Milvern Nofke

Position Held: Director, Groundwater Conservation Districts; Plant Manager, McCrometer meter plant

Interviewer: Jim Barr

Associated NRDs:

Upper Big Blue


MR. BARR: This is Jim Barr, it is August 12, 2013 and I'm visiting with Mel Noffke near Hampton, Nebraska. Mel, would you like to start this off with a little bit about your background and that sort of thing, where you came from?

MR. NOFFKE: Sure, Jim. I grew up on a farm just Northwest of Grand Island, Nebraska and I graduated from Grand Island High School in 1950. At that time I was called for taking a physical to go to the Army because the Korean war was going on and I guess luckily for me, I had had a injury on my left leg and so I flunked my physical. So then for three years I worked on the farm at home and then I got called again for a physical and I did pass. I volunteered for going to a radio school and I went to micro-radio school in New Jersey for six months and then I went over to Taiwan, or Formosa as it was called at that time, with a military assistance advisory group. I was there probably about a year and a half, roughly, and I came back and went to the atomic bomb test. I went through about seven or eight atomic bomb tests in Nevada. Luckily I went in early enough that I got in on the Korean War GI Bill, so then I enrolled at the University of Nebraska and graduated in February of 1962, with a Bachelor of Science degree in agriculture. After leaving the University I then took a job with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Soil Conservation Service and I was at Spalding, Nebraska, for about a year and a half and then I went as a soil conservationist at North Platte, Nebraska, for four years. Then after that, I went to Holdrege, Nebraska, as district conservationist for six years. While I was at Holdrege, I got involved a little bit with Paul Fischbach's irrigation systems and working with Bob Mulliner, primarily. I guess that's predecessor to the surge irrigation. Bob told me, "You know there's some groundwater districts over at York, Nebraska. They're looking for a manager." And he said, they asked me to be their manager, but I would lose about $60,000 in retirement money if I took the job, so, I recommended you. At that time Ted Regier was President of the Association of Groundwater Districts. I was then hired and in the meantime, my wife Betty had just graduated from Kearney with a degree in home economics. Then we moved to York and after a year she got a job teaching at Bradshaw High School. That's basically 1973, when I went with the Groundwater Districts in York.

MR. BARR: Just as kind of a side thing, that we thought maybe about tying in a little bit with the proposed Korean oral history project. Did you have any particular experiences with the atomic tests that you would like comment on?

MR. NOFFKE: Well, there was a situation where I guess I feel like I'm lucky I'm here. We had gone through a test and there was this real dark purple cloud coming toward us and our normal procedure was that we -- what we were doing, incidentally was to provide communications to ground zero. Normally, we would get authority to take our equipment down and get out of there. It didn't come. We sat there and our Sargent wouldn't do anything on his own without permission, so we sat there and sat there and then all of a sudden here come a bunch of squad cars. There were colonels and generals and I don't know what else were in there and they said, "What are you guys doing here?" Then our Sargent said, "Well, we haven't been given authority to break up." Then they said, "How long will it take you?" We said, "Fifteen minutes.", one guy said, "Double that.", next guy said, "Triple that.", next guy said, "Jump in the car.". So we got to ride with the brass back. That was my closest call. If those guys hadn't been there, I wouldn't probably wouldn't be here.

MR. BARR: What would have happened? Was it the explosion, or was it the --

MR. NOFFKE: The radiation cloud.

MR. BARR: Radiation cloud.

MR. NOFFKE: The other one was the smoky. We were about 17 miles from ground zero on that one, but that's one that had Marines in the trenches about two or three miles from ground zero on that one and a lot of them got covered up and I don't know what all happened there. It was even a tornado in the mushroom cloud.

MR. BARR: Unless there's anything else, I -- sorry for diverging on that, but we have talked with so many people that -- I've had some people volunteer some stuff. We had another person who was even closer to one of those explosions and he had to walk into the -- towards ground zero. I think he was one of the earliest ones.


MR. BARR: Back to the Natural Resources Districts. Do you remember much about the formation of the Natural Resource Districts and any comments you had at the time or anybody you worked with and the thoughts that they might have had? You were probably with the Soil Conservation Service at that point.

MR. NOFFKE: No, I think -- I can't say that I really recall too much about the formation of it. I do remember people talking that, they were scared of the authority that these Natural Resources Districts would have. Of course, I'm sure a lot of them were concerned about the taxing powers they would have. On the other hand, I think there were good thoughts about merging a lot of these special purpose districts. I think their biggest question was, which ones to put in and which ones not. At that time, they didn't put the Soil Conservation Districts in there, as I recall.

MR. BARR: You were in the Holdrege area maybe about that time?


MR. BARR: Of course, Tri-County was concerned about how that was going to play out.

MR. NOFFKE: Yeah, with the irrigation district.

MR. BARR: I don't know if you remember anything about that, in particular.

MR. NOFFKE: I think they had pretty good lobbyists.

MR. BARR: Well said.

MR. NOFFKE: There was concern at that time, but I'm sure --

MR. BARR: In fact, I'm sure it affected the boundaries of the district and things like that out there.

MR. NOFFKE: The water district there in Holdrege overlapped several different drainage areas so that entered into it, too.

MR. BARR: They were kind of the exception to the idea of drainage areas being in the district.

MR. NOFFKE: At that time the Central Nebraska Public Power and Irrigation District was a pretty strong organization. A lot stronger that what I think they are now.

MR. BARR: Unless there's something else in that area, I kind of like to have you go over your experiences in the groundwater districts and how that played out.

MR. NOFFKE: My experience with the Soil Conservation Service was working a lot with reuse pits. Also, that predecessor to surge irrigation with the Fischbach systems. That probably one of the reasons I was hired by the groundwater districts, was the fact that they were concerned about all the runoff occurring and they wanted to stop the excess irrigation and runoff going down the Mississippi River. One of the things the groundwater districts had started doing, they were working with a geological survey and was doing a little bit of measuring and nobody had a handle on what was being used for irrigation. I remember one of the board members from down in Clay County, they measured his water and he had put on 60 inches and he had half mile runs and these were some of the things that we were really concerned about. I think they wanted to promote irrigation reuse systems, but after a year probably, we started looking at the possibility of needing to go to allocation. We didn't know when, but we thought that this might be a need for the future. So, we established in 1975, it's called the Benedict Project. I have a, I guess this is my one and only literature, but it's a pretty lengthy report of the whole project and there's a lot of really good information in here, as far as I'm concerned. Looking back at it, one of the recommendations in there was irrigation efficiency, and we did mention center pivots. There's probably been more irrigation efficiency achieved because of the center pivot irrigation systems.

MR. BARR: Thank you for contributing that to the cause, here.

MR. NOFFKE: Luckily, I had a couple of extra copies.

MR. BARR: What sort of data on groundwater availability and use was available when you started and as you progressed through the job? What, if anything changed?

MR. NOFFKE: There was very minimal, as far as I can remember, very minimal measurement being done. They, U.S.G.S. had put out a few water meters here and there and looking back I even question the accuracy of the meters that were put on, how they were put on, whether they really had been calibrated properly. These were all things that we looked into and found out later on that some of the measurement we did -- we bought moderate water meters in -- there were three different kinds, there was a small Rockwell one and there were McCrometer and Sparling. We found out that the Sparling's and the McCrometer's had been calibrated pretty much properly, where the Rockwell's they had been calibrated for iron pipe size and were put in OD pipe size and were probably 15 percent off, at least, maybe 18. These were things that were happening, so how could you judge with what was put on? Did the guy actually put on the 60 inches down there? We don't know for sure. But, he still put on a lot.

MR. BARR: As you continued on the job, what sort of changes in data collection or --

MR. NOFFKE: Especially with the groundwater with the Benedict Project. That was a very detailed, very, very detailed study. We established more points to make -- decline measurements and measurements were taken Spring and Fall, so that way you could get an idea of the recharge between the Summer use and Spring recovery. Something else we did with the -- wasn't tied to the Benedict Project, but we put out moisture blocks, soil moisture blocks to determine -- we put the moisture blocks at 12 inches, 18 inches and 24 inches to measure what the soil moisture was those different depths. Then recommendations were made on -- there were selected fields in the different groundwater districts. Bob Mulliner was pretty much in charge of this and we had students that would go out and read the soil moisture blocks and then Bob would come up with the recommendations on what to irrigate or how much.

MR. BARR: Was this just in the Benedict Project? Or was it throughout the five county area?

MR. NOFFKE: No, this was more around different counties.

MR. BARR: They were getting measurements in all of the counties on declines in the soil --

MR. NOFFKE: Yeah, not a whole lot in each county.

MR. BARR: A few representatives each county.

MR. NOFFKE: Yeah. One of the interesting things is, one of the students that was reading the moisture blocks didn't like the cornstalks around the moisture blocks, so he chopped them off. It is just an interesting sidelight, we couldn't figure out why the moisture blocks weren't dropping and so Bob Mulliner tracked this down and went out there and looked and found out that this kid had chopped the corn stalks down. Boy, I'll tell you, the University of Nebraska was researching their insurance policy real quick after that one. Luckily, most farmers know better when something isn't right. Luckily, nothing happened there. This is just one of the interesting sidelights.

MR. BARR: What do you think were some of the major -- you kind of eluded to the accomplishments of the Groundwater Association of the Districts. Would you summarize some of the achievements that you saw over the period of time you were there?

MR. NOFFKE: First of all, we created an awareness of how much to irrigate and how often. The Benedict Project, our goal was 15 inches and we achieved that by actually -- in our fields that we set up for the test, every farmer in that area -- this was an area it's well explained in the book here. They would try to irrigate according to the recommendations of Bob Mulliner, irrigation engineer from Hastings. We achieved that by using 13.2 inches. We put our rain gauges, we put out five different rain gauges around that area just to get an idea of the rainfall. I know there are places in there where -- there is one recording in there where Bob wrote this farmer and he says, "You need to get to watering. You're playing catch-up, right now, so we don't want you to get too far behind." One of the primary things is awareness of how much to irrigate. Secondly, length of runs is important when you had a lot -- this is almost 40 years ago. We had a lot of quarter mile runs, which we still probably have some of that, but most of those fields now have pivots on them. By surge irrigation, by center pivot irrigation and whatever.

MR. BARR: You kind of encourage some of these alternative methods. Probably when you started there were still ditch and tube. Was gated pipe already used?

MR. NOFFKE: Pretty much all gated --

MR. BARR: When we started, of course we had ditch and tubes. I remember that second summer when the electrical system was overloaded, by brother and I stayed out on the porch and about every twenty minutes, or so, we'd have to go start the engine again and reset all those tubes. What kind of relationship did you have with the Natural Resource District while you were with the Groundwater District?

MR. NOFFKE: I think I probably had as good of relationship as you could expect. There were several instances of where, for example, one of the board members down in Clay County was, and Clay County has some areas where there is -- where they can't get water. So there was some transportation several miles of water, this one board member would just pump into the road ditch and run it several miles, maybe a mile and a half to another field and then pump out and irrigate. There was a little bit of concern by some of the board member in the other counties whether he really should be doing something like this. Irrigation run off was one of the situations where we watched really closely and this doesn't pertain to the Benedict Project, but this pertains to the Groundwater Districts. I believe there were some actions filed against several irrigators because of what appeared to be very excessive run off.

MR. BARR: At some point, now I can't remember when exactly, the groundwater districts merged into the Natural Resource Districts. Were you involved at all in that or leading up to it?

MR. NOFFKE: Kind of leading up to it, in fact I had, I can't remember how long I had been with the Groundwater Districts and maybe only two years or two and a half years and I think there was talk about the merger. At that time, I believe Floyd Marsh was still the manager at York. There was a question in my mind, will Marsh be there if we got merged with the Natural Resources District, maybe I would become the manager, I mean that was a thought. Also, at the same time, Kansas for forming groundwater conservation districts and they have five that were being formed. I interviewed at two different locations and finally accepted a job down at St. John, Kansas with the groundwater management district there. Several things happened that I changed my mind at the last minute and then stayed a little longer with the Groundwater Districts. At that time, I was already getting vibrations from this meter company in California that was going to put a plant in Aurora. It was pretty obvious that I was going to get that job and that's exactly what happened. I stayed another year or two with the Groundwater Districts and ended up plant manager with McCrometer in Aurora, Nebraska in 1977.

MR. BARR: That was kind of a little bit of an extension on some of the work you'd done ahead of time. Do you want to talk a little bit about your experiences at the plant? You were there a long time, weren't you?

MR. NOFFKE: In 1977, or somewhere in that neighborhood, when Carter was President, there was a lot of monies taken away from the Western irrigation district, the water districts and there was a lot of backlash on that. So they passed an emergency act of some sort, just made some federal monies available. Nebraska decided that they would cost share on flow meters. So, McCrometer, in California, got so many orders they didn't know what to do, they couldn't even keep up. All of a sudden they were running three shifts a day and then they decided to put this plant in at Aurora and asked me to manage that. There were some -- because of the vastness of how this all developed, there were probably some poor calibrations on some of the McCrometer meters too, as far as that goes. Later on we tried to correct all that. It was just one of those things, you know. That's what happens if you try to do too much too fast. I recall talking to one of the NRD board members here just the other night and he said, "Well, if we drop in next year, can you furnish so many thousands of meters here? We're probably at 40 percent metered now." That's ridiculous to decide to have everything all at once. You have to phase into this thing, otherwise you lose control of quality. Installation is just as important as the calibration of meters to start out with.

MR. BARR: Was most of your market area around the center part of the country?

MR. NOFFKE: Actually, from Canada to Mexico.

MR. BARR: Well, that's center, I guess.

MR. NOFFKE: We ended up with 17 states that we represented with McCrometers. Of course, the majority of the metering business was probably Nebraska, Kansas and Colorado. Texas was a big state, but Texas is a little different than anybody else. Every time the state makes a regulation, they file a lawsuit and they stop it. It's just one of those things. It's a real interesting work for me, working with these different states because each state has different laws, each state has different water problems and so that's been really interesting. Naturally, I got to do a lot of traveling around these states, not always the most fun.

MR. BARR: One of the questions that we've had over the years was, Nebraska developed their Natural Resource Districts and they saw that it was generally a good idea, but it has generally not caught on anywhere else. You've been kind of involved in a lot of these states and I guess, two questions; one, how does this compare with how somewhat similar programs are handled in other states and; two, why might it have happened in Nebraska and not elsewhere?

MR. NOFFKE: I don't know. I guess I can see problems on both sides, but the Natural Resources Districts are locally run and a lot of times the local people refuse to do something. It's hard for these board members to make some of these tough decisions when their neighbor doesn't like them, if they make that decision. That's probably the down side to the Natural Resources District. In where other states, they still have the Special Purpose Districts, well that's sort of local, too and hey still have the same problem, but on the other hand, a lot of those the state still has the trump card. I'm to the point to where I don't follow that real closely, anymore, so I don't know how things are going.

MR. BARR: Do you have any, just general thoughts on how the Natural Resource District is developed and performed over the years?

MR. NOFFKE: I think they've -- I don't know, let's take the York District, for example. It seems like they're awfully overloaded with technicians, do they need all those technicians? Is it all that important? What are they all doing? I guess sometimes I have questions on that. But I don't follow it that closely so that I really know exactly what they are doing. One of the other concerns I have right now with the NRD at York is the fact that they farm out this meter repair business and I don't know whether this would be -- but, one of the guys they hired was a former employee of mine and I don't -- I question whether he's doing stuff that needs to be done. If he's got full reign of whether a meter needs repaired, or not, 'Oh, let's repair it this thing, that's more money for me.' This is a concern of mine because they repaired one of my meters, well I wish I would have checked it ahead of time, I didn't. They just come on the place, took the meter and all of a sudden here they're one day, they're working on it. I don't know whether it needed repair, or not. I question whether it did. I got the meter repaired, I guess the NRD paid for it, why -- you see what I'm getting at here?

MR. BARR: Yeah.

MR. NOFFKE: It's something that they should look at, anyway.

MR. BARR: Do you have any other things that you would like to contribute to this? This is just kind of a general discussion at this point.

MR. NOFFKE: Like I say, I'm getting old, my memory's getting bad and -- but it's been an interesting 20, 30 years for me, 40 years I guess now. It will be 40 years, this year, since I started with the Groundwater Districts, next month. Time flies when you're having fun.

MR. BARR: Unless there's something else, I really thank you for doing this.

MR. NOFFKE: I don't know as I -- I hope I added something.

MR. BARR: You've got a perspective that different from most people and I think it's been useful.

MR. NOFFKE: Of course, Larry Moore, you know.

MR. BARR: Larry's one of my potential interviewees.

MR. NOFFKE: He was a fraternity brother of mine.

MR. BARR: Is that right?


MR. BARR: Okay. He's on the list to do him, we haven't done him, yet.

MR. NOFFKE: You'll get a load there.

MR. BARR: Actually, I was getting ready to call him and I found out why he didn't answer. They went up to Alaska.