Roy Stewart

Position Held: Board Member, Upper Elkhorn NRD; Member, Natural Resources Commission

Interviewer: Jim Barr

Associated NRDs:

Upper Elkhorn


MR. BARR: This is Jim Barr. It's April 30th, 2014. I'm at Roy Stewart's ranch south of Newport. And, Roy, I was wondering if you could just kind of go over a little of your background and how you -- eventually, how you got interested in NRDs and that sort of thing.

MR. STEWART: Well, I'm Roy Stewart, and I got involved in, I believe, 1976. We'd had an opening in our local NRD district, and nobody seemed to step up to the plate. And having been involved with Farm Bureau and cattlemen's organizations and so forth, why I was asked to see if I was interested. So, I visited a meeting or two to see what was going on, and I kind of liked what I seen and the way it operated. And I thought maybe I could represent my constituents in a decent manner and get involved with the NRDs. And I also was involved in RC&Ds at that time, and the NRD manager and the RC&D manager were kind of close together. I liked both of them and that's kind of how I got started with that.

MR. BARR: Were you from here originally?

MR. STEWART: Yes, I'm a fourth-generation rancher, and my granddad come to this -- my great-granddad come to this country from Illinois and homesteaded. And it's been passed on and we've accumulated other parcels of ground. And so, I'm on part of it that we've acquired.

MR. BARR: Now, are you the last of it, or do you have other family members that will continue on this?

MR. STEWART: Well, right now I'm kind of semi-retired and turned it over to my son and he's doing a great job. And what happens after that, I don't have any control over.

MR. BARR: Now, you're located kind of in the upper ends of the Elkhorn. How much -- where does the Elkhorn actually start?

MR. STEWART: Okay, the Elkhorn's just right behind my house here, and depends on the time of year that you ask this question. For the most part, it's a pretty small stream here, except during snow melt, and then it probably comes from about 15 miles further west. But, for the most part, it starts about four miles west of where I'm at. But it very seldom ceases to run. But it does flood quite a little about every three years.

MR. BARR: You mentioned the RC&D, and since so far you're the only one that I've interviewed that's mentioned that, would you mind just kind of telling a little bit about what an RC&D is. And I can't remember who was your manager and that sort of thing.

MR. STEWART: Gene Debolt was the original manager when I was involved with it. I'm no longer involved. In fact, the RC&D here has pretty much disband. RC&D here kind of helped sponsor some projects that nobody else -- or no other entities were involved in at that time. Did -- some of it's mostly volunteer trying to educate the people in some better practices in agriculture. And one of the things that RC&D was instrumental in here is starting the Ranch Expo. And I don't know how many people have heard of -- it was Nebraska Ranch Expo. Now it's Sandhills Ranch Expo. I and Gene Debolt initiated that 24 years ago and I've been involved with that for 24 years also.

MR. BARR: And it's still going, isn't it?

MR. STEWART: It's still going and many others have started up and ceased to function, but ours just keeps going all by itself.

MR. BARR: I've been up here a couple of times. Well, let's see, you started in '76. What sort of projects or programs was the NRD involved in at that point?

MR. STEWART: Well, Upper Elkhorn NRD is pretty dependent on their monetary resources from tree sales, probably more so than any other district. So, that's been a big push for our district. Was quality and water quantity has always been -- had our attention, and more so with water quality now, or up to now, and now water quantity is becoming something that we're getting with. We want to maintain status quo. Unlike Texas, they figure if they can go another 50 years, that's their goal, but I don't believe that's my goal or my constituents' goal. I think that one of the main purposes for the NRD is to maybe cost share with some newer-type practices, and when people grasp them and see that it's economically feasible, I think we need to cut the cost share or spread it into another field that looks like it needs some help, but -- in range country, we've done quite a little cost share with the NRCS on grade stabilization dams here on the Elkhorn and on the river south of O'Neill. And Cross-fencing, better water facilities, both in dams and stock wells. I'm not too much involved with the farming, because I don't farm, but there's some farming practices that we cost share on. One of the big ones that we were into just a few years ago was the low pressure nozzles and drop nozzles. And that saved some water.

MR. BARR: How much difference -- or what are kind of the differences between the upper end of the Elkhorn and the lower, which is down in Antelope County, is that about the --


MR. BARR: -- end of it?

MR. STEWART: Yeah, I'm only about ten miles from the west end of our district. There is -- this is pretty well split between farming and ranching. When you get into the eastern end, there's more density of farming. And north of Highway 20, we have a water quality problem with high nitrates. Where I live, here and pretty much south of Highway 20, it's a pretty low number, not a great concern as yet. We don't want it to be.
MR. BARR: Have you had other -- what kind of specific water quality programs or activities do the natural resource district get involved in here in this district?

MR. STEWART: We will cost share on the nitrate, I guess, you call a filtering for people that have high nitrates will cost share on a new well, because some of these older wells were just shallow wells and probably needed to be in a better vein of water. We're over the top of 1,000 feet of saturated sands where I live here. And most of the Elkhorn -- Upper Elkhorn Basin has a deep depth of aquifer. It's a little weaker on the northern end, but I'm in the Sandhills area and we absorb the water and feed it on out underground on east of here, because the water runs from northwest to southeast underground.

MR. BARR: Have you had any direct conflict between domestic wells and irrigation wells or stock wells or anything like that?

MR. STEWART: You say “conflict.”

MR. BARR: I mean --

MR. STEWART: Yeah, I understand what you're saying. The only ones that -- the only thing that I know about in our district, unlike the Lower Elkhorn, which had some problems, is in the fall when the pumping is at its height in gallons per minute, sometimes it will take the pressure down. And we're in artesian well country right here where we sit. And we've noticed -- we don't have much irrigation close by, but one instance, we had an irrigation well, oh, less than a quarter of a mile from an artesian well and six hours after it was turned on, our flowing well ceased to flow. Six hours after he shut it off, it was back flowing again. And a lot of people tell me that the fish ponds get pretty low if they're close to a density of irrigation, so it does impact a little, but generally, it pops right back when they shut them off. I don't know of any wells -- domestic wells what’ve had to be replaced in this district because of drawdown.

MR. BARR: When you were on the Commission, what kind of issues were you dealing with on the Commission?

MR. STEWART: Well, the ones that I'm familiar with right now is we had a project in Lincoln on the -- what do they call it, Salt Creek?

MR. BARR: Yeah.

MR. STEWART: Funded quite a little money into that project. Also, southern Grand Island was having some flooding problems, so we worked a long time on a project there. I think it's finally completed now. And we helped some districts put in some smaller dams, which sure eats up a lot of money fast.

MR. BARR: You represented kind of the Sandhills area when you were on the Commission and there's quite a variety of issues facing the various districts as you go clear throughout the state. And I don't quite know how to phrase this, but is there a way to -- what kind of impressions did you have on the variability or the differences between the districts and the sorts of issues that some faced and others faced different issues and that sort of thing?

MR. STEWART: Well, I think when they set up the NRDs with the watersheds, each watershed is unique. Each one has their own problems. And until I got on the Commission, I wasn't really involved with the other districts' problems, and it's shed a lot of light that one has to learn what goes on and understand their problems, too.

MR. BARR: Now, as I recall, the Upper and the Lower Elkhorn share kind of a commission member, is that correct?

MR. STEWART: That's right.

MR. BARR: I don't know -- I don't even know who the current one is.

MR. STEWART: Gary Anderson from Dakota City, took over after I did, and I think he's been on there about eight years.

MR. BARR: Is that something that kind of shifts from time to time or what --

MR. STEWART: Yes, it used to. And we caucus -- the two districts caucus every time there's a -- well, once a year, but when the terms are up, why, we'll caucus and elect one.

MR. BARR: Dennis and some others have indicated

(Telephone ringing.)

We can stop this.

MR. BARR: Back again with Roy Stewart. You probably remember some of the early arguments for or against natural resource districts. Was that a contentious issue in this district or was it not?

MR. STEWART: I guess I don't remember back that far. Like I said, I didn't get involved with the very first and I know Walt Ficke was and some of the other older timers from our district.

MR. BARR: Is there any other of the early guys that were still around?

MR. STEWART: No. I think more of them have went to the happy grounds.

MR. BARR: Okay.

MR. STEWART: Walt was one of the last ones. And Dvorak has gone, too. Larry Kalkowski was -- had the the job I have before I got it. And he's gone. So, I've seen a lot of people come and go.

MR. BARR: Then starting at the time you came along, how have you seen the NRDs overall, not just this district, has there been change? Has there been different emphasis on something as opposed to what was started and what happening at the time you started up 'til now or --

MR. STEWART: Oh, absolutely. When I started, we didn't know what endangered species were. We didn't know what EPA was. And we didn't have feedlot runoff known problems. It was probably there. And, oh, yeah, things are getting a lot more detailed and more concerns show up all the time. And more so we have mandates handed to us that we didn't when we started in, legislative mandates.

MR. BARR: You want to give a few examples of those?

MR. STEWART: Well, the groundwater management and, gosh, I don't know. There's a ton of them. I can't think of them off the top of my head. The pallid sturgeon thing is -- and the in stream flows for Game and Parks has created some problems, the piping plover, the least tern, and the prairie orchid, and blowout penstemon and so forth, has made us change the way we do things.

MR. BARR: How about with the district itself. Have you had changes in staffing or breadth of the programs that you've dealt with over the years?

MR. STEWART: Well, the cost share, we have 17 -- I think there's 18 available, but only cost share on 17. But we prioritized them. And changes in staff, yes, we've had -- just had two managers. Paul Mann was our manager when I started and then Dennis come on board. We had to let Paul go. But some of our office help has changed, but that's normal. Actually, Dennis has kept our staff pretty consistent. We've had a few different water technicians, but most of the staff is pretty stable.

MR. BARR: But it's grown a little bit, in that --

MR. STEWART: Well, Dennis likes that. I guess all of them do. I have my reservations about that, but I guess that's -- I don't know whether that's called progress, but --

MR. BARR: You're in one of the -- I don't know if it's unique, but a little different situation in that you got involved with a combination of three other NRDs in trying to deal with a problem over in, I guess it would be the northeast corner of your district?

MR. STEWART: Bazile Triangle.

MR. BARR: Bazile Triangle, yeah.

MR. STEWART: I'm not on the committees that are working with that, so I'm not that knowledgeable about what's going on. However, we're also in a four-district issue with the Niobrara River. And we're -- we have a little of our district in the Niobrara River Watershed. And right now, we're just -- it's just in the infancy and we're --

MR. BARR: Could you describe the issue that's involved in that?

MR. STEWART: Well, the Spencer Dam and NPPD has about a 2,000 cubic-foot call on the water, which it only runs about 1,200 on the average, so it's very seldom they get all that. Well, then there's some irrigators up west that would like to pump more water. And then Game and Parks is certainly interested in the water and the scenic river issues are involved in it. So, we're starting to sort through and make everybody happy.

MR. BARR: How has just the general idea of conservation and that sort of thing changed over the period you've been on the natural resource district board?

MR. STEWART: Well, I'll go back a little further than that. When my grandmother was a little girl, she could walk for 30 miles from here and never step on a blade of grass. Now that's not that there wasn't grass here, but she could step between the bunches of grass. Even in my short lifetime, I've seen through proper management and so forth, an increased rainfall due to irrigation. Our rainfall's probably increased about three to four inches a year since the '60s, since irrigation went in. But people have recognized that -- what good management practices are and used them. And through the tree-planting program that they offer here, why, there's been a lot of livestock shelterbelts put up. When you put up livestock shelterbelts, you can condense the cattle into a feeding area. And in our instance, we've planted 37,000 trees here since I moved here in 1980. And we've been able to put up the shelterbelts, so we can scatter the cattle around and keep them a lot healthier, keep the disease down.

MR. BARR: And you've done cross-fencing?

MR. STEWART: Yes, we've done quite a little cross-fencing. And we have a -- just completing a grade stabilization project on a couple of miles of the Elkhorn River. About 1960, we put in one grade stabilization dam out here just on the west side of the road. And the people from Cache Creek come up and looked at it and they put in several of them on Cache Creek, which is south of O'Neill. And then, we've had a degradation of the stream bed here on the Elkhorn, and the base flow was down about 12-13 feet below ground level, and that took all of the water out of our sub irrigated meadows for quite a ways back from the creek. So, we put in four more grid stabilization structures to bring the water up to the surface. And I'm just completing that.

MR. BARR: What's been the highlight of your time on the board for you or highlights?

MR. STEWART: Well, I've certainly met a lot of good people. I guess that's probably the highlight. You never know enough good people. And I've learned by going on related tours with it, picked up some good ideas, tried to pass them on. I guess that's the best thing.

MR. BARR: At this point, we just have a general question of people if -- anything they'd like to comment on or reflect upon or wish that it happened or anything like that. Do you have anything along those lines?

MR. STEWART: Well, I think water is going to be probably become a greater issue as the population grows. And I can see where Omaha and Lincoln are going to need more water. And Lincoln is wanting some. There's been an issue or two the last year or two. And I don't know what the future holds, but I know where it's going to have to come from. It's going to have to come from the Elkhorn and the Platte tributaries. And that concerns me and -- if they're going to shut us off of using the water, they better find a way to economize and not use as much as they are or want to. And also, this Kansas conflict down here in the Republican Basin is certainly something that I share sympathy with. Colorado and Wyoming are involved in it also, and I think we need to build more saving structures, but due to regulations and so forth, I don't know if it's going to be possible to build more. They're talking about building a couple more on the Papio, north of Omaha there. I hope they can get it done. I don't know -- we tried putting one in on the Elkhorn in Antelope County, but the people weren't very cooperative towards wanting it, and I think -- on Cedar Creek, and I think it probably is going to continue to be looked at, but I don't know how it's going to all work out.

MR. BARR: Well, unless you have something else, I don't have any real specific questions. But we're trying to get a good sense of regional differences and history of the natural resource system, so if there's anything along those you'd like to comment on. I'm not very good at coming up with specific questions.

MR. STEWART: Well, when I got on the board, the Norden Dam was a hot topic. And I guess I wasn't really in favor of it at that time, but today maybe I might have a change of mind. At that time, we were concerned that should it go in, and I know that the project to be watered was north of O'Neill, but what I was afraid of was, if we got it put in somehow Texas might get a call on putting a pipeline down there. Today, I share about the same concerns with the Keystone XL Pipeline. China has about 80 percent of their water polluted, and they're shipping many, many containers to the United States and emptying them, and they're going back empty. They could put a bladder in there and ship water back, which may or may not happen someday. But that Keystone XL Pipeline, if it would have went through the heart of the aquifer here, which they had planned, water becomes more precious than oil, I think I know what would be flowing in that, and I really hate to see that. I guess I'm a little bit conceited. I want to keep my water.

MR. BARR: Where is it -- in this district, where is the current plan for that pipeline?

MR. STEWART: Well, it was to be about six miles east of me, and now they've routed it on further east and still be through the edge of the Sandhills, as I understand it, but I don't know exactly. But it's not definite yet. There's still litigation going on and it could change again.

MR. BARR: You've had some other controversy up here. There was a proposal for a nuclear waste even north of you a little bit. Was that anything that affected your district or --

MR. STEWART: Well, not as bad as the district north of here. It pitted family members against family members. And it's just something that our district didn't talk about because we didn't -- we weren't involved in it and we didn't want to make any more enemies. And there was plenty of enemies being made in that district, in the Lower Niobrara. That was a hot topic.

MR. BARR: Well, again, I thank you for doing this. If there's anything else, you sure have your opportunity.

MR. STEWART: Well, I'll probably think of it later.

MR. BARR: Okay. Thank you.