On Jan. 10, I drove to Davenport to attend a retirement reception for Mike Onnen, the departing general manager of the Little Blue Natural Resources District.
It was a purely social occasion, and I didn’t even take my notebook with me, as I’d already written a feature about Onnen and his nearly 42-year career with the NRD — an agency that promotes conservation and enforces groundwater management regulations in all or parts of seven counties. Jan. 11 was his official last day of work.
When I got to the party, however, I found that the NRD staff had rustled up some statistical information about Onnen’s tenure with the district. I find that kind of information irresistible (part of the reason my desk looks like it does), so I found a piece of paper and jotted down the numbers to bring home with me.
According to NRD records, in Onnen’s 41 years and 10 months with the district, he worked with a total of 32 employees based out of the Davenport headquarters and 32 district field secretaries working out of county offices of the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
As the district’s operations supervisor, then operations manager, then assistant manager and finally in more than 33 years as general manager, Onnen served under 83 different members of the elected board of directors.
As manager, he had a stewardship role over 1,529,000 acres in southern Nebraska. And during his years of service, the district sold 2,055,915 trees to be planted in windbreaks and other configurations that enhance the landscape and promote soil conservation.
These are some impressively big numbers, and they tell the story of one dedicated public servant who spent almost his entire professional career working for a single employer.
At the retirement party, I ran into a number of Onnen’s colleagues and associates I’ve gotten to know over my nearly 27 years with the Tribune, including the early days when I covered Hastings Utilities news as the city government reporter.
One of the well-wishers was John Turnbull, who spent 38 years as manager of the Little Blue NRD’s neighbor to the north, the Upper Big Blue Natural Resources District. (Before that, he managed the Tri-Basin district, which borders the Little Blue on the west, for three years.)
Another was Marty Stange, HU’s environmental engineer, whom I interviewed many times in the early to mid-1990s about issues including lead and copper provisions of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. He now is most famous in Hastings for his role in the innovative effort to mitigate groundwater nitrate threats to the public drinking water supply.
Stange, who was a young man when I first met him, still is hard at work — but now even he and his contemporaries can see retirement looming like an oasis on the distant horizon — that is to say, a beautiful and enticing oasis that consistently provides thirsty travelers and their camels with groundwater nitrate concentrations below the federal action limit of 10 parts per million!
All this got me to thinking about the vast amount of institutional memory I have watched ride off into the sunset over the last few years in this region — a beautiful and productive portion of the expanse Maj. Stephen H. Long, exploring for the U.S. Army in 1820, referred to derisively as “the Great American Desert.”
The retirees to whom I refer have served in all manner of leadership positions related to education, government and private industry. But the losses are pronounced where it comes to protecting the precious natural resources the aforementioned Maj. Long apparently could not see, recognize or appreciate 199 years ago.
Besides Turnbull and Onnen, the departing NRD leaders also have included Mike Clements, who retired in 2017 after 16 eventful years as general manager of the Lower Republican NRD; and Bryan Lubeck, who hung up his spurs in 2014 after 29 years as LRNRD assistant manager. Those two gentlemen worked their way through year after year of seemingly endless conflict and litigation over Republican River Basin water, which brought uncertainty to the region and forced basin NRDs into hard choices over well metering, pumpage rationing and other groundwater management restrictions.
There’s a tremendous generation of dedicated, enthusiastic young people — people much younger than I — coming aboard the effort to protect our soil and water resources for future generations. They are bright, knowledgeable, and savvy to the many ways information technology can help us track our progress and our challenges in this regard.
What’s being lost, however, is the firsthand connection to history represented by men like Turnbull and Onnen — individuals whose careers grew almost directly out of the great debate over establishment of Nebraska’s NRD system; men who watched with their own eyes as Nebraska’s irrigated acreage exploded in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, setting the stage for some tough discussions about irrigation and the aquifer in the follow-on decades; officials who were on the hot seat from very early on as the prospect of groundwater pumpage regulations came into focus more than 40 years ago, and who have seen the passions such prospects can raise in successive generations of our region’s residents.
Many of the men and women now retiring from elected and professional leadership in natural resources management lived through the farm crisis of the 1980s, when greater efficiency in agricultural production became not only a stewardship imperative, but a matter or economic survival. Men like Clements and Lubeck also have seen cross-border counterparts at perhaps their most antagonistic when it comes to fighting over the amazing but exhaustible gifts God has given us and, presumably, would have us share in some just manner for the survival and prosperity of all. (Fortunately, interstate relationships eventually improved with regard to Republican River issues.)
In short, conservation leaders now taking their leave from the public arena and turning their attention to more personal matters are the ones with personal knowledge of what went on 10, 20, 30, 40 or 50 years ago. They don’t need to do any research to determine how today’s natural resources decisions are affected by earlier choices made a generation or more ago. They simply know, based on what they remember. And it’s costly to lose daily access to the kind of insight they provide, even though it’s a natural consequence of time passing and history continuing to unfold around us.
When friends ask me what I do for the newspaper and I tell them I have spent a lot of time covering NRDs over the past two decades, oftentimes I can see their eyes glaze over right in front of me. Sometimes I even get this reaction from irrigators — even though declining farm income, burdensome property tax rates and ag export uncertainty notwithstanding, issues of groundwater management and regulation always will be among the very most important to their future on the land.
To all readers of this year’s Agriculture and Conservation Outlook, I would attest that we have some praiseworthy, caring, empathetic professionals and elected representatives who have served or are serving with the NRDs and other agencies, seeking to protect and perpetuate our soil and water resources for our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Whether we agree or disagree with what they say or do on a given day, we are fortunate they have chosen to focus on issues that should be of interest and concern to every one of us in this region, no matter what we do for a living. To say their jobs are difficult would be an understatement.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, I want to urge everyone who cares about the future of agriculture and rural communities to engage with the NRDs, the natural resources issues that come before the Nebraska Legislature, and the underlying trends — especially increasing groundwater nitrate readings and declines in groundwater levels in many locations — that drive so much of what the NRDs deal with year in and year out.
While fields like geology and hydrology may seem obscure, the attention we pay to the soil and water beneath our feet today, and the contributions to the policy-making process we can make as informed and engaged citizens, just may be the difference between the future we dream of and the future we fear for our farms, ranches, communities and institutions.
Above the north entrance to the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln is inscribed the following, credited to Hartley Burr Alexander: “The Salvation of the State is Watchfulness in the Citizen.” At a time of generational change in so many fields of endeavor, including our care for the Earth, we need to take these words to heart.
By getting involved, studying up, marshaling our own knowledge and experience, and giving voice to our own insights and values, we can help take up the slack for some of the longtime players now stepping away from the table. We must rise to the challenge to become the natural resources leaders our region and state will need for the decades to come.