The Upper Republican Natural Resources District (NRD), based in Imperial, Nebraska, is one of 23 local NRDs charged with protecting Nebraska’s natural resources. The Upper Republican NRD serves an area that covers Dundy, Chase, and Perkins Counties in the southwestern corner of the state, including approximately 450,000 acres of groundwater-irrigated land. In this interview, Upper Republican NRD General Manager Jasper Fanning tells Irrigation Leader about how his agency has kept up its operations amid the challenges of the COVID‑19 pandemic.
Irrigation Leader: How has the COVID‑19 pandemic affected your operations?
Jasper Fanning: As with many organizations, the greatest threat to productivity was national media sensationalism and political overreaction to the disease from other states; this had to be counteracted so that resources could be directed toward effective and practical risk mitigation measures. We tried to keep the fact that the disease is 99 percent survivable in mind and protect the high-risk members of our staff and community while maintaining productivity. Keep in mind that southwestern Nebraska features natural social-distancing attributes—at least we did until Colorado implemented a travel ban that resulted in increased visitation by Coloradans fleeing stricter health measures. We’ve made minor adjustments to our office operations to mitigate the risk of the disease as much as possible. Generally, we’ve implemented the measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. For instance, the office was closed to nonessential walk-in business, accommodating only essential office meetings and business. Staff who reported possible exposure self-quarantined. Field work and deliveries were not significantly affected, though staff are encouraged to reduce close contact with customers as much as possible.
Irrigation Leader: How are you keeping your customers and employees safe?
Jasper Fanning: We’ve made operational changes to reduce the frequency and duration of close contact with customers to the extent possible. Staff travel for nonessential meetings has been eliminated. We are utilizing technology to reduce unnecessary travel and contact as much as possible.
Irrigation Leader: What is the most innovative thing you have done to maintain your workflow?
Jasper Fanning: We’ve used videoconferencing to hold virtual board meetings and are communicating with customers and staff by digital means more than we have traditionally.
Irrigation Leader: Do you expect any of the changes you have made to be retained after the pandemic is over?
Jasper Fanning: I see videoconferencing being used more moving forward. In the past, some users have failed to adopt it for regular use, but I think being forced to use it will result in a more permanent adoption. For remote locations such as ours, the cost savings pay for the equipment after only a few uses.
It has been enlightening to see how little disruption has been caused by the elimination of numerous meetings—in some cases, the effects have been positive. I think there are opportunities to use technology to evaluate our business practices and prioritize our resources to further increase productivity. We’re already seeing benefits from the changes we have implemented in response to this situation. My goal is to use the experiences gained to drive positive change in our organization.
One observation I have made is that not just in our shop, but across organizations, people have stepped up to deal with the pandemic and to protect the health of their employees and those they serve. They have focused on what’s important and are working to get through this so that we can all get back to business as usual—whatever that looks like moving forward.
Irrigation Leader: What advice do you have for other districts?
Jasper Fanning: Turn off CNN and MSNBC in the office, stock up on the most necessary supplies early, and provide a source of balanced information so that employees can stay calm, cool, and safe at work and at home.