Upper Big Blue NRD board

Upwards to 350 people attended a special meeting of the Upper Big Blue NRD board Monday night with a one item agenda; proposed changes to nitrogen application regulations. The proposal was sent back to the NRD Water Committee for further consideration and study.

YORK - Back to the drawing board.

The Upper Big Blue board, meeting before more than 300 extremely interested farmers joined by a few others, voted overwhelmingly to take a step back on proposed changes to nitrogen application requirements.

In an earlier official public hearing the board was not permitted by law to answer questions or respond in any way. At the end of that contentious hearing Chairman Roger Houdersheldt pledged to schedule a follow-up board meeting so all parties would be able to ask and answer questions and discuss the proposal openly.

Monday’s 7 p.m. airing of the new regulations under consideration began moments after Houdersheldt’s rap of the gavel with a motion by Larry Moore to send the matter back to the NRD’s water committee for reconsideration, more study and fine tuning.

Before that motion was taken up, Merlin Volkmer interceded by moving to table the matter entirely. Paul Weiss seconded and Houdersheldt called for the vote. The motion was buried 15-2 with only those two in favor and the group returned to open discussion of Moore’s original motion to return the entire matter to the water committee.

Moore explained, and Houdersheldt confirmed, that by rule had the item been tabled, Monday’s meeting would have been over instantly with neither the board nor the public permitted to utter a single word.

Moore, Houdersheldt and nearly all the board demonstrated by their votes a preference to let those in attendance share their thoughts and worries with the board out loud in two-way discourse.

“Had we tabled” and short-circuited all discussion, said Moore, “that would have been a terrible thing to do to these people.”

A number of those people had signed up before the meeting to address the board. They stepped to the microphone in turns under a five minute limit per speaker.

Mike Bergen wondered aloud if the new regulations are … “board led or employee driven.

“I am 100 percent behind safe drinking water for all,” he said, but objected to what he termed “cherry picking” by singling our farmers to take the brunt.

Bergen offered up his cooperation and indeed his farm ground itself to the NRD for testing, research and scientific study by the NRD staff or other agencies.

Troy Hiebner from the Henderson area assured the board he already samples, studies and manages his nitrogen responsibility and in scientific detail.

In Hiebner’s view the NRD and farmers “have to live with each other. I am glad to come here and talk to you” at any time, he said, because dealing with the state legislature on this issue “would be much worse.”

To Hiebner’s question of whether or not the board is being pressured to act by outside interests, Houdersheldt said there is little or none.

Lynn Yates commented also.

“Who we hear from the most is the towns” which are “really struggling” and “running out of clean water.”

He mentioned the communities of Hastings, Seward and McCool as among many that face multi-million dollar expenditures to keep uncontaminated water flowing to residents.

York has already built and deployed a one-site well field developed largely in anticipation of the expansive and expensive water treatment plant sure to come.

Jonathan Rempel asked why lawns are given a pass on the high nitrate issue.

“Generally speaking,” answered NRD assistant general manager Rod DeBuhr, “you are only applying nitrogen over lawns when something is actively growing” as opposed to ag applications that are often made outside the growing season.

In addition, DeBoer answered, actual sampling of lawns has indicated very little nitrification occurs there.

The thread running through the evening cooperation - expressed frequently by both the audience and the board - was that much could be gained by all sides of the question working side-by-side over time to study all aspects in detail in an effort to find solutions to a decades old problem.

Jerry Stahr of York was typical of that sentiment when he spoke of a highly successful and comprehensive study that brought together farmers, the Upper Big Blue and other NRDs, state agencies and more. It, he said, began in 1991.

“We haven’t really done anything together since,” he commented. “I would be glad to help out” said the long-time corn producer.

The sentiment to take on what all agree is a very real concern in partnership was expressed by many who spoke, including Stan Boehr of Henderson.

He suggested farmers, crop advisors, the NRD, farm cooperatives and others with professional or scientific expertise be invited to help find solutions that offer a degree of flexibility and are palatable to all.

“They will do a good job and make you proud,” he said.

Central Valley Ag agronomist Mark Peters shared information with the board to indicate the much greater expenses sure to accompany more stringent rules extend beyond the individual farmers who have spoken many times on that aspect of the proposal.

Peters, who also offered CVA’s assistance and resources in the search for workable solutions, said his company projects added costs of some $20 million to get set up with tanks and other equipment to supply producers with mandated nitrification inhibitors to its customers within the Upper Big Blue footprint.

The task becomes even more daunting, he said, for the fact approximately 20 more staff would be required; this in the face of the 14 open positions CVA is unable to fill right now.

After all who asked to speak had their say, Houdersheld

called for a vote on Moore’s original motion to send the

matter back to the water committee for a fresh look.

All voted in favor except Paul Weiss, who explained his ‘no vote: “I thought if we tabled it that would put an end to it for quite a while. Personally, I think it should be totally scrapped. I hope with all your testimony” he told those in the crowd, “this board will absolutely destroy” the proposed new rules and start over from scratch.

It will take years, he said, “to do it right.”

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