Workshop #21
April 29–30, 2010

Perhaps because of its distance from the state's largest cities and its capital, the Panhandle has been engaged in such sustainable best practices as regional cooperation for some time. Adjusting to changing conditions—losing family farms and ranches, declining populations, diminishing sources for good water and oil, unfunded state and federal mandates, an aging population and aging infrastructure—has necessitated that Western Nebraskans turn to their long traditions of being resourceful, self-reliant and, at the same time, collaborating and sharing among themselves to try to address some of their challenges. Sustainability is something that has been ingrained in their character for generations, and it's a concept they embrace today, as evidenced at the 21st Nebraska Sustainability Leadership Workshop held in Scottsbluff on April 29 and 30.

One example was provided by Dennis Ostendorf, Chairman of the Morrill Village Board. Ostendorf said his community set up a regional water board and regional water field, working with communities in the area like Lyman and Henry, in order to try to meet government mandates. "The more smaller communities can combine forces and resources," he said, "the better off we all are." The need for this kind of regional collaboration is something other parts of the state are just beginning to realize.

Workshop participants said it's important to residents of the region to maintain the quality of life they've enjoyed for generations, while enhancing the vitality in the Panhandle's smaller farming and ranching communities as well as larger cities. Long-term thinking and planning are essential, and sustainability plays a key role, said Robert Gifford, a rancher and Banner County Commissioner.

"Of course, economics always seems to play a role in what we can or can't do," Gifford said. "It plays a huge role. Maybe more than it should. When we let economics dictate, we end up with short-term versus long-term thinking and benefits. It's those long-term benefits that we have to focus on and find sustainable ways to reach those goals."

Jerrod Haberman, Director of the Panhandle Development District, echoed Gifford's thoughts. "It sometimes seems to be all about individual community survival versus the greater good," he said, "when those things should not be mutually exclusive." W. Cecil Steward, CEO and President of the Joslyn Institute for Sustainable Communities, which sponsored the workshop along with the Nebraska Environmental Trust, said, "My one main recommendation would be to look at solving two problems with one solution. That kind of thinking can have a ripple effect and long-term benefits."

Don Hague, Superintendent of the Gering Public Schools, provided an example of this: "We had a blighted school building in the center of town. We could have torn it down or just left it empty and, for less money, we could have built outside the city center on cheaper land. But we would have been contributing to sprawl and taking over viable farmland," Hague said. "Instead, we built a new school using LEED standards in the city center. This improved life for all the immediate neighbors, and that contributes to the life of the city. It revitalizes it."

Ingrid Battershell, Director of the Nebraska Business Development Center, gave another example. She said her clients are realizing the importance of reusing and recycling, thereby both saving money and keeping materials out of landfills. "One of my start-ups needed to do some serious remodeling," she said. "They used every type of recycled material they could. There are so many alternative uses for recyclables."

Recycling, energy efficiency and conserving vital resources like water are crucial to every town in the Panhandle. Several towns and cities in the region have not had water meters, but instead a free flow of water from city-owned wells. Kent Greenwalt, Mayor of Terrytown, said, "Water is such a huge issue. We have so much wasted water. I see some sprinkler systems in Terrytown being run two times a day," he said. "Terrytown pumps its own water, and people don't realize it costs a lot to run those pumps. And now we must have water meters, so people can see how much they're using."

Morrill had a similar problem, Dennis Ostendorf said. "We used to have a flat water charge of $12 a month. It's now $37 a month. Because of the Clean Water Act, we had to put in water meters. There was a $12 million cost to do so, with a $2 million bond, and our elderly just cannot afford that," he said. "It was a PR nightmare. What we did was to have a lot of town hall meetings and we made sure everything was transparent. The more open you are, the more successful you'll be in persuading people, and that makes that transition a lot easier. We're now conserving a lot of water. We went from using 2,300,000 gallons a day to 600,000 gallons a day."

Melvin Loseke, a SCORE volunteer from Gering, said, "That's an important thing about being a leader. You need to create an environment where you provide all the transparency and information, and you are able to incentivize the kind of behavior you want. Whether we are talking about recycling, electricity, or water, we have to talk about efficiency.

"If we can encourage this kind of behavior through public policy," Loseke said, "we can save a lot." He and others noted that such things as low-water-use landscaping, "zeroscaping", using non-potable water for playgrounds and ball fields, can all be incentivized.

Butch Ellis, inventor/entrepreneur from Chadron and Panhandle Program Director for The Nature Conservancy, noted that land use is another area that needs to be considered in the same manner. Public policy can help to preserve the unique ranch lands, farmlands, and open spaces of the region, he said. Ellis said "there is a need to look for open space as a quality of life here." Steward agreed. "Should that be part of regional planning?" he asked. "Public policy plus incentives: we should be providing incentives, not barriers."

The group learned more about how community food systems and cooperative projects can be a strong source of entrepreneurial economic development from Jim Crandall, Program Coordinator of the Nebraska Cooperative Development Center for UNL in Holdrege. "Cooperatives and community food systems can be engines of economic growth and job creation," he said. He pointed to scores of businesses that have been started using cooperative strategies in rural Nebraska communities. Crandall spoke to the group about the importance of community food systems in a region's economic development and health, and pointed out that local foods are an increasingly viable source of revenue to a community, as well as a safe, healthy source of good foods for local restaurants, groceries, and institutions like schools and hospitals and nursing homes.

Chad Podolak, energy efficiency expert from Nebraska Public Power District, spoke to the group about the relative merits of wind energy, solar energy, geothermal-, coal- and hydro-produced energy, gasoline and diesel, natural gas and bio fuels. None of these alone will provide the answer to our ever-increasing energy needs. He stressed the fact that energy efficiency measures are "the most cost-effective thing we can do now" to obviate the need for immediate new resources and to keep oil imports down. Podolak suggested that solar energy may one day be the best answer because it is free and endlessly renewable, but he said efficient and inexpensive technology to capture, store, and transmit solar energy does not yet exist. "And the answer may lie in some other technology altogether," he said. "It may come from some technology or source we haven't even dreamed of yet."

For the immediate future, however, Podolak told the group about all the programs NPPD has to offer Nebraskans, including energy auditors for commercial structures, financial incentives for HVAC systems for commercial buildings, incentives for lighting, motors, drives, agricultural lighting and irrigation, as well as an on-line tool for residential consumers designed to help them improve energy efficiency in their houses.

Jim Cannia, hydrogeologist for the USGS Water Science Center in the Panhandle, gave a fascinating presentation on water issues in the region, answered a lot of questions about canal systems, sources of pollution and contamination, desalinization, oxygen reduction ratios, flow paths, over-appropriation designation, and more.

"We have one of the most blessed areas," he said, "of abundant water. And it's because of geology. "If ever there was a sustainable system," he said, "this is it. It is gravity at work." Cannia said that in the Holdrege area, there are actually increases in groundwater levels. In the North Platte Valley, ground water and surface water are related, he said. He also noted that "in one place in Box Butte County there have been some declines in groundwater" in an area between Hemingford and Alliance. But overall, he said, the Ogallala Aquifer is in great shape. And it is in all our interests that it remain so.

Sandra Scofield, Director of the Nebraska Rural Initiative, talked to the group via Polycom from her office in Lincoln about the myriad resources the Rural Initiative has to offer to communities across the state. A native of the Panhandle who still has a ranch there, Scofield told the workshop participants that her office has a person to liaise between local governments and water researchers at the University to help them with water issues. Another service is a new position specifically for Western Nebraska to help promote programs at Western Nebraska Technical College and those of the Rural Initiative.

Another program of particular interest to the Panhandle area is the Rural Initiative's Red Carpet program to help train "frontline" tourism people to be first-class visitor relations resources, among other services.

Local foods are another interest of the Rural Initiative, and they are studying how to rebuild the food processing, marketing and distribution networks that once made farmers and ranchers in Nebraska so economically comfortable. "There's a real economic opportunity for your communities," Scofield said. "There is a desperate need for processing and distribution. We need to rebuild that infrastructure." The Rural Initiative has also underwritten grants on how to use high tunnel greenhouses, she noted.

And, finally, she said, that the Rural Initiative is placing a strong emphasis on understanding how our rural communities can connect and engage with young people, to bring young families and a strong, young workforce back to some of our rural communities. "We are building a network and getting a lot of answers," she said. Scofield noted there will be a big conference in Grand Island in November to address this and other issues. More information is available on the Rural Initiative website.

Jerry Terwilliger, Rural Enterprise Assistance Program (REAP) Business Specialist for the Center for Rural Affairs, talked to the group about the important services his organization offers to small businesses and entrepreneurs in the Panhandle region. He helps to prepare business plans, financial projections, and all the steps necessary to obtain financing to start a new business or micro-enterprise, including the financing itself. The CFR also helps local farmers and ranchers with succession planning. Terwilliger noted they have Nebraska's only Women's Business Center, as well as a Hispanic Business Center.

One of the most dynamic and popular programs of the Center is MarketPlace, the annual entrepreneur fair. More information is available on their website,

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Resources from the
Scottsbluff 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 Scottsbluff workshop, as well as some who were not there.

Read University of Nebraska Rural Initiative Director Sandy Scofield's important paper, A Crash Course in Infrastructure: Expensive but Essential Components for Rural (and Urban) Nebraska’s Future, for important ideas on how infrastructure contributes to growth and development in Nebraska's towns and cities. Download the PDF here > Also visit the Rural Initiative site for lots of helpful information, resources and tools:

Hydrologist Jim Cannia, with the USGS Nebraska Water Science Center, provided a map of the canals along the North Platte. Download the image file here >, and here is a link to the latest report.

Hydrogeologist Jim Goeke has provided two PowerPoints for NSLW workshop participants: Nebraska's Water Resources—Past, Present, Future and Water Trends on the High Plains

Hydrologist Ann Bleed provides a PowerPoint of maps showing Nebraska's groundwater resources here >

Jerry Terwilliger, REAP specialist with the Center for Rural Affairs, has lots of resources for businesses, communities, and farmers/ranchers. Visit the Center's site for lots of information, contacts, and resources:

Community Food Systems, PowerPoint presentation by Jim Crandall, Associate Director of the Nebraska Cooperative Development Center, Nebraska’s center for cooperative-based business development.

Chad Podolak's presentation, All Roads Lead to Energy Efficiency, is available as a PowerPoint. Click here >

Energy: How Our Future Will Look Different and What We Can Do About It, PowerPoint presentation by Daniel Lawse, Energy Expert and Sustainable Solutions Coordinator for Metropolitan Community College in Omaha.

Facilitator Dr. Jay Leighter provided a lot of information on leadership and communication. He has provided links to websites for two resources he talked about: The Consensus Building Institute (CBI), and the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation.

Ways of recruiting and retaining young people—both professionals and young families—in our rural communities is a topic of much interest. The Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University conducted a study which identified and examined career choice factors and public service perceptions among members of Generation Y. Download a PDF the report here > Also visit the Nebraska Rural Initiative site for information on the topic.

Many participants were interested in affordable housing and blighted housing issues. Danielle Hill is Executive Director of the Nebraska Housing Developers Association in Lincoln, a non-profit dedicated to addressing low-income and affordable housing, housing for the elderly, and for the disabled and handicapped and affordable housing policy, and planning, among other initiatives. The association is available to work with communities. You can visit their website for more information:

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