Nebraska’s Natural Resources Districts Celebrate 50 Years

 In Conservation, Natural Resources, Natural Resources Districts, Water

Nebraska’s Natural Resources Districts are one of the state’s best ideas. Fifty years ago, Dayle Williamson and Warren Fairchild, along with Clayton Yuetter and then-Gov. Norbert Tiemann,  had the vision and foresight to create the Natural Resources Districts to conserve our natural resources, so that future generations could enjoy the same quality of life that brought their generation such bounty. It was not easy, it was not without some controversy and obstacles along the way, and it took some time, but today, Nebraska’s NRDs are the envy of states nationwide.

Our unique system of locally controlled, watershed-based conservation is widely admired throughout the nation. In recent years, at least 11 states ranging from Washington to Arkansas and Illinois to California, have inquired about applying a similar system for natural resources management. Despite being the most irrigated state in the nation, Nebraska’s statewide groundwater levels have been sustained at levels less than a foot below pre-irrigation development in the 1950s. In many areas, groundwater levels are higher.

“Many states are facing massive groundwater declines with almost depleted aquifers,” said Jim Eschliman, President of the Nebraska Association of Resources Districts. “NRDs work with irrigators to monitor water use, establish groundwater recharge projects, and implement water-wise programs. Depending on rainfall, Nebraska’s groundwater levels often rise above pre-development levels.”

Throughout 2022, Nebraska’s  NRDs are celebrating 50 years of protecting lives, property and the future. The NRDs will commemorate breakthroughs and achievements in conservation.

“In the past 50 years, NRDs have adapted while facing changes in technology, funding, legislation, agencies and society,” Eschliman said. “Nebraska’s locally led conservation model has been a successful legacy because of our ability to adapt to the local needs of our communities.”

After the devastation of the Dust Bowl, special purpose districts were developed to solve local soil and water-related problems. But the puzzle of overlapping authorities and responsibilities provided confusion at best.

In 1969, Senator Maurice Kremer and Sen. Jules Burbach introduced legislative bill 1357 to combine Nebraska’s 154 special purpose entities into 24 Natural Resources Districts by July 1972. In 1989, The Middle Missouri Tributaries NRD and the Papio NRD merged to become the Papio-Missouri River NRD resulting in today’s 23 Natural Resources Districts.

Across the state, NRDs construct projects, implement programs and offer a major source of assistance to landowners in conservation and natural resources management. When necessary, they enact regulations to protect our resources. While all NRDs share the 12 main responsibilities, each district sets its own priorities and develops its own programs to best serve and protect Nebraska’s natural resources.

Over the years, NRDs helped farmers plant windbreaks, helped with soil testing, and well abandonment. Many years ago—long before regenerative agriculture became a hot buzzword—NRDs created a soil carbon sequestration program, promoted no-till, cover crops, and long-term crop rotation. In concert with the Nebraska Forest Service and UNL Extension, the NRDs have helped Nebraskans to mitigate red cedar infestation of our grasslands.

Eschliman noted that Nebraska’s NRDs will continue to build upon, refine, and adapt as they look to the future.

“Conservation is something that impacts us all and we need to pitch in and be good stewards of our land and water,” he said. “Locally-elected NRD boards across the state are uniquely positioned in their communities to help manage our natural resources for future generations.”

To join in the 50th anniversary celebration and follow the Natural Resources Districts’ special activities throughout 2022, visit nrdnet.org and follow #Since1972 on social media.

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