Nebraska is well known for its unique natural resources district (NRD) system, in which 23 local agencies handle a wide variety of environmental issues across the state, including groundwater quantity and quality, soil erosion, and flood prevention. While this system gives local bodies significant control, the NRDs also have to coordinate with the state. As awareness of the relationship between surface water and groundwater has increased, the Nebraska Legislature has mandated that NRDs establish Integrated Management Plans (IMPs) to help them coordinate with state agencies.
In this interview, carried out early in 2020, Jeff Fassett, the director of the Nebraska Department of Natural Resources (DNR), talks about how his agency coordinates with the NRDs and how Nebraska’s NRD system allows state and local agencies to cooperate in sharing the burdens of interstate and federal obligations.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your background and how you came to be in your current position.
Jeff Fassett: I have been the director of the Nebraska DNR since August 2015. Immediately prior to that, I was engaged in private engineering practice with a large national firm called HDR. Before I worked for HDR, I also operated an engineering consulting firm specializing in water-related issues. However, perhaps most relevant to my current work was my time as Wyoming state engineer, a position that I held during two different gubernatorial administrations over a 16-year period. That job was effectively the equivalent of the position I hold in Nebraska today. I was recruited for my current position by Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts at the commencement of his administration. It is interesting that I was recruited, considering that while serving as Wyoming state engineer, I was the representative on the other side of the significant interstate litigation between Nebraska and Wyoming involving the North Platte River, which was ultimately settled and approved by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Irrigation Leader: What is the relation between the DNR and the NRDs?
Jeff Fassett: The NRDs have jurisdiction over the permitting and use of groundwater, while my department has jurisdiction over surface water. For a long time, that didn’t matter much, but beginning about 20 years ago, Nebraska became increasingly aware of the physical interconnection between surface water and groundwater supplies. In 2004, after several years of study and task force engagement, the Nebraska Legislature mandated the conjunctive management of surface water and groundwater resources through a process called Integrated Management Planning. There are statutes that mandate how the NRDs and the DNR go about developing these plans and clearly establish the roles each of our agencies will play in managing groundwater and surface water. Today, as a result, there is an enormous amount of interaction and coordination between the NRDs and the DNR.
Irrigation Leader: Would you expand on how the IMP process works?
Jeff Fassett: Most simply, it is a process in which an individual NRD and the DNR develop and outline goals and objectives and create an action plan for the joint management of water. The action items can include activities such as additional metering, the collection of
data, the development of surface water and groundwater computer models, and the establishment of controls for both groundwater and surface water. The process also involves the establishment of a local stakeholder or outreach group to provide input. The IMP process can take a year or more, and in the early years it took even longer.
The 2004 law required some NRDs to develop an IMP and provided the opportunity for the rest to do so voluntarily. In the years immediately after the law’s enactment, most of the planning work centered on two areas, the Republican River basin and the Upper Platte River basin, in which water use exceeded the available supply. Today, some NRDs are on their fourth- or fifth-generation IMPs. Other areas of the state with more plentiful water resources are just getting started on their very first IMPs, which typically begin with substantial computer modeling and data collection to analyze the interaction between surface water and groundwater supplies.
Irrigation Leader: Would you give an example of recent water issues that the DNR and individual NRDs are working on?
Jeff Fassett: A few years ago, there was significant interstate litigation centered on the Republican River basin after Kansas brought suit against Nebraska and Colorado over an interstate compact. It was eventually resolved through a series of court decisions and settlements. Today, in the Republican River basin the diversion of both surface water and groundwater for irrigation uses has to be accounted for and documented
in a manner that complies with the agreements between Nebraska and Kansas. These obligations play a significant role in the IMPs of each of the three main NRDs in the Republican River basin. As a result, those NRDs are investing their money and state money to incentivize the conservation of water through activities that include reducing irrigated land, stepping up metering, augmenting water supplies, and installing soil moisture probes.
Irrigation Leader: When it comes to these sorts of initiatives, do the NRDs and the state typically share costs?
Jeff Fassett: Yes. When it established the IMP framework, the state legislature created a cost-share funding mechanism that is managed by the DNR and is available to NRDs once they have their respective IMPs in place. When an NRD puts forth its proposal for meeting the goals of the IMP, it can apply for funding from the state. The cost-share split is 60/40, with the state covering the larger percentage.
The NRDs raise funds primarily through levies or taxes on land within their areas. The NRDs are also quite proactive in seeking and applying for a variety of grants. In addition to funding through the DNR, the state has various other available sources of funds, including the Nebraska Environmental Trust and Water Sustainability Fund. The NRDs have also successfully secured federal grants through agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Bureau of Reclamation, with its WaterSMART program.
Irrigation Leader: So NRDs play a primary role in developing and implementing programs that protect Nebraska water interests?
Jeff Fassett: I think that is a fair assessment. Going back to the example of the Republican River basin, groundwater pumping is a major factor in whether the state complies with the interstate compact—it accounts for around 90 percent of water use in the basin. The state could have forced its way in with more extensive regulations on water users. Instead, cooperation with NRDs and stakeholders allows Nebraska to meet its water obligations by balancing regulations with projects and investments identified through the IMP process and implemented by NRDs.
Irrigation Leader: Do you think the Nebraska NRD model could be beneficial to other states?
Jeff Fassett: I think it could be, yes. I know that several board members and managers from the Nebraska Association of Resource Districts have been invited to speak around the country on Nebraska’s NRD model, so there clearly is interest in learning more about how Nebraska tackled this issue.
The broader concept of having some decisions made locally, closer to the water users, is something I think
makes sense. It suits Nebraska particularly well because this state has enormous groundwater resources that it relies on to a significant degree for a variety of uses as well as a geohydrology that varies significantly in different areas of the state. That means that local knowledge is critical. The NRDs have that knowledge and are close to the people that they are regulating and monitoring. But it is critical is to have the local entities closely linked to the state. There needs to be working relationships between the local and state jurisdictions.
Wyoming is set up in a completely different way. The state agency has complete jurisdiction over both surface water and groundwater. Wyoming’s system works well and probably will continue to work for a while, so I don’t think it would be wise to force the two-tier system on it or other states without thoroughly evaluating whether it would make sense.
Irrigation Leader: Do you see the current NRD taxing authority along with state funding being adequate to handle the water issues that Nebraska faces?
Jeff Fassett: Having adequate resources is always a concern because, frankly, we have so much to do. In addition to our IMPs, the DNR also leads basinwide planning processes in many river basins in Nebraska. We’ll generally look at an entire basin and then at each NRD within it. That helps us identify potential new projects or water management initiatives such as metering or installing new computer systems. All those options are expensive, which means that there is constant pressure to look for more resources. This has been compounded in the past year by a series of serious flooding events across the state. These events brought to light significant amounts of aging infrastructure that need serious attention. There is now tremendous interest in looking for resources for flood control activities and infrastructure replacement. Since plan implementation will always require funding, we are going to have to continue to be creative in blending state and local resources and leveraging those dollars with available federal grants to remain proactive in managing our water resources.