Lyndon Vogt

Position Held: Water Resources Ranager, General Manager, Lower Niobrara NRD, 1996 - 2001; Manager, Upper Niobrara-White NRD, 2001 - 2013; Manager, Central Platte NRD, 2013 - time of interview

Interviewer: Jim Barr

Associated NRDs:

Central Platte NRD

Lower Niobrara

Upper Niobrara White


MR. BARR: This is Jim Barr. It's August 13th, 2013. I'm in Grand Island with Lyndon Vogt to talk about some of his NRD experiences. To begin with, Lyndon, would you mind just giving us a quick background of your career and everything?

MR. VOGT: Sure. As Jim said, my name is Lyndon Vogt. I actually started my career in 1996 with Lower Niobrara NRD as -- out of Butte, Nebraska, as their water resources manager. (I) worked for about a year as their water resources manager, not quite, and moved up to their manager at that time; ended up working there for five years. I believe in June of 2001, I transferred to Chadron, to the Upper Niobrara White Natural Resources District, as general manager and honestly thought I would finish out my career there to be quite honest with you, and ended up moving to Central Platte NRD in Grand Island just two or three months ago as of -- I guess June 1st was my first day of work here, 2013, as general manager. So this is my third district I've worked in and it kind of surprises myself to be quite honest with you.

MR. BARR: Do you want to go back a little bit on where you came from and your education, that sort of thing?

MR. VOGT: Yeah. I actually went to high school at Naper, Nebraska, and Naper hasn't had a high school now for a number of years. (I) got an agribusiness degree out of University of Nebraska at Kearney. It was actually Kearney State College when I started college there and it was the University of Nebraska when I graduated. I got an agribusiness degree out of there, as I said, and actually worked in the Kearney area for a number of years for a farmer in that area before I went to the NRD system so -- I was raised on a farm in Boyd County, Nebraska, as I said, went to high school at Naper. I'm the youngest of six kids. My parents farmed and ranched just three or four miles from town and I guess it was only a couple miles from the South Dakota border in north central Nebraska. I've always had a interest in agriculture and natural resource issues.

MR. BARR: One of the things I wanted to talk to you about particularly is, we haven't had any representatives from some of the further north districts and maybe you could kind of go over the sort of projects and programs that were in both of those upper two, and any thoughts you have on how that -- those districts might have differed from some of the rest of the state.

MR. VOGT: You know, when I started in Lower Niobrara, I started as their water resources manager and one of my first duties working for the NRD was to write their groundwater management plan and implement that groundwater management plan. And at the Lower Niobrara, they didn't have a groundwater quantity problem, they had a groundwater quality problem with the nitrates. (There was) quite a bit of irrigation in that area, fairly sandy soils in the northern Holt County area, and so that was to address nitrate concerns. The biggest difference between the two NRDs, when I went from there to Chadron, to the Upper Niobrara White NRD, is, I started -- I spent the first couple years of my career there as a manager actually focusing on a groundwater quantity plan. They had declines in that Box Butte area. Actually, their quality was fairly good in that area. There was a few pockets where we had some quality concerns, but -- so the difference in these two NRDs was actually pretty substantial because one of them was -- we basically addressed the quality aspects of things and spent a tremendous amount of time with water sampling and landowner education and that type of stuff dealing with quality. And then the quantity aspect of it, you get to a much more regulatory aspect pretty fast. And when I started my employment at Upper Niobrara White, that was one thing the board was very clear is that we need to address our decline issues.

MR. BARR: Had they addressed it prior to your arrival?

MR. VOGT: They had not. I mean, they had held numerous meetings. They had done quite a bit of research. Had actually even done some -- they had a Box Butte groundwater model even to -- they had laid the ground work, you know what I mean, for moving forward with a plan, that was all done which made my job quite a bit easier when I got there because we had the study -- a lot of the studies were done, you know what I mean, that we could use as educational tools for not only the producers, but for us, too, as staff and our directors.

MR. BARR: What did you remember -- what do you want to comment about in relation to the implementation of regulations and how -- any sort of issues that came up?

MR. VOGT: I think at Lower Niobrara one of our biggest challenges in implementing nitrogen management regulations was dealing with our fertilizer dealers, to be quite honest with you. They were pretty adamant that we were probably going to send them to the poor farm for lack of a better word. We spent a lot of time educating producers and our fertilizer dealers in those early years, to be honest with you, about the nitrate level in the water and how that's usable -- how that's a usable nitrogen for their crops. And I don't think, if we wouldn't have had a local board that was living under the same rules and regulations, it certainly wouldn't have went over near as well. And it still wasn't easy, you know what I mean? We had a lot of what we thought were going to be two-hour informational meetings that ended up being five- and six-hour informational meetings, lots of questions. And I think, in the end, most of the producers realized this was something that had to happen and they did accept it after time. They're drinking the same water, and their children and their grandchildren and so on, are going to be drinking that same water. They definitely -- I think once they got beyond the educational aspect of how they could do things different to help address that issue, they certainly did.

MR. BARR: Can you just reiterate the times when that happened?

MR. VOGT: Yeah, that would have been in '96, '97 was when we was really putting that plan together and working with our landowners and a stakeholders group that we had formed to assist us in that plan.

MR. BARR: In the Lower Niobrara, what sort of programs and projects had preceded your arrival that you might remember?

MR. VOGT: I think one of the bigger projects that they had done was a rural water system -- the West Knox Water System was one of the early projects that they did and that was before my time there, and I know that that ran into a lot of snags. It was one of the earlier ones and that system, I believe, when I was there, had about a couple hundred -- I think 200-and-some rural hookups plus the city of Verdigre, and I think actually now they're looking at expanding. There's quite a bit of request to expand that system now to include, I believe, Santee, the town of Niobrara, and more -- some more rural interest as well. But I think there was -- like I say, that was before my time, but I know there was -- I know there weren't easy projects at the time, there was a lot of opposition to the NRDs coming in and doing some of that.

MR. BARR: Were there any board members there, that you worked with, that might have been on the board quite a while before you got there that you might mention?

MR. VOGT: You know, there was -- actually, I need to get the name of the guy that -- Bernard -- that manages that rural water system.

MR. BARR: Oh, yeah.

MR. VOGT: He's still there, actually, the guy that originally -- yeah, he's still managing that -- I'll look his name up.

MR. BARR: We'll get it eventually.

MR. VOGT: Yeah. But that West Knox Water System manager is the only manager that system's ever had and he's been there since day one when they started putting pipe in the ground.

MR. BARR: Any of your board that had been on a long time?

MR. VOGT: Yeah, you know, it's been a number of years ago, it's been 12, 13 years ago since I worked there. I know there is --

MR. BARR: We can get it after the interview.

MR. VOGT: Yeah.

MR. BARR: What about projects prior to your arrival at the Upper Niobrara-White NRD what sort of things had the NRD done in the early years? That's kind of what I was getting at.

MR. VOGT: Yeah.

MR. BARR: Anything that's -- and I can ask Williams.

MR. VOGT: Yeah, why don't you ask John. John would have been their original manager and I don't know that I would answer that very fair to him because --

MR. BARR: What kind of -- what did you take away from the experience of implementing both the quality program and the quantity program that you might find -- might be useful to people further down the line?

MR. VOGT: I think the fact that we put stakeholders groups together from the general public, not just our board. We held regular stakeholder meetings and made the general public really feel that they were a part of that. I shouldn't say made them feel that, they were a real part of that and we wanted them to be a part of that, but it's hard to get people to come to meetings. And I think once we selected our stakeholders, it made the process a lot easier after that. It maybe made our meetings last a little bit longer, but what we found is our stakeholders were going back and talking to their neighbors, or going to the coffee shops, you know, and the fertilizer dealers and the pivot dealers, and we had another voice out there all of a sudden, it seemed like, and I think that helped sell both of those programs probably more than anything else we did. Because, like I said, you can hold all the meetings you want, but if no one attends them they don't do much good.

MR. BARR: Yes.

MR. VOGT: But it seems like, on both of these entities, we put the stakeholder groups together and we held quite a few informational meetings. I mean before implementation and even before our hearings on that stuff, we held a lot of public meetings. And, we certainly weren't trying to hide anything from the public and what we were trying to do was actually long-term sustainability of our resources. It's a hard process to get the public to set up, take notice, and want to be a part of that, and I think that stakeholder group got us there as much as anything.

MR. BARR: Did it have any particular effect on the board members?

MR. VOGT: Actually, I think it took a little pressure off of our board members because when I was at Lower Niobrara, I had 17 board members and I believe we put together a 21-member stakeholders group and suddenly you've got twice as many people that are the people that's being affected. And whether it be someone from the municipality or someone from the cattlemen or the corn growers, or surface water users or ag users, or groundwater users or even our power folks, you know what I mean, the rural electrics. We made sure we had a very wide variety of interest on those stakeholders groups. I think it actually took a little pressure off of our board once we got them together and they were being used properly.

MR. BARR: You mentioned the fertilizer dealers in the Lower Niobrara. Were there any particular agribusiness or other related industries that were particularly concerned in the upper one when you did that project?

MR. VOGT: You know, in the upper one I would say that our --


MR. VOGT: Yes.

FEMALE VOICE: Ron is on the phone.

MR. VOGT: I'm in a -- tell him I'm in an interview with Jim Barr and I'll call him back in a little bit.

FEMALE VOICE: Oh, I'm sorry.

MR. VOGT: That's okay. Thank you. Sorry about that. I think the groups we had -- we probably had three groups in the upper -- I need to get my concentration back here on what I was talking about.

MR. BARR: Sure.

MR. VOGT: In the upper, we had -- we probably had four dynamic groups there. We had the surface water guys. We had the groundwater guys. We had the pivot dealers, the irrigation service folks, the pivot dealers, and we had the folks that sell electricity. And we're going to an allocation -- I believe, in 2003, we put a -- I started working there in 2001. In 2003, we put a moratorium on -- this would have been prior to LB962 or any of those issues, we put a moratorium of no new acres, no new wells, not even helper wells. And so we had -- those four main interests were really concerned about what was going on. I think our pivot dealers felt that they were probably not going to be able to ever sell any new pivots. Our electrical folks thought that if we were going to limit pumping to 13-and-a-half inches a year, it's going to definitely limit their income potential. And, of course, the groundwater folks were concerned about their bottom line, you know, because we are -- at 13-and-a-half inches, you're below the consumptive use of corn out there and so there was quite -- it was a very dynamic group with all the interests we had on there, much more so than doing the quality aspect of a plan.

MR. BARR: Did you notice any change in crops or anything like that as a result of the program?

MR. VOGT: We did and I think you will still see them if you travel through that -- the northern/northwestern panhandle of Nebraska. We started seeing -- we definitely started seeing more winter wheat under pivots, more edible beans. They're high-water-use crops out there are corn and soybeans, and potatoes are right up there, too, I guess -- sorry, not soybeans, corn, sugar beets, and potatoes. They don't -- there are no soybeans out in that country. But you're seeing these rotations change. There's been -- there used to be very little wheat grown underneath the pivots and now, all of a sudden, those allocations were a four-year allocation and we'd let them use that water any way they wanted in those four years, and so we suddenly saw wheat coming into that four-year rotation where maybe they were only using two or three inches of water that year on wheat. And we started seeing full pivots of sunflowers occasionally, too, for that same purpose. So we -- you are seeing a cropping change out there and there's a lot of edible chickpeas and beans growing in that area, and there's more and more of them coming in that are low-water-use crops that they're putting into their irrigation rotations, and they about have to grow -- if they want to grow a fully irrigated crop four years in a row, one or two of those years are going to have to be a fairly low-water-use crops.

MR. BARR: Any other side effects, or whatever you want to call it, that you notice or would comment on?

MR. VOGT: Well, I think our irrigation dealer concerns ended up not being much of a concern. We required meters so a lot of them changed. They're still servicing pivots. Crop prices today has -- a lot of new pivots are going in, replacement pivots, actually allocations in those areas resulted in a lot of our gravity flow being changed to pivot because we actually gave the same allocation to gravity flow as we did pivot irrigation and so it resulted in quite a few more pivots going in because of that, and it kind of changed the dynamics of their workload, I think, but it certainly did not diminish it any. And we didn't really expect -- we knew that work was always going to be there, but I don't know that we quite saw the change that happened coming either, you know what I mean?

MR. BARR: Switching back to the lower one, what kind of side effects did you notice, if any, there?

MR. VOGT: I don't know that we noticed any side effects, but after two or three years of preaching about taking credit for your nitrates in the groundwater, which was, I think, a really hard sell statewide to be honest with you, we started to have producers come to us. I remember one producer in particular that came to me and I can't remember how many pivots he had, but it was -- I mean, he had nine or 10 pivots and he actually made the comment that he had saved $40,000 that year on his nitrogen costs just by taking credit for the nitrogen in his groundwater. And I think that's -- once we got a few of those leaders or the early folks to make that change, and their neighbors saw that their costs were quite a bit less but their yields were the same is when that started taking off then. And I think that was -- it's those early adopters that you need in every area, you know what I mean, and once that started to happen, that change happened fairly fast.

MR. BARR: At this point, do you have any general observations about -- that you'd like to make or how particularly -- and I'm trying to get you on those two Niobrara NRDs because I don't have --

MR. VOGT: You know, one of the -- I guess there's an upside and a downside to every district if you want to look at it. Both of these NRDs have had very active boards really wanting to do the right thing and I think that's true for every -- I've worked at three districts now and I can tell you, every district wants to make the most of their funds and make the most of -- do the best they can. The tax base up there is challenging, you know what I mean? The smaller tax base in the Niobrara Basin makes it much harder to take on larger projects. That's kind of the -- that's one of the main issues up there when it comes to larger projects is funding them and --

MR. BARR: One of the original concerns by some people was that some of these districts were too small. Do you have any thoughts on rather there would have -- how things would have been if it had, say, been a One Niobrara NRD?

MR. VOGT: You know, since I've worked at both ends of the Niobrara Basin, I've worked at the lower and the upper, I haven't worked in the middle, there's a tremendous difference between the two. I mean, they have very little in common. Actually, just the flow of the river itself, when you're dealing with that, I don't know the exact numbers but I believe the Niobrara River comes in out of Wyoming at about two or three cfs (cubic feet per second) and it flows out of the Upper Niobrara White, even at the upper end, at almost 80,000 cfs, I believe, and so it's -- there's a tremendous change in that river between the three NRDs. And the size of the districts, it's -- I think the district sizes are pretty good. I'm in a -- I moved from a district that was almost three times larger than the one I'm in right now, but only had a population of about 30,000 people, and so the tax base has nothing to do with the size of the district, it has to do with the population of the district more than anything.

MR. BARR: Did you do any joint projects between the three of them, or any coordination maybe is a better word?

MR. VOGT: We did. Actually, we were just in all three NRDs were in a joint agreement with the Department of Natural Resources on a Niobrara model. We were looking at a model of the entire river. That model was going to be broken up into the upper regions of the river and the lower regions of the river, but we were still working together on these projects. So that -- I think that coordination still takes place, to be quite -- I know that coordination still takes place, but to have the Niobrara Basin one NRD, it's -- there's just such a tremendous difference in them. You have the Sandhills in the middle NRD, you know what I mean --

MR. BARR: Yeah.

MR. VOGT: -- and it's --

MR. BARR: Now, I haven't had anybody to talk to in the middle. Do you have any recollections of anybody that was particularly active there, managers or board members?

MR. VOGT: Well, Dean Graff would have been --

MR. BARR: Dean, okay.

MR. VOGT: Yeah, Dean Graff would probably be a very good contact for them.

MR. BARR: Well, at this point, if you have anything else to offer, go ahead.

MR. VOGT: I don't know that I do. It's been -- I've only been in the NRD system about 17 years. It's been a great career and I've met a ton of people, and it's very interesting working with the general public, I guess, and it's been very rewarding working with the public. And I know in the short 17 years I've been around, the changes that have taken place have certainly been positive I think. I think the NRD system is a wonderful system.

MR. BARR: Would you want to elaborate a little on the changes?

MR. VOGT: Well, I think just -- there's been so many legislative changes over the years and responsibilities, you know what I mean, the -- of course, at the NRD we like to call them unfunded mandates that keep coming up from the legislature, but I think there's probably been a few growing pains within the districts in keeping up with some of the changes and staffing needs and requirements, but from having worked with three districts I can tell you that each one of these districts addresses the needs that need addressed in their NRDs and I think most people state-wide don't realize the differences in these needs. From going from a quality issue to a decline issue to Platte River flow issues where I'm at now, three different NRDs, three different issues, different funding sources, different needs, it's -- I think the NRDs do a very good job of addressing local concerns, local needs, and local issues, and it's very surprising how different they are as you go across Nebraska.

MR. BARR: Yeah. Well, thank you very much.

MR. VOGT: Yeah, thank you, Jim.