Dick Mercer, Carl Gangwish

Position Held: Board member, Central Platte NRD, 1972 - 2014; Retired Farmer

Interviewer: Jim Barr

Associated NRDs:

Central Platte NRD


MR. BARR: This is Jim Barr. It's June 13th, 2013. We're in Kearney, Nebraska, talking to Carl Gangwish and Dick Mercer, and we've already talked without having the recorder turned on so now if we could start with the -- each of you introducing yourself briefly and how you got involved with the NRDs and we'll get back to where we are right now. I apologize.

MR. GANGWISH: I'm Carl Gangwish from Kearney, Nebraska. I'm a retired farmer based out of Shelton, Nebraska, over the years with family and extended family. But my first involvement with -- and prior to the formation of the NRDs was with Leonard Silver, who was a local conservationist at the time -- called and asked if I would consider being on the Buffalo-Ravenna Soil and Water Conservation District, which I accepted and got involved. It was a real education for me to see what was being done and what could be done in the matter of conservation and especially with water resources.

MR. MERCER: I'm Dick Mercer, also from Kearney, Nebraska, a retired farmer, cattle feeder. Kind of repeating what Carl said, Leonard Silver was pretty busy then and our farm was fortunate to receive the 1967 Conservation Award and about the time they gave us a picture and told us how good we were, he also asked if I would like to serve on the Buffalo-Ravenna Soil and Water Conservation, and that's how I got started. Incidentally, I'm also still an active member of the Central Platte NRD Board today.

MR. BARR: How did the NRD get formed as -- after the legislation passed and that sort of thing?

MR. GANGWISH: Senator Kremer was the one that really stands out. I'm sure there must have been others that were involved in it, but he was the mover and shaker at that time and did a very good job. As for me -- and I think all of us in this area, Central Platte, it was an educational process and I'm very thankful that the ground work was laid and put out to help all of us educate ourselves, if you will, to the needs and what could be accomplished through the formation of the NRDs in Nebraska.

MR. BARR: What was the basic purpose of forming the NRDs?

MR. GANGWISH: I've got an example that -- we farmed on the county line, the whole Buffalo County line. Up above us was the Boxelder Watershed. In fact, it was one of the groups that were brought in as one of the groups to -- in the formation. And we found it was very difficult, if you had a drainage problem or a water situation, to go to one county board and say, “We've got a problem here,” or to the other county board, “We've got a problem,” so if you're going to try to come up with a cost share, how do you work with this situation? So it was -- I saw it as a need and a win-win, I guess, you would say.

MR. BARR: Did those boards have any revenue source or how were they financed?

MR. GANGWISH: I think we had to go to the county board -- and I don't know if the local township had any money, but it was --

MR. MERCER: Well, another way they were financed, if you -- if a local drainage district developed a project and they got approval in the so-called neighborhood, those people that were involved were assessed the costs of it. And the theory behind the NRDs, to put it as simple as I can, was to come up with a mechanism, which they have and in my opinion as worked, was to combine all these conservation, flood control, irrigation districts, whatever you want to call them, into one unit which would be called an NRD district. There was turf control battles, of course, to start with, but there was a lot more support for it than opposition. And as we mentioned, the first Central Platte NRD board meetings were either just under or a little over a hundred people when you've got representatives from the cities and the counties and all the other conservation entities within the 10 counties that Central Platte is all or part of. And out of that, an executive committee was formed of 21 people to set the mechanism, to go about hiring a manager, and then the staff and all that. And we are today, 40 years later, a board of 21 people.

MR. BARR: In that first 100-and-some board members, how did you -- how did that function? How did -- where did you meet, for instance? You mentioned that before we turned the recorder on.

MR. MERCER: All I remember is, we met in a small theater building that they offered to let us use.

MR. GANGWISH: I think the first meeting, two or three or maybe more than that, was an informational, educational process to get us -- all of us, all the entities, apprised of what we had and what our needs were, and then from there I think developed the process to be able to take action.

MR. BARR: Did that full board meet very often or did the executive primarily handle business early -- in the early years?

MR. MERCER: That, my memory doesn't quite --

MR. BARR: That's fine. It's not crucial.

MR. MERCER: Well, you know --

MR. BARR: When were you first involved with the board, each of you?

MR. GANGWISH: Once the NRDs were formed, we were brought in --

MR. MERCER: Yeah, the very first --

MR. GANGWISH: -- automatically the first meeting.

MR. MERCER: Both Carl and I would have been at the first meeting.

MR. GANGWISH: And we had been on the Buffalo-Ravena Soil and Water Conservation District.

MR. MERCER: And it's like any other group, there's certain individuals that came to the front as interested or leaders and some of them just kind of automatically got on the executive committee.

MR. BARR: Now, as I recall, they formed in '72 and the first elected board became active in '74 was it?

MR. MERCER: Right. Yes. There was an election and all of those people that were on this large board, anybody could run, and it was set up that who got the most votes served for four years and the second one served for two.

MR. BARR: Were each of you on that first board?


MR. MERCER: Yeah. I received the most votes and, at that time, Central Platte had 10 subdistricts, we still do, as far as that goes, and you have two from each subdistrict and one at-large. And I ran from subdistrict No. 5 and got the most votes and a gentleman from the city of Kearney by the name of Alvey Payne got the second most votes, and that's the way it went across the 10 sub-districts in the area. For a little bit more information, that way of electing directors was not very good because everybody voted -- across Central Platte everybody voted for those people in those 10 sub-districts and I would challenge anybody that knew any more than one or two of the 20 people running. Since then we've changed it and you only vote in your sub-district.

MR. BARR: Did that change right away or was that a few years down the line?

MR. MERCER: No, that was a few years down the line.

MR. GANGWISH: It took a while --

MR. MERCER: It took a while.

MR. GANGWISH: -- and you're right, Dick, that was a monstrosity, realistically, to vote -- to be voting for someone in an area of 50 miles or more from where you lived and have any idea of what you were doing.

MR. MERCER: Yeah, I received many phone calls from different people saying, “Well, who should I vote for?” Well, that's not a way to run an election.

MR. GANGWISH: But ultimately it's a good method the way it's set up now --

MR. MERCER: Very good.

MR. GANGWISH: -- so the only -- you represent your sub-district and you're only eligible for voters within that subdistrict.

MR. BARR: What were some of the major issues you faced when you met as a first elected board and things that you needed to deal with?

MR. MERCER: Well, of course, the first -- in my opinion, the first thing was to develop a budget because before most groups really didn't have a budget, so to say, and now you had a taxing authority and so it took some time to develop a method as to how to come up with a budget. And it started out quite small compared to what it is today, there's no comparison between the budget back then and what it was now.

MR. GANGWISH: And we found out early on that any project we took on had a cost effect and, again, as Dick said, the taxing authority and how to approach it
was -- again, that was an educational process. Back to your question about one of the first things, the one that I remember is that water quality was a concern and it's still a concern, but it came to the forefront and realistically I don't remember how that was set up in the budget. I think it was a cost share some way with state or whatever and that was done almost immediately. I can't think of the gentleman's name that kind of led that, but it was a good start for us to get involved in that way as far as the NRD.

MR. MERCER: One of the things that made -- and both of us being Central Platte, we kind of talk about Central Platte NRD, one of the most fortunate things was when we hired a new manager, we hired a gentleman by the name of Ron Bishop. He's the manager yet today. In fact, he's 17 days from retiring. In other words, he's going to retire on the 30th of June and after 40 years -- 41 years, I think I can -- oh, gosh, I don't know what the word is, but I'd equivocally say that Central Platte would not be the success it is today if it hadn't have been for the immediate leadership of Ron Bishop. And if he hadn't been the gentleman he is and had the talent he had, he wouldn't have been the manager for 40 years. But there's never been a doubt over any of that time that Ron was not the manager of Central Platte.

MR. GANGWISH: It's amazing, as Dick said, that the leadership that Ron had, the stability of his talent of presenting the situation, whatever it was, whatever the need in the district was or whatever the concern was, and there were -- many times we had situations where you had pros and cons very strong on both sides and -- but for Ron as a manager to present those issues and to bring out both sides and lead it onto -- through the discussion process to action to be taken and it was just unbelievable to me.

MR. MERCER: Well, for instance, groundwater quality and quantity. The quantity issue started even before NRD started with the mid-Platte project that was to develop a large flood irrigation control near Miller, Nebraska. Well, that failed. And then, shortly after the Central -- NRDs were formed, Central Platte, well then we started working on a project called Prairie Bend and that was brought on because of the quantity or the underground loss of water in the northern part of Hall and Buffalo County. Before we got that project off the ground, early '80s come along and we got a tremendously wet season and the groundwater levels came back up and so it kind of went by the wayside. But those rules are still in effect today as to where the groundwater depth can fall to that these rules can go into effect. Also, at that time, we put in quality -- groundwater quality and we still operate today after -- well, that'd be 1980, say '85, '86 is when those went into effect. And the farmers in this area yet today, in Central Platte, still abide by those rules and regulations on the groundwater quality, water tests, soil tests, and fertilizer applications, and there's been tremendous cooperation with that set of rules that was put out.

MR. BARR: What -- was it primarily a surplus of water that doomed the Prairie Bend project and when did the, what was it, Kingsley Dam re-authorization and the environmental statement and all of that become involved and how did that affect Central Platte and your activities, if any?

MR. GANGWISH: Well, it was -- I can't quote the timeframe, but it certainly had a lot of attention in our board and how to work with it and how to, I guess, look at the broad picture, look at the whole piece of the pie as far as water not only in Central Platte but in the state of Nebraska as the needs, and energy and all of that, so there's always the entities that had a little more powerful input to their needs or thought their needs and concerns. So, again, as I mentioned before, I looked at the whole process over the time period as an educational process, not only for board members but all the people, and it's still that way, the need and the current situation in the state to educate all Nebraskans of what water is and without water Nebraska wouldn't be what it is today in any shape or form.

MR. MERCER: You brought up Kingsley. Of course, that's Lake McConaughy. Right off, that project, of course, does not really pinpoint Central Platte, it's more south of the Platte River. But in the operation of Kingsley Dam, then that brings in the Endangered Species Act and I don't know how many hours we want to spend on that here today.

MR. BARR: Well, yeah, just touch on it a little bit.

MR. MERCER: I'm going to touch on it just a little because --

MR. BARR: But we need to touch it a little bit but --

MR. MERCER: -- we need to because that affects the flows in the Platte River because of the environmental account that's in Lake McConaughy. And then, now, with the Platte River Preservation Act, which is a whole 'nother story, that also comes along, but that affects Central Platte because 60 miles of the Endangered Species Act are right in the middle of Central Platte from Lexington to Chapman. So Central Platte, some of our activities eventually get evolved with the Endangered Species Act and the flows in the Platte River, more flows or less flows, whatever there is. And I guess the only comment I would make and then we can go on to something else is, the Endangered Species Act is the law of the land and if you want to change it, you can't do it in a coffee shop in Kearney, Nebraska, you've got to do it in Congress. And I personally think we'd better learn to live with it because it is the law of the land and we have to be able to abide by it, good, bad, or otherwise.

MR. BARR: Seems like you've got a richness of challenges by being located where you are. Is that a fair statement?

MR. MERCER: Oh, yeah. We're actually --

MR. BARR: You're kind of at the heart of the whole thing of Nebraska water it seems.

MR. MERCER: I'd go so far as to say we're the envy of the world. We just had a world water conference for food in Lincoln and a bus full of those people came out here and I had the opportunity to have breakfast with them, and we've got an irrigation system to raise crops here that you can't hardly find anyplace else in the world.

MR. GANGWISH: And I think part of that is due to -- back to our comment about Ron Bishop, our manager, and the information that was brought together to -- early on, information and technology is the name of the game, and by doing that and collecting our groundwater levels and usage and a combination thereof, have been able to develop the situation that we currently have in monitoring usage, inflows, and all that goes with it to work within parameters to be able to maintain our usage of water, not only for agriculture and irrigation, but for the municipalities within our district.

MR. BARR: Have you worked as a district with the University or any other research --

MR. GANGWISH: Oh, yeah, we've had all kinds of --

MR. MERCER: Constantly.

MR. GANGWISH: Yeah, right from the start. Dick had them on his farm. I had them on our farm. And it's been a relationship with the University from day one and it's been very well received, and the information developed from it to be put out step-by-step to develop to the place we are today.

MR. BARR: Did the NRD cost -- participate on a cost basis in that or --

MR. MERCER: Oh, yeah.


MR. MERCER: We've got a whole list of -- and all the NRDs across the state, I can't speak for them, but I know, Central Platte, we've got quite a list of cost share entities that we upgrade every year. We have a programs committee that goes down through all the cost share programs and every month we have a report from one of the staff on cost share requests, and we change it every once in a while because they become outdated, but the NRD Central Platte has done, money-wise, a lot of cost share over the years.

MR. GANGWISH: And it's worked really well because of the use of the committee system within the board to -- for those individuals on committees to look at what the needs were and concerns, and then come back with recommendation to the full board because micromanagement wasn't ever part of Central Platte.

MR. BARR: What are some of your standing committees and what's their -- just a brief role of what they do?

MR. MERCER: We have eastern projects committee, western projects committee, water resources committee, and programs committee.

MR. BARR: Which handles budget matters?

MR. MERCER: All of them.

MR. BARR: Oh, all of them do.

MR. MERCER: Each one of those come up with a budget and then they go to a budget committee, and then that proposed budget is presented to the board. We start on the budget because, see, the year ends June 30th, the new year starts July 1st, so we're in that period right now. And so the proposed budget for 2014 has already been -- gone through the committees and has been presented to the board, and the budget committee -- I don't know whether this information is necessary or not, but the budget committee will meet prior to the June meeting and then they will bring that budget -- proposed budget to the full board and that budget will be adopted and then it will be put out for public hearing 30 days later or something like that. The comment I would make, it's been very interesting because in the 40 years I've been on the board, the budget public hearing is interesting because nobody ever shows up to question the budget. Now, when I say nobody that's not quite right, but theoretically there really has been hardly anybody -- and I would surmise that's probably the same way with any public entity that people accept the fact that you've got somebody on the board and they're taking care of it. But I think over the years Central Platte has done a very conservative setup on how they adopt the budget and it's very public as to how they do it.

MR. GANGWISH: And I think, along with that, a lot of it, as Dick said, the acceptance of the representatives that are there, but also as much, information and education is put out ahead of that so it isn't controversial to any degree.

MR. BARR: Do you want to just make any observations about some of the major accomplishments or challenges that you've faced over the years?

MR. MERCER: First one that comes to mind is the Grand Island flood and after the 1967 flood and the amount of money damage it made, when you organized the NRD, there was an entity then to bring that problem to. And I don't remember the year that it was done, but it took several years to get it done and it was about a $16-, $17,000,000 project and that was the NRD and Hall County and Merrick County, I think, and the City of Grand Island, and the federal government, and got that project done. And the day we dedicated it, I remember making the comment, “I think we ought to do away with it,” because it hadn't rained since we built it. But shortly after that, we got a tremendous rain in that area and the Corps of Engineers or the Bureau of Reclamation will tell you that that flood was paid for with that one rain for the damage that it removed from the city of Grand Island. We also have a project, taking the drainage out of the city of Kearney, but it's not near the expense that Grand Island was.

MR. GANGWISH: And then we had one that's more with Central City with the water that was their problem. And the thing I think we ought to bring out is that, again, the length of Central Platte, the mileage, but yet these problems were in different areas, but yet the whole board had to help and say, “Okay, you've got a problem now. We're going to work with it,” and other things, so it was the cooperation of the total board was phenomenal.

MR. MERCER: Carl brings up Central City. I was to a meeting of some kind in the Central City area after we did the flood control project and it's really rewarding to have people come across the room and thank you for what you've done to, quote unquote, protect their city from water damage that they've had for so many years. And then there are a number of smaller projects around. We've got Boxelder that was put in, which was one of the first ones, and then we've got one up north of Lexington that we built, then we dried it up, now we've put water back in it again because it was a mistake to dry it. But we've got any number of projects around. Central Platte have -- we have done miles and miles of snagging and clearing along the many miles of creeks and rivers that there are in the district that would have never been done without the ability of somebody putting out a bid and hiring a contractor to clean up those streams and rivers.

MR. GANGWISH: It's really interesting, too, as Dick said, that we went through the process because we had a need and developed it in one way and then the climate changed or the needs changed and we looked at it, reviewed it, made a change and it was continually -- you know, it's been mentioned about Boxelder Watershed. Well, we -- living on Boxelder, I remember our first problem was -- in my lifetime, we were -- my parents were wanting to build a new house and so this was in the dry -- late -- after the '30s, into the '40s, and had the basement dug and, oops, we had a big rain up in Boxelder and that was full and water everywhere so we had to deal with that, and it went on from there. A few years later, we had another one and this was during the time of the process of looking at Boxelder's problem. And did the same thing, so Boxelder was built and originally it was a retention with a drawdown, and then looked at it again and now most of that area is being farmed. But the flexibility -- and maybe that isn't quite the right term, but the information and technology of the needs of the area to adapt and adjust with the water situation.

MR. BARR: Dick, you had mentioned the water for food conference, and one of the side effects of this project is that Ann Bleed has been asked to write a paper about organization of entities to deal with natural resource problems, and she was going to be looking at how the Natural Resource District concept might be possibly a model for others around the world. Do you have any thought -- either of you have any thoughts on that question of how, as a form of dealing with natural resource issues, how the Nebraska's Natural Resources Districts might have some affect in the future at other places?

MR. MERCER: Well, the first thing you have to say, the natural resource district program is unique to the state of Nebraska. We're the only one of the 50 states that is organized that way. And you go to any of the meetings around the country and we are the envy because none of the other states are even close to being organized like Nebraska. One of the things that comes up, they haven't been able to figure out how we ever got it done that way and have taxing authority that we have. And so if we're -- if it's working in Nebraska and we're the envy of the rest of the states, why not -- wouldn't it be worldwide? Now, not this exact type, but I really believe the idea of natural resource districts, local control, elected by the public, responsibility to do what's necessary, could be applied most any place.

MR. GANGWISH: Yes, it's amazing to me that -- how straightforward this mechanism of organization to deal with natural resources has not been accepted in any other area anywhere close to this form.

MR. BARR: When you talk to your counterparts in other states, do they have any thoughts of why they can't follow this approach or don't want to?

MR. GANGWISH: Well, I'd first say it takes leadership to get it started and then -- not only get it started, but to work with it and lay the ground work and go through the process. And again, back -- I dwell on information and education to get people involved and to accomplish it. Too many times I think we hear from another state, “We couldn't get that adopted. We couldn't” -- the taxing authority, different things. But timing probably was as important as anything for the state of Nebraska, the need at the time and the right leadership, and it is -- it's
No. 1.

MR. BARR: Just getting to kind of a wrap-up type thing, can -- any subject you'd like to talk about related to the Natural Resource District, the formation of that, that you would like to comment on how they've turned out in relation to what you might have thought in the beginning or future challenges that you see ahead from now on?

MR. MERCER: Well, over the years there's been a lot of changes and almost all of them have been on the positive side. I don't remember how long ago it's been, but it would be 25 years or so ago, every time we seemed to have a problem, one NRD was suing the other one. And we finally realized we were spending a lot of tax dollars on lawyers and weren't getting anything done, so today as a whole we fully cooperate with each other. The managers have meetings. The districts have two annual meetings where we get together and discuss similar problems. The cooperation between NRD districts has increased many times over what it was to begin with and that was something that time took -- you had to take this new toy and make it so you could make it really work. I've belonged to -- been very fortunate to have been on many organizations, many boards in my lifetime, and there's never been one that I've enjoyed serving on more than Central Platte. I don't remember how many directors, but there's been many dozens of different directors on there over the 40 years and the dedication of each one of those directors has been unbelievable. In fact, of all those years, I can only remember one time of a 21-member board not having a quorum to have a meeting. Now, that's dedication.

MR. BARR: And am I right, Dick, that it's still the only district that doesn't pay?


MR. BARR: No? Okay, well maybe that's a different --

MR. MERCER: Go ahead. Carl was going to say per diem. It's only been the last, I'm going to say, eight years, that Central Platte was the only one that didn't pay per diem. So, for 30 years or more, you had the dedication there, that those people served no per diem, they were eligible to get mileage expense, but I know of some that didn't even turn mileage in. And today, Central Platte does pay per diem and those that want it can request it.

MR. GANGWISH: But that was, again, the dedication of the board to the need and the desire and the timing to put it together. And again, the right leadership at the right time to accomplish this, not only for Central Platte NRD, but the state of Nebraska and the natural resource districts.

MR. BARR: Any other comments you'd like to offer or suggestions for future organizers of organizations like this?


MR. BARR: Well, thank you again both, very much, for doing this.