NORFOLK – Throughout 2022, Nebraska’s Natural Resources Districts (NRDs) will be celebrating 50 years, commemorating breakthroughs and achievements in conservation.
According to a release from the Lower Elkhorn Natural Resources District (LENRD), once dismissed as ‘The Great American Desert,’ Nebraska is now known for its agricultural bounty and natural wonders
LENRD officials will be hosting an Open House on Wednesday, July 13 at their office located at 1508 Square Turn Blvd in Norfolk to celebrate their 50th Anniversary.
The day will begin with coffee at 10:00 a.m. next Wednesday with the Norfolk Area Chamber of Commerce. The public is invited to stop by anytime between 10:00 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. for refreshments, giveaways, groundwater demonstrations and more.
Moving into the evening of July 13 at 7:30 p.m., the group will host their final “Stars, Strolls, & S’mores” event of the season at the Elkhorn Valley Museum and Verges Park.
Mike Sousek, general manager for the Lower Elkhorn Natural Resources District said, “the NRDs have faced many changes in the last 50 years, affecting the ways we protect our natural resources for the future.
LENRD covers all or parts of 15-countes in northeast Nebraska. Let’s look back at how the NRDs were first organized.
After the devastation of the Dust Bowl, special purpose districts were developed across the nation to solve local soil and water-related problems. But the overlapping of authorities and responsibilities created some confusion, which sparked Nebraska legislators to form a new plan for their state.
In 1969, Senator Maurice Kremer introduced legislative bill 1357 to combine Nebraska’s 154 special purpose entities into 24 NRDs by July 1972. The 24 district boundaries were based on the river basins, allowing for better management practices to be applied to similar topography. In 1989, The Middle Missouri Tributaries NRD and the Papio NRD merged to become the Papio-Missouri River NRD resulting in today’s 23 NRDs.
While all NRDs share 12 main responsibilities, each district sets its own priorities and develops programs that best serve and protect their local area. They are led by a locally elected Board of Directors, uniquely positioned right in their own communities.
Sousek added, “funding for district projects and programs comes from leveraging collected property tax dollars to obtain grants, which account for nearly 50% of expenditures. In most cases, your local NRD typically uses 1-2 percent of all property taxes collected in the district.”
Across the state, NRDs construct flood control projects, implement soil conservation programs, offer technical and financial assistance to landowners for natural resources management as well as forestry and recreational development. When necessary, they enact regulations to protect our resources.
Since being created in 1972, NRDs have experienced tremendous growth in the responsibilities given to them by state statute, especially in protecting groundwater. Despite being the #1 irrigated state in the nation, Nebraska’s statewide groundwater levels have been sustained at levels less than a foot below the pre-irrigation development in the 1950s. In some areas, groundwater levels are even higher. Many states are facing massive groundwater declines with almost depleted aquifers.
Sousek mentioned, “Nebraska’s NRDs work with irrigators to monitor water use, establish groundwater recharge projects, and implement water-wise programs.”
Groundwater quality is another responsibility of the NRDs. In northeast Nebraska, the LENRD builds partnerships with various agencies and organizations to address water quality issues, including the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources, other state and federal agencies, municipalities, counties, and private organizations.
Sousek said, “nitrate levels are increasing across the state. We are working together to identify measures used to preserve quality groundwater for the future. Visit our website www.nitrateinwater.org for more information.”
The LENRD’s major accomplishments over the past 50 years include multi-purpose structures across the district. One of those is the Willow Creek State Recreation Area (SRA) just southwest of Pierce, NE. This flood control dam protects landowners downstream on Willow Creek, to just north of Norfolk. The dam held back over 18,000 acre-feet of water during the historic flood of 2019, totaling over 5.86 billion gallons, preventing monumental damages further downstream.
The area is owned by the LENRD but is managed by the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission as a state recreation area. A park sticker is needed to enter the area, which boasts 124 campsites, half of which can be reserved at www.OutdoorNebraska.org Excavation Photo: This photo shows the excavation of the area in the early 80’s. The recreation area opened to the public 38 years ago in 1984.
The Logan East Rural Water System is another project administered by the LENRD. This system is the largest of its kind in the state, providing quality water to approximately 1,200 customers in portions of Burt, Dodge, and Washington counties, including the villages of Herman, Uehling, and Winslow. The system has 3 wells and 3 towers with over 600,000 gallons of water storage and 800 miles of pipeline to rural customers. The office for the system is in Oakland, NE. The advisory committee is currently looking to expand the system to provide quality water for other areas in need.
The Wau-Col Regional Water System is another large project owned by the LENRD. This system provides quality water to the villages of Belden, Magnet, and McLean. Water is purchased from Coleridge and sent to Belden, and water is purchased from Wausa and sent to 16 rural customers as well as Magnet and McLean. The name “Wau-Col” is derived from Wausa-Coleridge. The system travels across 3 county lines – Knox, Cedar, and Pierce Counties. The $3.1 million project was made possible by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture – Rural Development and area sponsors including the LENRD and the Lewis & Clark NRD. The project was dedicated on August 11, 2012, at the tower site in Wausa, NE. Tower Photo: The Wau-Col Regional Water System tower in Wausa, Nebraska, is one of the tallest in the state at approximately 210 feet.
In the past 50 years, the LENRD has distributed over 4 million trees across its boundaries through the Conservation Tree Program. Community Forestry and Urban Development programs also assist communities with tree planting and recreational projects.
Today, Nebraska’s unique system of locally controlled, watershed-based conservation is widely admired throughout the nation. In recent years, at least 11 states have inquired about applying a similar system for natural resources management.
Sousek closed with, “after 50 years, Nebraska’s NRDs continue to adapt to the local needs of our communities to meet the challenges of today. Join us at our Norfolk office for an Open House on July 13th to celebrate this milestone.”
For a current list of LENRD Board of Directors, visit: http://www.lenrd.org/board.