Workshop #11
O'Neill
May 14-15, 2009

Land use, water, rural health care and public policy were among the topics discussed by participants in the NSLW workshop held in O'Neill on May 14 and 15. Participants from Atkinson, Bassett, Butte, O'Neill, and Santee, among other towns, attended the day-and-a-half workshop, sponsored by the Joslyn Institute for Sustainable Communities, with the support of the Nebraska Environmental Trust.

They talked about the Ogallala Aquifer, the second largest aquifer in the world and its dominant position beneath Nebraska soil, and how much of the land in the area is being purchased by "absentee landlords".

"There are large tracts of land being bought up in Nebraska," said Vicki Cork, O'Neill City Council member. "We have seen Montana and Wyoming get bought up. Nebraska is next. We are already seeing this in the area. When you have this number of people buying land for recreational purposes, who owns the water?"

Don Hahlbeck, Holt County Supervisor, agreed. "Increasingly, fewer people are owning more land," he said. "Look at Ted Turner [who outbid a Nebraska rancher for 26,300 acres of prime ranch land in the Sandhills, at a cost of nearly $10 million in 2007]. Who owns the water: the land owner or the state?"

"We need public policy, certainly at the state level, if not the federal level," said W. Cecil Steward, Joslyn Institute President and CEO.

Hahlbeck said that one-third of the irrigable land in the Niobrara Natural Resources District jurisdiction has been purchased by out-of-state people in the last year.

"Nebraska is one of the only states without restrictions on land sales, and people are beginning to notice," he said. "These particular parcels sold at 20 to 30 percent above market value.

"Land use issues are hugely significant—whether you use the land for urban sprawl development or food production and processing," Hahlbeck added. "Urban sprawl should not be allowed over our aquifer." Hahlbeck also pointed out the fact that a proposed oil pipeline will traverse Nebraska above the aquifer. "If it ever leaks into our water supply," he said, "we will be in big trouble."

Linda Hazen, Butte City Clerk, said, "Our community is largely concerned bout the aquifer and the quality of water." And Joe Langan, Atkinson City Council member, said, "Our farmers could certainly use less water than they are currently using."

Duane Filsinger, general manager of the Upper Niobrara Natural Resources District, said that in 2008, when the price of fuel skyrocketed, "there was quite the conservation effort locally, and the use of water went down dramatically, because farmers were conserving the fuel necessary to run the irrigation pivots."

"People don't change until economics forces them to do so," said Robert Young, Holt County Supervisor and third generation homesteader. "Until there is a shortage or a need, people will cling to the status quo."

"We have to set priorities one of these days," said Hahlbeck, "and decide whether we are going to raise food or corn."

Mike Crosley, Economic Development Director for the Santee Reservation near Niobrara, talked about how the tribe raises cattle and buffalo on the Reservation and has organic gardens. Because they are a self-contained entity, they have their own water system, now 30 years old, that abuts three NRD jurisdictions. Crosley said they have been in discussions with Sen. Mike Johanns about their water concerns, something that must be handled through the Department of the Interior's BIA and BLM agencies. He also said that because the large corporations who are developing wind farms in other parts of Nebraska cannot take the same tax breaks for developing on a Reservation, there's a barrier for some alternative energy development.

Crosley said the Santee Village residents are increasingly relying on sales of gasoline and cigarettes as sources of revenue.

Jim Crandall, Outreach Program Coordinator for the Nebraska Cooperative Development Center, talked about food as an economic engine for rural Nebraska communities.

"Most of you are likely familiar with the co-ops that our grandparents put togehter, such as a grain co-op," Crandall said. "We work with business ideas that are owned by a bunch of people, and our focus is value-added marketing and new business.

"We are seeing a national trend to buy and consume locally-grown food," Crandall said. "People want to know where their food comes from, in part because of food safety issues. The fresher something is, the more nutritious it is."

Crandall said that O'Neill spends $3,254,500 on food each year. United States residents spend 10 percent of their household income on food.

"Think about this as an economic indicator of what is grown locally," he said. "If we can capture some of what is already spent on food in our community, that is money that is staying in the community. Even just 1 percent of what O'Neill spends on food would be $32,500 annually."

Crandall talked about the growing importance of farmer's markets, community-based farms, and local organic farmers in improving the economic lifeblood of communities around the country. And Nebraska, he noted, is precisely positioned to realize significant economic growth through the growing and production of food.

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Resources from the O'Neill Workshop

Most of the workshop materials can be downloaded from our Resources and Documents pages. Below are some materials specifically from the consultants and speakers at the O'Neill workshop.

Jim Crandall, Outreach Program Coordinator for the Nebraska Cooperative Development Center, provides a PowerPoint on the importance of community food systems and co-operatives. Click here to download his presentation.

Roger Hunt and Steve Walker, energy efficiency experts from the Nebraska Public Power District, talked about energy efficiency in terms of economics and as economic development. Download the PowerPoint presentation here >.

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