John Williams

Position Held: District Forester, 1974 - 1975; Manager, Upper Niobrara-White NRD, 1975 - 1997; Board Member, Twin Platte NRD

Interviewer: Jim Barr

Associated NRDs:

Twin Platte

Upper Niobrara White


MR. BARR: This is Jim Barr and it's August 20th, 2013, in North Platte, Nebraska. I'm visiting with John Williams. John would you give us just a little summary of your background?

MR. WILLIAMS: Yes. I was district manager of the Upper Niobrara White Natural Resources District for 22 years, from spring of 1975 until 1997. I was born and raised on a cattle ranch, irrigated farm, dry land wheat operation in northern Sheridan County, active in 4-H, and had two brothers and a sister. I was the oldest. Went to the University of Nebraska in the fall of 1967 as an agricultural economics major and was there three years and then transferred to the University of Montana, Missoula, and switched to natural resource economics -- forestry economics, got my bachelor's degree, and then was out for a year or so and then went back in graduate school, natural resource administration and came –- made it back to Nebraska, was hired as a district forester with Nebraska Forest Service in Chadron, Nebraska, the fall of 1974, working on Timber Stand Improvement Project on Ponderosa Pine and became acquainted with the Natural Resource District through that. And then the Upper Niobrara White NRD was the last district, I believe, in the state to hire a general manager and that position came open in May of '75 and I was selected for that position. So that started my career with NRDs at that time.

MR. BARR: What were some of the initial challenges you faced as manager at that NRD?

MR. WILLIAMS: Well, it was a –- the Upper Niobrara White really, to that time, I had just been functioning as kind of a committee or a group of three soil and water conservation districts. There were three district conservationists and there was a lot of transition to be made. My initial contact with the Natural Resources Commission was Duane Chamberlain, he was very helpful. And we started the process of broadening out our partnerships with other entities and other agencies quite abruptly and so there were some real growing pains because we weren't going to be there just for the promotion and encouragement of a federal agency, although that would continue, but the U.S. Forest Service had a big presence in the Pine Ridge, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, and University of Nebraska. I, of course, had worked closely with them in my forestry position. So it was a really wonderful experience for a young person starting out in natural resource management.

MR. BARR: You were there about the time the first elected board had just taken over shortly before you came on. How many board members were there?

MR. WILLIAMS: We had 11 board members and a very diverse district, a lot of irrigation development, groundwater irrigation development in Box Butte County, and then two Bureau of Reclamation sponsored districts at Whitney and Mirage Flats, and then of course dry land wheat production and then the rest was cattle ranching -- commercial cattle ranching. And, of course, then 120,000 acres of native Ponderosa Pine Forest that was -- also had a lot of commercial potential.

MR. BARR: What were some of the original either projects or programs that you worked with in the first two or three years?

MR. WILLIAMS: We were -– I know the traditional tree planting program in the spring was going very well and we were just in the –- at that time, in the initial stages of working closely with Deon Axthelm with the Ag Engineering Department, was out helping us, and then the Conservation Survey Division had staff in -– at the panhandle station in Scottsbluff so we were moving toward trying to increase groundwater use efficiency especially in Box Butte County.

MR. BARR: There had been quite a bit of decline in the water table, hadn't there, at that point?

MR. WILLIAMS: Well, in Box Butte County, probably –- the first irrigation well went in, I think it was in 1937, and so 20 years of gravity irrigation development around Alliance and to the east, but even at that time the aquifer was not being used on a sustainable basis because the recharge potential is so limited, not much rainfall. And, yeah, there were irrigation wells being measured at that time and over the next several years that increased a lot because we had NRD capability then. And then, well, the 70s, as we all know, were tremendous years for development of new wells and sprinkler systems and that's when we really got underway with some -– there hadn't been, til that time, really much basic framework -– geologic work done so we set up a network of test well -– test hole drilling, especially across Box Butte County and then also up into the irrigated acres in Dawes and Sheridan Counties. And then, from that work, the Conservation Survey Division and, oh, probably some consultants had something they could start working on to do some initial modeling.

MR. BARR: Was there any efforts to hold back either irrigation development or water use at that point on the groundwater wells?

MR. WILLIAMS: No. Development was the push, not on our part, but economics drove it.

MR. BARR: Sure. How did that interact with Mirage Flats and the other irrigation project?

MR. WILLIAMS: Well, on –- of course, where Whitney was situated there is no groundwater aquifer because it's in the White River Basin, but Mirage Flats, since the beginning, had never had only about half of the surface water that had been anticipated for their project so wells went in there very quickly to provide –- or were already in to supplement and provide at least half of the water they were using on that project. And that was a pretty good relationship there. They're in a relationship between well pumping and importing water. It was -- Mirage Flats groundwater levels held their own pretty well until probably into the 1980s and then groundwater pumping got to the point where there was decline in that area also. There's -– Box Butte County had developed a very good seed potato production system. Of course, sugar beets were big and dry edible beans, that with corn, and good soils and good topography in Box Butte County. And Box Butte County became, for us, a -– somewhat of a dilemma. It's not an aquifer with any recharge to speak of. It ranges in depth in the west from I think probably 100 feet to maybe 6- to 700 on the east where you then move on into the Sandhills in the Ogallala aquifer. But by the 70s, the horse was out of the barn already in terms of managing groundwater decline in Box Butte County and it got worse. The -– we did –- worked on efficiency. Sprinklers helped alleviate and then regulation also did away with any wasting of groundwater because the re-use pits were required and those practices. But on any groundwater decline map for the state of Nebraska, Box Butte County was always a big red spot with no outside source of recharge and to operate something on a sustained yield basis was -– just wasn't going to be possible.

MR. BARR: Did you have any other type of projects in the early years, 70s or early 80s, besides the --

MR. WILLIAMS: We had a big project on the Upper White River, a critical area treatment project. It would have been a flood control watershed project. Everything was surveyed and several big structures had design work completed. But due to the size of the drainage and the topography, it just didn't meet feasibility and it would have been a resource conservation and development project under the Soil Conservation Service. We had a sizable sinking fund established and were a year or two away from starting, but the City of Crawford -– what happened -– what really hit us was there was a tremendous forest fire in the upper portion of the watershed called the Fort Robinson burn. Over 50,000 acres burned off. The next -– I think it was just the next season it had a 12-, 13-inch flood event and destroyed Crawford city's water supply system and things just went downhill so that –- Crawford pulled out. They didn't have the resources to go with us as a partner so we backed away from it.

MR. BARR: Did you get involved any in the Crawford water supply system?

MR. WILLIAMS: Well, in kind of a bad way. They had historically not had access to the wells and the springs on Fort Robinson because it was the U.S. military historically, and they were using a water supply from a little creek called Dead Man and had developed a treatment system and storage capacity to make that work for them. Working with the Soil Conservation Service, we just had -– we had to convince them that that was no longer going to work. The pipeline for like 12 miles, portions of that had just been -- woodstave pipeline just wiped out. And, you know, that did –- the City of Chadron, the city engineer tried to figure out how to put an infiltration system along White River where there was that potential, but it wouldn't work. So what did then finally open up was Fort Robinson allowed the City of Crawford access to their water supply system. So, in the end, they're much better off than they ever had been before. Disaster led to progress.

MR. BARR: What are some other things that you recollect about the -– that might be different in that NRD, for instance, than in some of the other NRDs in the state?

MR. WILLIAMS: Well, we're -– we became very actively involved in doing water quality planning in the upper regions -– all of the upper segments of the Niobrara River because it was -- and this would be especially in Sioux County because it was very high quality water and already it was a good trout fishery. And then the springfed streams in the White River were also real high quality. And there had never been any baseline water quality assessment work done by anyone on those streams so we -- and this was getting probably up into 1978 when we were under the Clean Water Act initiatives. We were able to secure help and funding. We did a water use classification on all those segments in the district, flow -- mapped the flows of all the streams, did extensive interviews with landowners to find where -- and identify intermittent and perennial portions and any springs that had never gone dry clear back into the 1930s that they could remember. And then, in cooperation with the Science Department of Chadron State College and the Department of Environmental Quality with Nebraska, we got a water quality laboratory established at Chadron State College and hired -- was able to hire a water scientist and got baseline water quality data on all those stream segments so that information very -- could prove very beneficial presently and in the future.

MR. BARR: Were there any other major issues over the course of your time there that you'd like to comment on?

MR. WILLIAMS: Well, we became very politically involved, and citizens also. There was the proposed ETSI coal slurry pipeline and it was proposed to use 20,000 acre feet of water to transport coal from eastern Wyoming by way of slurry to Louisiana. And the well field for that project would have been close enough to northern Sioux County sources of groundwater, deep sources in the Dakota Formation that were being used for livestock water pipelines. That became a major issue and our NRD worked very closely with citizens' groups to oppose that project. I testified very early before the Nebraska Legislature, Maurice Kremer was, I believe, might have been chairman of the water committee at that time, and presented the information that ranchers were concerned about the impact on their deep wells. They had wells that went down 1100 feet and were -- it was warm water that they could get to the surface by artesian, and presented that information. We were a surprise to policymakers and others that were recommending that the project be given eminent domain because it wouldn't have any impact on Nebraska water users and put us directly at odds with the Conservation Survey Division, the Director, Vince Dreesen, and Kansas/Nebraska Natural Gas had 20 percent interest in the project and so it was a very big issue and it failed to get its right of away across Nebraska because of that opposition. A very strong citizen group developed from that called Save Nebraska Water and it branched out to a group called Save Wyoming Water in Wyoming and Save South Dakota Water in South Dakota so it was a three-state regional coalition before it was all over with. ETSI was provided, before they backed out, an alternative. The meeting was held in Governor Hershler's office in Wyoming with Bureau of Reclamation officials and the Bureau of Land Management was represented. And if they wanted to take -- do their project, they were -- this was not a publicized meeting, it was quite a private meeting, but the Bureau of Land Management was willing to let them have access across eastern Wyoming and the Bureau of Reclamation, and maybe the Corps of Engineers, would have allowed water to have been taken from Oahe Reservoir piped west for coal transport. And they do that kind of water transfer now for domestic uses all over western South Dakota and southwest South Dakota, but -- and it would have taken probably, well, 20,000 acre feet and about the diameter of a dime off the top of that reservoir. News of that proposal, when it hit eastern Nebraska, talk about taking water out of the Missouri River, that project died in a hurry. We had a whole new group of folks that were interested in this business of using water to transport coal and -- so that --

MR. BARR: There was also an effort to do some uranium mining up there. Was that anything you got involved with?

MR. WILLIAMS: It seems like these neat ideas just -- one would go away and another one would come about. The next one, probably in the early 80s, was to develop a coal-fired generation plant in Hemingford by Tri-State Generation and Transmission. They were expanding at that time. And their plan, since there was already groundwater decline in Box Butte County, not enough water in the Niobrara, was to go into central Sheridan County, develop a well field, 30, 40 huge wells, and then pipe that water west to Hemingford. We videotaped the wet hay meadows that would have been adjacent and within reach of that well field and presented that at a hearing at the high school auditorium in Hemingford attended by 500 very interested people, and as we know the Nebraska Sandhills, the top of the aquifer is what is of interest to a rancher there and I don't know how many Sandhillers we had there, but there was a lot of them.

MR. BARR: They were not all supporters of the idea, I take it.

MR. WILLIAMS: And the local rural electric association in Alliance, who had supported the project, decided to change their mind and Tri-State never built that project. It was a tremendous economic loss for the village of Hemingford, they would have had a power plant like Sutherland, Nebraska, does but it wasn't right for the groundwater. That went away and it wasn't too long before uranium deposits were found in the Crawford area in the Chadron Formation. And it has -- it's turned out to be a great development, but at that time there was no rules or regulations on in situ mining in Nebraska and the mining takes place within 6-700 feet of a surface and it's close proximity to the White River. And the Brule Formation, just above there, is an important source of small yielding wells for livestock purposes. And the original proposal was to have that operation regulated by the Oil and Gas Commission because of their operation with minerals. We opposed that and were able to get legislation and regulation under the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality and rules and regulations put in place specifically for in situ mining of uranium and that was not well received by industry. They didn't -- they hadn't anticipated that kind of regulation and oversight by the State of Nebraska but it was needed and the project moved forward. It's been, I believe, very successful and the water quality has been protected. So those were big issues for our district and I guess, you know, because of our close proximity to Wyoming and coal resources and we're the only district so far where they've desired uranium mining, those were issues we needed to step up and deal with. The other one that we were able to avoid was the low-level radioactive waste siting process. That was -- the site for that was initially proposed for northern Dawes County, but Save Nebraska Water was so well established and a very active citizenry that they chose to go east. And it was probably a poor decision on their part, but I was glad that that was in some -- another district.

MR. BARR: A manager -- former manager down in the lower ones told me that when they went to decommission that site in Boyd County it was under water.

MR. WILLIAMS: And, you know, so this is -- it's interesting. I've been thinking a lot that the strength of the Natural Resource District System and the policy-making process and controversy or conflict and resolution of issues really speaks to, I think, the desires and the background of the citizenry of the state of Nebraska. We're conservative in many respects, but I think we're still seeing today that when it comes to natural resource development and especially a potential impact on water, even though people have left the rural area and have gone to our cities for economic reasons, they're still very attune to what's happening to our water resources. And it -- the XL Pipeline, just -- and that's -- no matter what your natural resource base is that you've got to work with, it's the strength of the citizenry that is the guiding force because of the system that's been put in place. And my wife is from Michigan and so I kind of follow what goes on in mid-western states quite a bit. And it was several decades after Nebraska had set up their conservation districts on watershed boundaries and then other states said, “Well, you know, the way to look at our water quality problems is on a watershed basis.” We've been doing that and we've got experience in that now for some time.

MR. BARR: In your time in the district, were there any particular individuals that stood out in either the board or other issues in relation to that part of the state? I'm just fishing there, I don't know if there is any.

MR. WILLIAMS: Well, I was always -- was very impressed early, like I guess so many were, with the integrity of Maurice Kremer. I think the state legislature, even though it's a unicameral and is heavily lobbied by special interests, there were people in there that had -- that were real statesmen and had really integrity and the interest of the natural resources foremost. Governor Exon was a strong supporter of natural resources and the districts. And the state legislators, I -- the Nebraska Association of Resource Districts was great for NRD managers because we're out there day-to-day and then most of the time on -- autonomous on our own, but to the association and in working closely with the Natural Resources Commission, that framework, it's a good system for letting issues of a broader nature, whether regional or statewide, be dealt with together. And I think it's a system that allowed for local districts to establish good partnerships. It was -- we were able to really branch out from what the soil and water conservation districts had been doing up to that time. And I don't know, I was thinking those original NRD managers were like a group of Teddy Roosevelt Rough Riders sometimes, just whipping and spurring, and I'm sure there's some other entities that thought we were completely out of line, but that kind of progress meant you had to step up and not everybody was always happy with changes that were being made, but -- and feelings got hurt, but I think in time those got healed up and partnerships were strengthened and -- but, you know, when I was in graduate school, natural resource administration, there were Soil Conservation Service personnel there at the same time in graduate school, and the dean of the school of forestry had been in the soil conservation service school here and I never forgot one lecture one afternoon that if you're going to be a successful administrator, 50 percent of your job is to promote and protect the mission of your agency, and that -- and so I got to see, when I got to be an NRD manager, that that had been a strong advocacy role of soil and water conservation districts, but it had to grow and expand beyond that if we were going to do what Nebraska citizens wanted us to get done.

MR. BARR: You've had another little different perspective in that you're now a board member of the Twin Platte NRD. Is there any observation you'd like to make in that regard?

MR. WILLIAMS: Well, it's -- it has really been fun to be in a natural resource district that's got two big rivers running through it, actually have some potential to do some things because of the quantity of the water and also, in a more abundant rainfall regime. It's -- there's a big difference between being on the board and being in the general manager's seat. There -- being a general manager of a natural resource district is highly political. Most of the time a board will agree on the direction you're going to take, but probably on the tough ones you're going to have some disagreement and you've got to do the job you're directed to do and that means you're not going to be making everybody happy. I often watched the federal employees transfer every three to seven years and I thought, “They're just getting to know the people and the resources.” Well, there's also a reason for that, you stay in one place long enough, deal with enough issues, you begin to accumulate a following and some of it is -- are well-wishers and there could also be some that wished you had left quite a while ago. So general managers that have made it long enough to call it a career have -- they've been on the front lines. And it's -- as a group I think it speaks very well to their integrity. But, yeah, this -- I didn't -- I came to North Platte to start a new business in working with library book publishers and I now am established in five states, working with public libraries and schools, my wife and I, and came to North Platte because of its central location. But it is great to be on the board and I think this is a board that, unless somebody discovers uranium and we've got to address uranium mining or something, the issues and the programs that we're working on are well received by the stakeholders and I just think there's a great future. Technology keeps changing. Irrigators are just becoming more efficient all the time. And I have been involved in the trips back to Washington, D.C., which are great because of the opportunity to speak with our representatives very candidly. I think the state of Nebraska, because of federal budgets, but also because of environmental protection agency initiatives, I think may be in a great position to temper and manage some of the initiatives that might be coming from Washington, D.C., in the future. The districts could play a crucial role in tampering and giving some good direction to whatever it is.

MR. BARR: Well, at this point, if there are any observations you'd like to make somewhat related to natural resource districts or natural resources in general, please feel welcome to do so. I don't have specific questions but -- well, like, let me -- there is one question that's come up. There's been some talk about doing natural resource districts in other states, but so far as I know they really haven't developed. Do you have any thoughts on why it might have happened here in Nebraska and not anywhere else so far?

MR. WILLIAMS: I think we've just scared the hell out of the Natural Resource Conservation Service. At one point I worked with the NRCS in Wyoming as a watershed coordinator and I would be surprised if it would come -- that kind of initiative would come through their soil and water conservation districts. They were there, initially handpicked, to promote and further the goals of that federal agency and how a transition was able to be made in Nebraska --

MR. BARR: I've heard some comments, yeah.

MR. WILLIAMS: -- is amazing to me. I -- well, the --

FEMALE VOICE: Just giving you a heads up, the place locks up in seven minutes.

MR. BARR: Okay. We're wrapping up here.

MR. WILLIAMS: The first week I was on the job, thank God Duane Chamberlain with the Commission got there before I had the glad meeting with all of the soil conservation service people in the district.

MR. BARR: Do you mind if I take your picture while you're talking?

MR. WILLIAMS: No, that'll be fine. Gosh, I was -- I guess there's an advantage to youth, that you have no trepidation about stepping in and -- but I took them all back into the conference room and I shut the door, and had a blackboard in there and I drew a circle on it and I put the Natural Resources District in the middle of it. And because of my administration education and familiar -- I was familiar with how many agencies that we could work together with on natural resources, so I just started listing them on the outside of the circle. And I kind of gave them a lecture that this is what we were going to be is, we were going to be in partnership with anybody we could to further the conservation and development of the natural resources and they mostly just sat there in stunned silence.

MR. BARR: But over the years did they pretty well buy into the cooperation?

MR. WILLIAMS: They -- it made its transition because of retirement and transfers. It -- and they didn't give up easy. They were all -- they were used to talking to their three-member board and had all done so before they came to a board meeting. It was a long, tough deal.

MR. BARR: What about other agencies, like Forest Service and Game Commission and Water Resources? Any problems with those agencies?

MR. WILLIAMS: You know, I think there was something about the Upper Niobrara White Natural Resource District having been the last one to hire a manager. Furthest from Lincoln and it was a Soil Conservation Service stronghold, I would say. The -- but no, you know, the Department of Water Resources were used to working with a limited amount of surface water so water limitations were the name of the deal. Forest Service, we had a good working relationship with them. They had grazing associations for the private ranchers that used their grazing lands and we worked closely with them. Like, after the Fort Robinson burn, that was a very intermingled ownership between Forest Service, private landowners, and Game and Parks Commission, but we were able to work out -- we did a reseeding on the area that was quite successful. And no, very -- I think the natural resource districts were pretty well received.

MR. BARR: Well, I'm going to have -- thank you very much. I see we're about to be evicted. We've overstayed our time.

MR. WILLIAMS: Well, thanks for including me in this.