The Papio–Missouri River Natural Resources District (NRD) in Omaha, Nebraska, is one of the 23 NRDs in Nebraska whose mission is to manage the soil, water, wildlife and forest resources within their boundaries. As an essential business, the Papio–Missouri River NRD has had to find new ways to operate during the COVID‑19 pandemic. In this interview, General Manager John Winkler tells Irrigation Leader about the challenges the NRD has had to face and how it has adapted its operations to this challenging situation.
Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about yourself and about your NRD.
John Winkler: I am the general manager of the Papio– Missouri River NRD. I’ve worked for the NRD for about 13½ years. Our NRD is a bit different from the rest of Nebraska’s NRDs due to the fact that we have the state’s largest metropolitan area, the city of Omaha, within our boundaries. We’ve got to deal with more urban issues than other parts of the state. In addition, our part of the state receives quite a bit more rainfall than the western part of the state, so flood control is a huge issue. This is especially true because we are surrounded by three major rivers: the Platte River to the south, the Elkhorn River to the west, and the Missouri River to the east. We have 52 regular, full-time employees. During the summer months, we have a number of seasonal maintenance folks, bringing our total to around 60.
Irrigation Leader: How has the COVID‑19 pandemic affected your operations?
John Winkler: We still have a number of employees at the office and in the field. That is because we’ve got several rural water systems that people rely on to provide drinking water to their homes and businesses. Our staff needs to remain on duty to fix any potential main breaks and resolve metering problems. We also have hundreds of miles of levees and several dam structures that need to be operated and maintained.
We do have a few employees working remotely, however. Those employees either have underlying health conditions or immune deficiencies or they have school-aged children who are at home because schools and daycares are closed. We’ve been flexible with our employees. Some have used vacation time to work from home just because they weren’t comfortable working in the office. We want to make sure that they are comfortable doing their jobs.
We’ve closed the office to the public and are holding all our appointments via Zoom. We held a board meeting in April via Zoom—that was the first time we’ve ever held a meeting electronically, and it worked pretty well. I think we may go back to in-person meetings in May. We’ve eliminated all nonessential travel, especially outside the state. Everybody’s been practicing social distancing. We’ve closed the restrooms and playgrounds in our parks but have kept the parks themselves open. We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback about that, because people use the trails and fish in the lakes. Our only requirement is that the people who use those facilities practice the health measures prescribed by federal, state, and local authorities.
The mental health and morale aspect of the lockdown is a challenge, but some positive things have come out of it. My desk has never looked cleaner, and I got a lot of stuff done that I was putting off because of meetings and other activities that required me to be out of the office.
Irrigation Leader: Is there anything else that you’re doing to keep your customers and employees safe?
John Winkler: We’ve tried to increase electronic communication. My biggest fear was that things would fall through the cracks when we lost our regular face-to-face communication with our constituents, vendors, and partner agencies. That hasn’t really happened. We are still following our usual practice of responding to citizen complaints, concerns, and questions within a day, if not within the hour. At the very least, we let them know that we have received their communication and are looking into the answer. That didn’t falter one bit. I have to give my staff kudos because, even if they weren’t in the office, they kept on top of their phone calls, e-mails, and other communications. None of our services have been affected, which is a great testament to our employees.
Irrigation Leader: What is the most innovative thing you’ve done to maintain your workflow?
John Winkler: Once we knew we would not be able to interact in person, we started to use Zoom. It’s allowed people to keep up face-to-face interaction, even if it is remote. It has even enhanced our communication within the office. Now that we can’t just walk down the hall and talk to a fellow employee, we have to make more of a concerted effort to communicate, whether by phone, computer, e-mail, or text. When something needs to be handled, I’ve seen employees communicating at all hours of the day or night to get an answer or to get an issue resolved, which you would never have seen before. Once we knew that office operations were going to change, we released a directive telling all employees that they needed to check in with their immediate supervisors every day—morning, afternoon, and right before they sign off for the evening. The communication between supervisors and employees has improved because they need to make an especially concerted effort to keep one another informed. It’s forced people to be more proactive and not to procrastinate. I hope that when things open back up, that kind of communication continues.
Irrigation Leader: Do you expect any of the changes you have made to be retained after the pandemic is over?
John Winkler: I see a lot of changes being retained. I envision that, in society at large, a lot more meetings will be held remotely. I think we will see less travel, both within the state and without, at least for the immediate future. I think you’ll probably see legislation in the future that will allow public bodies to hold electronic meetings that are open to the public instead of in-person meetings, or that will allow members of the body who cannot attend to vote remotely, which is not the case now.
That could also enhance the public’s ability to access these meetings. Not everybody has the time to show up to a city council, county board, or NRD meeting. I think it would be good to use technology to let them listen to or participate in meetings electronically. That would require us to do some things differently, but we exist to serve the people who pay our salaries via their taxes, so it would be good to increase participation.
Irrigation Leader: Do you have any advice for other NRDs and agencies?
John Winkler: There is no one-size-fits-all response to this. You have to look at the situation of your community, your workforce, and your agency and make accommodations accordingly. The biggest thing for us was to ensure everybody’s health and safety, but we also wanted to be flexible enough that our service didn’t suffer. Everyone has to find the right balance for their entity. You have to be willing to change. During March and early April, the directives and health measures were changing daily, sometimes hourly. We would come up with a policy or a way of doing business one minute and have to change it the next. We had to make sure that we were nimble, flexible, and able to respond and adapt as the situation dictated. I think this will make our agency— as well as agencies at every level and private companies— more flexible and adaptable in the future.