Tom Moser

Position Held: Manager, Lewis & Clark NRD, 1973 - time of interview

Interviewer: Gayle Starr

Associated NRDs:

Lewis & Clark NRD


MR. STARR: This is Gayle Starr doing an interview with Tom Moser, the Manager of the Lewis and Clark NRD, the only Manager of the Lewis and Clark NRD. We're conducting the interview at the Embassy Suites here in Lincoln, Nebraska, as part of the Natural Resources District History Project. And so, with that, Tom, how about a little short history of yourself?

MR. MOSER: Okay. If you can hear me over the fountain in the background, I can give you all of that. I was born and raised on a farm near Plainview, Nebraska. I grew up on that farm. I milked cows and fed hogs and had all kinds of livestock, a diversified farm with cropping and livestock. Graduated from Plainview High School and went to college in 1967. My dad died in 1969, and I was about 20 years old at that time, so I dropped out of school and went back to run the farm for a few years. So, I had a good farm background, I think. I enjoyed farming, did a lot of work in that area. Graduated from Nebraska with a BS degree in general ag at the time. It was right before the natural resources measure came about. And I worked with Game and Parks Commission for quite a while here in the Lincoln area and it was under federally funded program and it ran out of funds. And so, I kind of scrounged around trying to find some place to work. This was in 1972-73, in that area. They had just passed a law creating NRDs. And I got married in 1972 and was still working with the Game and Parks Commission, and then they told me, sorry, they're going to run out of funds in 1973. So, I started snooping around to find a job and Duane Chamberlain helped me at that time. And very helpful. And I filled out applications for several spots. I didn't know what NRDs were, you know. They were brand new. Not many people did. So, I was hoping to get on as an assistant somewhere where I could learn the ropes and maybe move up someday. And I had interviews at Lewis and Clark NRD, in fact, here in Lincoln at the Cornhusker Hotel. Two directors came down, Warren Patefield and Leonard Miller. And they interviewed me, and it was my first job interview. I didn't know quite how to handle it, and I didn't know when to leave when my interview was over, and they didn't tell me, so I sat halfway through the next interview that they were having and realized, maybe it was inappropriate for me to be there. So, I quietly left and told my wife that, “Boy, I screwed that one up.” And I'm surprised, a couple days later they called me up and offered me the job. And I says, “Are you sure?” You know, I had seen the other guy interview and I knew he was more qualified than I, and they said, “Yeah, we know he probably knows more now, but we want to hire somebody that doesn't know anything yet and we want to train him.” And I says, “Well, if that's your conditions, I guess I'll come to work.” So, I started in April in 1973 at Hartington, and they gave me the top-notch salary of $7,500 a year, which I thought was pretty good. And I went to work up there in the back room of an insurance building. They didn't have an office, and they held their meetings at the SCS office at that time. And I was about three doors back in the insurance office when I started. And as things went up, they moved out of the building and then I hired a secretary about six months later. They gave me $400 to get office furniture and tables and chairs and typewriters. In those days, they never heard of computers, yet, of course. And so that's how it started out there in downtown Hartington. And over the years, we moved to two office locations and then we built the new facility in 1991, so it's been 40 years that I've been there.

MR. STARR: So, what was the biggest challenge for you in starting?

MR. MOSER: When we started in Lewis and Clark, we had a lot of Missouri River issues. That's what Warren Patefield instructed me on. But probably the more immediate was the Aowa Watershed. It was a PL 566 flood control watershed, and they had started on it and inherited the responsibilities as an NRD from the Soil and Water Conservation District. And that was a big effort there. That -- actually, it took 30 years to get that completed. But more immediate, they hired me in April of 1973, and they said, we got, you know, 10- to 20,000 trees come in that need planted. And I says, “Well, where do I find a planter?” And they knew a guy that had a planting machine, and I says, “Well, I need a tractor.” Well, they found a tractor. “I need a driver.” “Well, that's your job.” So, I found a high school kid to drive the tractor. And, in fact, I planted trees for the whole three-county district the first two years myself. So, I knew how to do it by the end of that time. We had a grass drill -- three grass drills at that time that we routed around. Those were the immediate things then. And formed a good relationship with NRCS, which was SCS at that time. The district conservationists there were very helpful for me. We relied on them completely for the technical guidance.

MR. STARR: Who was that?

MR. MOSER: Ken Noonan was in Cedar County office. Bill Yost was in Dixon County, and Phil Rickey was in Knox County. Phil Rickey is an Abraham Lincoln look-alike. I remember seeing him first and thinking, my gosh, he's the reincarnation. Good man, all good men.

MR. STARR: How about your board. How supportive and knowledgeable was the board?

MR. MOSER: When I first got up there, it was a little strange, because Knox County was a very active soil and water conservation district, and the NRD law split them up into three different NRDs, the Lower Niobrara, the Lewis and Clark, and Lower Elkhorn. So, there was some animosity. And some of the directors there didn't take kindly to the NRDs, number one, and then, of course, the manager comes in and, my God, we got to pay somebody now, too. But it warmed up after the, you know, could see that we could still do the things that they did. And they had some tax revenue to work on, so, they had more funds than they had in the past. So, once that warmed up a little bit, then it got a lot easier. And we've done projects over the years in all three counties. So, it went real well. We started out with, I think they had 28 directors that came in from the other districts, and then we reduced it down to 17, within the law, and then, later on over the years, to 11. And very good directors. Warren Patefield was my mentor. I went to him with all of my problems. And he was very, very helpful. Paul Jacob was one of the directors from Knox County, excellent quality man. He was one of those that didn't like the NRD creation, but warmed up to it and accepted it. I had some real good directors over the years. In fact, I had a good relationship with all of my directors. I think I was pallbearer for funerals for six or eight of them. I lost count. But real good connection, and they were very supportive. At the start, you know, they wanted to tell me what to do, and as years went by, I tried to educate them on the things that need to be done, let them make the decisions. Because Warren Patefield always told me, he says, “Remember, you're working for us. It's not the other way around.” So, I remembered that lesson.

MR. STARR: You mentioned opposition. How long did that last, the opposition?

MR. MOSER: Probably a year and a half to two years, I would guess. You know, that's quite a ways back, so I don't remember real clear, but I remember feeling the tension, and, you know, as the soil and water conservation district, they had members all across the whole county and when they divided them up into NRDs, then that's where the animosity came, because they had a working relationship that they lost. And so, that was hard.

MR. STARR: How about the Aowa Watershed? Was there a watershed board there?

MR. MOSER: Yes, Aowa Watershed Conservancy District.

MR. STARR: Were they pretty accepting?

MR. MOSER: Yeah, in fact, they were glad to hand it off to somebody else. They were trying to negotiate for easements for the structure sites and Pete Melle was up there at that time, said, “I'm done with it.” He said, “Somebody else can do it.” And that was probably the hardest thing for me to learn was how to work the land rights getting easements for the structure sites so that we could build them. It was a long, hard process.

MR. STARR: What was the biggest surprise to you at that time.

MR. MOSER: Surprise. Well, you know, I guess the biggest surprise was the willingness for people to participate once you had them realize that you had a good project. I had good directors and then good people all around that participated in it. You know, over the years, there has been a lot of things that we've done and you sit -- you lean back and you think, you know, how did that all come together. You know, I was glad to be a part of the process, but you really realize that there were a whole lot of people that got involved during that process to make it successful. A good example was our rural water project. In 1978, I met with Frank Snyder, in the town of St. Helena. And St. Helena was right on the bluff, right above the Missouri River, a very poor groundwater situation, high in chalk. You know, it's chalk rock soil. And so, it's high in minerals, iron, manganese, and tasted terrible, you know, you had to chew it to swallow it. And so they were looking for a water source and had tried several areas for wells and had not been successful. And he had heard about rural water districts, so I met with him, and then, later on, the St. Helena City Council. And they wanted to explore that area. And from that, we started looking at the farms around the town of St. Helena. And then they got as far as Crofton, which had similar problems, and spread into that area. And during that process, we had an advisory committee made up of just people that lived in the area. And people, neighbors talking to neighbors, word spread. And we had, eventually, by 1981, we were building a project to take water out of Lewis and Clark Lake, surface water, and treat it and blend it, and sell it for drinking water. And had good people guide the system. We hired a project manager, Verlane Kollars, and Jim Sheldon came on as our attorney and Jim took over for Verlane eventually. And those guys really helped put things together along with the members of that committee. And it's thrived. Now we serve over 820-some customers, four towns. We still have some of the same members on the advisory committee. It's really grown to where the budget is actually bigger than the NRD now, even though they're a project of the NRD. So, that was probably my biggest surprise is how successful that went.

MR. STARR: There've been a lot of changes in the law over the -- since '72 that affected NRDs.

MR. MOSER: Right.

MR. STARR: What has affected you the most, or your district the most?

MR. MOSER: I don't know. I guess I'd have to think on that for a while, Gayle. Each year, it seems like there's something that comes up. Probably the one that we're fighting with right now are groundwater rules and regulations. We're on the fringe area of the development of irrigation, so our district has been a little slower than some on groundwater rules and regulations. We've never had groundwater quantity issues until 2012, when we had the drought, and then we saw a big decline in the water tables. We've always had groundwater quality issues with nitrate, but they're spotty. They're here and there. In some cases, it's just point source pollution, but in other areas, we know now that it's broader than that.

MR. STARR: That's pretty typical.

MR. MOSER: Yeah, it is, and we're still working on developing some of those.

MR. STARR: How much irrigation is there in your district?

MR. MOSER: We probably got around 124,000 acres out of the 900,000 in the district. So, it's less than -- it's right around a fourth of the district.

MR. STARR: Do you have any controls in place on new wells?

MR. MOSER: No, we don't right now. We voted on it about a year ago and the board decided they did not want to have a moratorium, but we are trying to develop some well permit issues so that we can control some of that. We still don't have a serious decline in the water table. We had a big drop in 2012, but we are seeing more conflict of use in some parts of the district where there's been well issues because development has come in fast.

MR. STARR: Like, with domestic users?

MR. MOSER: Yeah, conflict with domestic users. And in some parts, conflict with irrigation. We've had people in the Niobrara chalk area, for example, that the water table's declined real fast, and so, it affects not only the irrigators, but the domestic well users where we've seen a 20-foot drop in a year's time. It doesn't recharge quick. And so, we need to step in, I think, as an NRD, and start managing some of that so that overdevelopment doesn't take place.

MR. STARR: If my memory serves me correctly, you were one of the first cases where sediment erosion control became an issue and got into the lawsuit and so forth.

MR. MOSER: Yeah.

MR. STARR: Say a little bit about that.

MR. MOSER: Yeah, Jim Cook was real helpful on that.

MR. STARR: I'm sure.

MR. MOSER: We got into a situation on a farm in Knox County where the landowner had some serious erosion problems that caused sediment to run off on three of his neighbors, four, actually. And in all three cases, they filed complaints, and the district found those complaints to be valid. And, of course, this was a farmer who knew how to farm, and he wasn't going to be told to do it otherwise, and he let me know that quite a bit. And so, we ended up in district court, and I'm proud to say that we won that case. In fact, we presented the case and the judge says he's going to let us know his decision. He wanted to know where the farm was at so he could drive by himself. And after he did that, there was no question. And so, we got a court order on that farm to change the manner in which it was farmed and more conservation methods. And we were successful, but curiously, over the years, the original landowner has sold that farm and it has resold several times. But we still have the court order on it. So, each new owner has come in and has been an education process to say, no, you can't go continuous corn on it year after year after year. And we do need the waterways, you know. So, it was, I think, real successful part of that. But I'm tickled that it's worked out. My board has stood behind it, too, you know, they didn't back down and weren't timid about it. And so they wanted to go the whole way with it and I'm proud that we did.

MR. STARR: How has the basic conservation programs in your district, you know, the basic things we talk about, waterways, dams, terraces -- is that pretty good.

MR. MOSER: Yeah, when we started out up there, you know, that was one of the priorities Warren Patefield gave me. “We got to keep emphasizing soil conservation.” And we did that one way, through the Lands for Wildlife Program that we started up there with the Lower Elkhorn NRD in the '70s. We got the first check from Game and Parks. They supported us with 75 percent of the funds. And we ended up enrolling, you know, we have about 100 contracts every year that we had enrolled in that program. It's a set-aside payment for converting cropland to grass. And that was real successful. But over the years, of course, when corn went up to $7-$8 a bushel, we can't compete with that. And then Game and Parks has backed out now as far as supporting it with their share of the funds, so it's dwindled down to now, I think we've got 15 contracts. And terraces, we see very few of those. Dams have been pretty effectively blocked by the Corps of Engineers on the 404 permit requirements. They just basically closed the door so there's not even a crack to get through to get something built on dams. We still do a lot of planned grazing systems. We still do a lot of tree plantings, and again, with the help of NRCS on the technical end of that.

MR. STARR: How has your board evolved over these 40 years?

MR. MOSER: It's still a growing process. I have a lot of directors that have been on for a long time. When I lose somebody, I actually have to go out and try to recruit replacements. That's been helpful in the sense that I could get people that I knew and trusted. And then that's worked out well. So, really can't complain about any of them, because they've been supportive on all of the things that we've done. But in the rural area, it gets harder and harder to find good people that aren't committed elsewhere that you can devote to natural resources. And I'm afraid that's always going to be an issue.

MR. STARR: There's fewer and fewer of them.

MR. MOSER: That's right. The farm places are disappearing, if you drive through the country.

MR. STARR: They sure are. In 2011, I guess it was, there were enormous releases from Gavins Point.

MR. MOSER: Right.

MR. STARR: How did that affect your lowlands along the river?

MR. MOSER: We pretty much dodged it, Gayle. The releases, I think, were from Gavins Point, were over, I think, 160,000 cfs. It made fantastic photography. And there was a severe erosion in Knox County just outside of our district, and then downstream, there was a severe bank erosion along the Missouri River below the dam. But the lake itself, and our intake for our rural water system stayed relatively stable. Gavins Point Dam is a regulatory structure for the Corps. You know, the other dams upstream of that are more storage and they fluctuate quite a bit, but Gavins Point, thankfully, has stayed pretty steady. We didn't really have any problems with the intake at all. There's a large plume of sediment went downstream. We saw propane tanks floating by. We saw trees go through the dam. And it was really impressive. You know, a lot of crashing water. Downstream, some -- you know, the Lewis and Clark NRD has been active on Missouri River bank stabilization work. There's a Bank Stabilization Association of citizens from both South Dakota and Nebraska that worked with us. And we sponsored some of the bank stabilization work along the Missouri River on five different locations to try to hold onto roads and areas that were specific. And we're still trying to work with the National Park Service up there to get some of those areas where they need attention. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't.

MR. STARR: Is the Aowa Watershed completed then?

MR. MOSER: Yes, we completed it in 2004 with the Powder Creek structure, Aowa 32-4A, and I'm proud to say that we built a large dam, 110 acres of water, and we own 463 that we put into native grass and tree plantings, a $2.9 million project. And with the help of the Resource Development Fund, Nebraska Environmental Trust, and Nebraska Game and Parks, we ended up paying, I think, $250,000 out of our own budget. So, less than 10 percent of the cost of the project the district actually paid, because we had good partnerships.

MR. STARR: Good.

MR. MOSER: So I was proud of that. Vince Kramper, who was a director on the Commission, Natural Resources Commission, he was up there on a tour last year with the Water Quality Committee, and he's proud of that, what we did there.

MR. STARR: Yeah, he is. So, how have you changed over the 40 years, other than, obviously, we've gotten older.

MR. MOSER: Yeah, I've definitely gotten older. Well, my wife, Rita, and I have raised six kids, three boys and three girls. They're all college-educated, so I'm proud that they're moving on. Right now, we've evolved to the point where we like to babysit the grandkids and really enjoy that. Myself, I've always enjoyed living in a small town. I like to come to Lincoln and buy some popcorn and coffee and go back to a town without stoplights. So, I've always enjoyed that part.

MR. STARR: How about your thinking in terms of managing the district? How has that evolved?

MR. MOSER: That's still changing. You know, as every person goes through life, you have these times when you feel like, “I'm totally in control. I know what I'm doing.” And boy, you know, when you talk about technology and how cell phones have changed to go beyond just making calls, I'm not keeping up with all that stuff. And so, I feel like I'm kind of falling behind right now. So, I think every person goes through peaks and then you come through valleys, and I'm probably coming toward a valley now. I'm going to have to wind down one of these years. But I can't stay inactive. I have to find something. And so, until I find something, I'll keep working for the NRD.

MR. STARR: In terms of the NRD that operates under state law, what do you think, if you had the authority to change one thing, what would that be? How would you -- what more authority or guidance would you like?

MR. MOSER: Well, you know, I've always been an advocate for local control. I'm not sure where the changes need to be, but that's one of the things I've always felt as a strength of the NRDs is that we could make a decision that impacts Knox, Cedar, and Dixon County. And we can do it, you know, neighbor next to neighbor. That's always been a critical component of the natural resource district concept. You know, I guess, as far as changes, I'll leave that to somebody else to decide how that needs to be made.

MR. STARR: Fair enough. What about some things that you would prefer that the NRDs were not burdened with?

MR. MOSER: Right now, we're having a bad experience with trails. We're trying to work with the City of Yankton to build a bike trail from Gavins Point Dam to Highway 81 bridge on the Nebraska side of the river, because Yankton has an extensive trail program in South Dakota, and they would like to see a counterpart so they could have a circular route in Nebraska. And they needed somebody from Nebraska to sponsor that. And so, in 2006, we said, “Well, yeah, we'll do that. We can do that.” And we were optimists at the time, but things haven't worked out real well for that. It's been a hard project. Working with Department of Roads has been a difficult experience. And I'm not sure that that trail will ever be finished because it's been so hard to put together.

MR. STARR: What types of problems have you run into?

MR. MOSER: Mostly administrative, working with Department of Roads, and their process of going through decisions is different than any agency I've ever dealt with. And it's taken a long time to get anything done. And once you feel you have got an accomplishment, then somebody changes their mind and you start over again. And so, that's caused a lot of the frustration.

MR. STARR: What about the land rights and the right-of-way and the route of the trail? Has that been an issue?

MR. MOSER: Yeah, that's been an issue. In fact, that's probably the major handicap right now, because in the midst of the process, you know, we were trying to build a trail in the highway right-of-way to get down the stretch, and we wouldn't need to go on private property with that. And we got Phase 1 and Phase 2 agreed to on that, and Phase 3 -- you know, we can only afford a portion of the trail at a time. Phase 3 now appears blocked, because Department of Roads has changed their policy and said they don't want trails in the right-of-way anymore. And my board has said all along, “Well we're not going to condemn any landowner to get private property for it.” So, we already know that landowners are not willing to let spare property go for a bike trail, so that effectively stops our project with that change of policy. So, that's been a big issue right now and we're still struggling to see how we can deal with that.

MR. STARR: What's your district doing in terms of the groundwater management plans and all of that process? Were you involved?

MR. MOSER: Yeah, we're amending our groundwater quality portion of the plan, and we're writing a new groundwater quantity portion of the plan that will have well permit program -- well permit process ranking system. We're also going to develop subareas within the district, because we're in an area where the glacier stopped, so we've got Pierre shale down there, the Dakota formation deep, and above that, we've got Niobrara chalk in parts of Cedar County, and we've got all the Pleistocene sand and gravel that the glaciers left. And you can go from one spot on one farm and a mile away you have two different sources of water. And -- either that or no water. So, we need to identify the subareas where we got issues and try to deal with that. We're also volunteering to get an integrated management plan with Department of Natural Resources. We're going to start on that this year. And we've also got one subarea in the Creighton area that we call the Bazile Management Area that we're concentrating efforts because of high nitrate contamination in the groundwater. They've got shallow wells in an area of sandy soil that's highly irrigated. And over the years, they've just, through excess fertilization or untimely fertilization, they've contributed to the problem that's going to take years to clean up. We're going to be hiring a project coordinator in that area to start this year to try to get that turned around.

MR. STARR: If I understand, there has been some wind energy development in that area.

MR. MOSER: Right.

MR. STARR: Does that involve you at all?

MR. MOSER: It hasn't so far. We took our directors out there for a tour and there's -- they put up 37 wind generators. They're 250 feet tall not counting the blades. And near Crofton, they put up another 12 last year. They pay a generous bonus to the farmers and haven't heard any negative things about it. We, in fact, sold water from our water system to them during the construction phase to keep road dust down and to make concrete and stuff like that. We worked with them on that, haven't heard anything negative. They look like they could be a real white elephant someday, so I'm hoping that there's something in their clause that they have, you know, if they ever do go down for maintenance, that they'll come take them down, at least. But they're quiet. You can drive right by them. Unless you roll down the window, you don't hear them. So, and apparently, they're contributing to the energy shortage, so it's a good thing.

MR. STARR: One of the environmental impacts you hear about them is the effect on migrating birds.

MR. MOSER: Right.

MR. STARR: Has that been an issue.

MR. MOSER: To my knowledge, no. You know, we've got bald eagles in the area, and, you know, it's a migratory flyway there, too, because of Gavins Point Dam and that -- and the Missouri River, but in talking to some of the operators on the system, I don't think they've really had any major issues. There might have been some bats. There might have been some hawks that hit the blades, but nothing serious that I've heard, anyway.

MR. STARR: What size of staff do you have now?

MR. MOSER: It's still small. There's myself and a secretary and I've got a resource coordinator now. The Rural Water Project has five people that work. And then we've got three secretaries, so we've got a total of -- what's that add up to, 12-13 people right now. We are going to have to add staff as we get into groundwater management more, and the board is -- we've been talking about it over the last few months. We're going to be doing certification of acres. There's going to be a lot of documentation involved with that, so we're probably going to have to add staff, and, you know, that's something a smaller district has to deal with, you know. It's different from the larger districts where they have a lot bigger revenue scheme to work with. But in a smaller district, you have to have broad spectrum people that can do a lot of different things. Our resource coordinator, for example, takes care of the maintenance on the -- operation and maintenance of the Aowa dams. They take care of the chemigation. They do the water sampling. They do the I&E. Where, in some districts, they got people for every one of those positions. So, it's a good place for somebody that likes diversity.

MR. STARR: So, what's your mill levy now?

MR. MOSER: Our mill levy's just under two. And we're one of the smallest in the state. I keep reminding my board that, in order for us to be doing our job, we need to start stepping it up, because they're very conservative, you know, on property tax levies. They all pay taxes just like I do. But we've got responsibilities, too, so we need to step up to that.

MR. STARR: Well, Tom, I've about run out of questions. Is there anything else that you'd like to add?

MR. MOSER: Oh, I don't think so. You know, I was doing some nostalgic thinking when you talked to me about the interview about things. And I think we've kind of covered everything that I thought of. Like I say, as you get older, you start losing pages in the book. And some things you don't think of unless somebody reminds you.

MR. STARR: I fully understand.

MR. MOSER: I'd just say I've had some good people to work with and that's why I've stayed this long, because a job isn't fun if you've got difficult people you have to deal with. And both on staff and in directors. It's been a good time.

MR. STARR: Do you handle the financial billing and so forth on the water district?

MR. MOSER: Yep, right.

MR. STARR: The bills and all that stuff?

MR. MOSER: Yeah, we have a gal that's hired that takes care of all of that. And, in fact, we've got a remote read meter system now where if they see if somebody's got a leak, we can tell them about it before they even know it. And, unfortunately, that cuts our revenue. Because, when we help them solve their leak problems, it cuts down on water usage, but they really appreciate that. That all comes through the NRD office. In fact, we've got -- when you answer the phone, it's “Lewis and Clark NRD,” and they said, “No, I wanted to call Rural Water.” We got both phones in the same office. They're different numbers, but sometimes they aren't sure.

MR. STARR: Well, with that, Tom, I sure thank you for participating.

MR. MOSER: You bet. Thanks for doing this, Gayle.