR. STARR: As farmers, landowners, and operators have gone to new technology, meters, all the other technologies that are out there, do you find that they have progressed a lot in terms of how much water they use and how they operate their system and are a lot more efficient than they were at one time?
MR. MIYOSHI: Well, it's a small number that starts with this and that spreads. You know, there used to be, I would say, a high number of water abusers, meaning they were pumping much more than what they needed. Fuel costs today, and our farmers have just become more aware, I think that number of abusers is a small percent today, but you still have those out there that you worry about. On the opposite end, we've got this small group that's being ultra-conservative and managing the water to a fine degree, and those are the guys we're trying to work with and promote what they're doing because those people are using 10, 20 percent less water than many of our producers out there. That is spreading among the community.
MR. STARR: Do you work very much with the commercial folks, the people that sell meters, the people that sell pivots, and so forth to try to get them to encourage farmers to be more efficient, to be a better --
MR. MIYOSHI: We do have some education meetings and we try to target those people to get them at -- for nitrogen and irrigation certification meetings. Our largest outreach is working cooperatively with the Extension Service, and the meetings we put on, they assist us with that. They do part of the education program. So, it's kind of a cooperative effort with us and the Extension Service on that education.
MR. STARR: You work with them on chemigation and the whole realm of activities (indiscernible) --
MR. MIYOSHI: Yes, chemigation is another big one.
MR. STARR: That's a big water quality issue, too, I would think. Do you do anything in terms of fertilizer application and -- either in terms of quantity or timing or what they have to do to --
MR. MIYOSHI: All of our producers are supposed to be nitrogen-certified, meaning once each four years, they have to attend a class and go through the most modern methods. In our quality areas, and we have two areas, one around Bellewood, one near Schuyler, where our groundwater nitrate levels exceed eight parts per million in over half of our wells. And that's a trigger for us that we put forced education in these areas, meaning they need to test their groundwater for nitrate, they need to say how much pumping they're doing, and actually figure how many pounds of nitrogen is coming on with the water. They're required to do a soil test, and then they're required to do a nitrogen budget for how much commercial fertilizer or manure -- and/or manure needs to be put on. And so, they have to do the paperwork. Ultimately, they don't have to follow that -- the University's recommendation. But all the information is there in front of them at that point.
MR. STARR: You've mentioned water quality several times. Is nitrates the main -- I assume it's the main issue, but is it the only issue that you deal with?
MR. MIYOSHI: It is -- we spend most of our time looking at nitrate/nitrogen. That's the culprit we have that's exceeding the maximum contaminant level at places in our district. When we do our water samples, and we do between 60 to 300 water samples each summer, about one out of every 10 or 15, we do a full screen on, meaning we're looking at pesticides, volatiles, anything like that that shouldn't be in the water. And we've done those for over 15 years now, close to 20 years. And in 20 years, we have never had a pesticide exceed the maximum contaminant level for groundwater. We've received -- and, again, on all of these that we do, less than five percent we have received detects of pesticides in the water. So, extremely low amount of pesticide actually being detected in the water and, when it is, it's -- we've never had one at the maximum contaminant level.
MR. STARR: Do any surface water testing?
MR. MIYOSHI: No, we don't.
MR. STARR: No. I know, some years ago, there was a -- Shell Creek was a big issue in terms of atrazine. There would be, you know, everybody used atrazine at that time and everybody planted their corn and then a big rain came and Shell Creek had a load of atrazine. And then, two or three days, it was all gone. But that's a, you know, a past issue. I guess there's all kinds of new products out there that I don't understand or even know the names of.
MR. MIYOSHI: Now, we did have some suspected manure dumping occurring in Shell Creek. And, actually, the NRD and DEQ and USGS has joined forces and put some detection gauges along Shell Creek. And that was a three-year project. And year two and three, we don't believe any dumping occurred. Prior to that, we would have several instances where it was highly suspected. Oddly enough, these dumpings would almost always be tied to a three-day weekend that was coming up. And if there was -- especially if there was a rain event in the forecast, it seems like those were the times when that would happen, and it happened on numerous occasions. We actually detected two of those during our first year of sampling. Year two and three, there was none. And so, we think maybe, just with the awareness in the area and the extra eyes watching, hopefully we had some producers change their --
MR. STARR: What were they doing? They just taking a truckload or a wagon load out there and dumping it in the stream or --
MR. MIYOSHI: And, again, you get citizens reporting things to me, but actually proving it is another thing. But the reporting we were getting was people loading up a honey wagon and just stopping on the bridge and unloading that into the creek.
MR. STARR: I see. Yeah. Well, things happen. And it's not always hard to deal with. Well, John, is there anything else that you want to put on the record that you've observed that we haven't talked about over the, I guess, almost 30 years that you've been involved?
MR. MIYOSHI: Well, we have a unique system in the state, and we have the opportunity to go to national conferences once in a while. And it's -- there's always a lot of questions from other states on how we got the NRDs set up. How did this happen, you know? And, you know, I wasn't part of that, but there had to be almost wars over that because you're eliminating some political subdivisions, you're creating new ones, giving them authorities that was never there before. But other states looking at Nebraska are envious of how we're able to handle these issues at a local level rather than having the state come out and mandate.
MR. STARR: You know, earlier this week, I think I mentioned to you, I met with Jerry Vap, and, of course, Jerry was involved at the national level, was national president for one term. And we talked about some of that and how he had to deal with that in terms of people asking what we were doing and -- as opposed to I know there were some people in Nebraska with national conventions were telling people, you know, “This is great. You all ought to do this.” And that didn't always go over very well. And he mentioned some of the things that he faced when he was the national president in that regard. And I faced too. One time in the mid-90s, I worked with NACD on a team of us went to various states. I don't know, I participated in maybe eight or 10 states. And we talked about their programs, trying to get them a little more active in what they were doing. And, of course, some of them were extremely minimal. I remember New Mexico, as an example, was -- well, they were hardly, they hardly existed. And they were all good folks, but they just, you know, “Well, we couldn't possibly do that. We couldn't get that through our legislature.” You know, and, well, maybe they couldn't. I don't know. And I think that, when this did happen, and, of course, the original law was passed in '69 and then various amendments until it went into effect in '72, but it had to be a case of the right people at the right time, you know. A Maurice Kremer, a Warren Fairchild, and some of the state people that were involved. Warren (indiscernible), Chet Ellis, and so forth, that were -- really pushed it. And, of course, there were -- certainly, there was a lot of opposition. And even the -- even at the commission, the -- Maurice Kremer came up one day to the commission meeting and said, “Do you really want me to go ahead with this?” You know, “What do you think, commission?” And the commission voted, and it was, you know, shades of your 11 to 10 vote. I think it was five to four. And so, he went ahead. And, of course, there were -- you know, he obviously had to have 25 votes to get it through, and Governor Tiemann was a supporter. He would sign it. There was no problem there, but he had to have 25 votes and, so, he was only one of 25. But he was certainly the leader, and your organization recognized him the other day as -- What do you call it? Hall of Fame or whatever you call it.
MR. MIYOSHI: Yes, first inductee.
MR. STARR: And he was -- that was certainly appropriate that he was the first inductee. In fact, I guess if I'd have been suggesting it, he'd have been the only inductee the first time.
MR. MIYOSHI: Yeah.
MR. STARR: Not that Ron Bishop and Dick Mercer didn't deserve it. They certainly do. But Maurice Kremer really deserved it.
MR. MIYOSHI: It took some strong, positive leadership to make that happen.
MR. STARR: Well, it took a lot of compromise and a lot of politics.
MR. MIYOSHI: When I started with the NRD, the first NACD meeting I went to was in 1985, and there was reports from several of the -- from the districts. And I'll never forget sitting through that and listening to a few of the conservation districts give their report. And Don Gath (phonetic), a board member from Schuyler, was sitting next to me, and Don leaned over when they were talking about their budget and said, “Didn't we just approve a bone budget that was more than their entire budget?” And it was true.
MR. STARR: Yeah. I remember in New Mexico one of the directors asked me, he said, “Is it true in Nebraska that you have districts that have a million-dollar budget?” And I said, “Yeah, we do, but all the rest of them are bigger than that.” So, okay, John, I sure thank you for your time and your input and I'll get this turned off.