The Central Platte Natural Resources District (NRD) is one of 23 NRDs in Nebraska, and is tasked with managing the soil, water, wildlife and forest resources across a service area of over 2 million acres centered on Grand Island, Nebraska. As an essential business, Central Platte NRD has had to find new ways to operate during the COVID‑19 pandemic. In this interview, Central Platte General Manager Lyndon Vogt tells Irrigation Leader about the challenges the NRD has had to overcome in order to continue providing its services.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about yourself and Central Platte NRD.
Lyndon Vogt: I have been employed with Nebraska’s NRDs for 24 years and have lived in Grand Island for the last 7 years. Central Platte NRD has a broad range of responsibilities dealing with groundwater quality and quantity, erosion and flood control issues, forestry, wildlife, and surface water. We’ve actually purchased 50 percent of one irrigation district and have 30‑year management agreements with two others to put water back into the Platte River to address endangered species needs and to keep the NRD in compliance with its integrated management plan.
Irrigation Leader: How has the COVID‑19 pandemic affected your operations?
Lyndon Vogt: Typically, we have 16 full-time employees in our headquarters in Grand Island. On March 16, we sent everyone home. All but a couple of our employees already had laptops, so the transition to working from home went fairly smoothly.
While the front door of our office is locked to walk-in traffic, our office is still doing business, just not business as normal. We have one or two employees here all the time to take care of any in-office work requirements and to assist other employees who need information from the office. The majority of customers call first, and we can take care of most business over the phone or through our website. However, on occasion some paperwork requires a signature or to be delivered to the office.
We plant trees, and we had about 20,000 hand-plant trees packaged up. We delivered about two-thirds of them, and the other third was picked up with minimal staff interaction. For the seedlings that we machine plant, we had the two staff members working on the task take different vehicles, and most of the landowners had the sites ready to avoid interaction. So far, we’ve continued to do everything we did before, just in a different form.
I think social distancing is going to become more challenging as we move forward and get into the irrigation season. One of our groundwater-quality responsibilities is the chemigation permitting and inspection process we carry out in conjunction with the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy. We receive approximately 2,500 chemigation permits a year; district staff inspect about 850 of them. The producer or a representative is required to be present at those inspections. We start in early to mid-June, so we are still working out the details of how we’re going to do that while keeping our employees and the producers safe.
The three irrigation districts we work with in Dawson County have been operating as usual. Because those districts are on the small side, we only have three full-time employees and a couple of part-time employees managing and operating their canals. At this time of year, there’s not really much interaction with our landowners anyway. The canals have been taking excess flows for the last 2 weeks because the flows in the Platte River are currently above U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service target flows. It is almost our wet-up time for the canals anyway, so we will be getting them in shape to deliver water by knocking down the vegetation in the canals before the irrigation season. We have small enough canals and few enough employees that we can maintain our social distancing and still operate the canals as we always have. Central Platte NRD also has seven employees that work in the four Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) offices in our service area. These employees are operating under the NRCS directive.
Irrigation Leader: What is the most innovative thing you’ve done to maintain workflow?
Lyndon Vogt: I don’t know if it’s innovative, but we have our district receptionist working from home and we forward all the calls during the day to her landline. She receives all the calls and gets messages back out to all staff via Microsoft Teams no matter where they are, and they return the calls in a timely fashion. This allows the two people in our office to get other work done and not to be on the phone constantly. At 5:00 p.m., we switch that phone back to our night answering machine. This has made us realize how engaged in assisting the public we can stay by using Microsoft Teams with limited in-office staff.
We have staff meetings via Microsoft Teams every Tuesday and Thursday morning with all 16 of our main office employees. This gives us the opportunity to communicate and make sure everything’s getting done and that all employees are getting the assistance they need. Being able to operate and communicate in real time with our entire staff via Microsoft Teams has been helpful. It’s something we’ve never used before.
Our necessary field work is still getting done, just with one person instead of two in some instances. The one thing that we did not do this spring was to have an active burn crew. We were supposed to have a crew from Washington State come in to assist our burn team for approximately 6 weeks, but we canceled that contract and our burn plans because we couldn’t stay below the 10-person limit or comply with social distancing guidelines. The majority of our burns are on range land and serve the purposes of cedar tree control or mid-contract maintenance on long-term set federal aside programs.
Irrigation Leader: How about your board meetings? How are you doing those?
Lyndon Vogt: We’ve had two board meetings since this all started. The March board meeting was held by teleconference. Eighteen of the 21 board members called in, and 3 came into the board room to participate. It was somewhat cumbersome, but overall it went well.
The April board meeting was held via Zoom, which worked well. Just prior to the meeting, an internet provider in one community went down, but we still had 16 of our board members on the Zoom meeting and the rest called in. We went paperless around 6 years ago and provide all board members with an iPad, so we had already shared the materials for the board meeting and the materials from the past three committee meetings through Dropbox. Under Nebraska law, we normally cannot hold an electronic board meeting, but the governor of Nebraska implemented an executive order to allow some public entities to meet electronically through the end of June. This is the first time we’ve ever been able to legally hold board meetings electronically.
If you have an electronic meeting, you must provide members of the general public the opportunity to attend and participate in the meeting. The boardroom was open to the general public during our conference call and during our Zoom board meeting. Only three or four people from the general public on average attend our board meetings, so we figured that if we kept the total number of people in the boardroom at less than 10 and socially distanced, we would be safe.
Irrigation Leader: Do you expect any of the changes you have made to be retained after the pandemic is over?
Lyndon Vogt: If the law were to allow us to continue to hold electronic meetings, our board would probably take advantage of it. A number of our directors drive 75–100 miles each way for our monthly board meetings, so it would save time and money to be able to hold them electronically.
Irrigation Leader: What advice do you have for other districts and agencies?
Lyndon Vogt: Since the beginning of the COVID‑19 pandemic, our executive director’s office has surveyed the 23 NRDs on how we’re operating, what technology we are using, and what is or isn’t working. Knowing what technologies others are using and what has led to success or failure is always helpful when making decisions. As a result of this information sharing, I believe many of us are operating in a similar fashion.
The first month, we thought things were going to be much more difficult than they turned out to be as far as social distancing and holding our board meetings via videoconference. The technology that is out there has allowed us to operate in a much different way than usual. This pandemic has forced us to try some new things, and I think we’re going to find out that some of them work better for us than what we were doing before.
The Central Platte NRD is roughly 160 miles long, so we cover a lot of ground traveling to meetings and conferences. I think we could attend those from our office if we were allowed to. If we can save the time and money, why wouldn’t we continue to do it in the future?