Sharing Nebraska’s story

April 5, 2018

Nebraska’s approach to managing water resources resonates with environmental stewards around the world, whether they come from areas of plenty or want.

That’s the assessment of Scott Snell, a Hastings resident and city councilman who is public relations manager for the York-based Upper Big Blue Natural Resources District.

“The thing they want is not the heavy-handedness of the federal government,” Snell said. “They want local governance, local control, locally elected boards of directors.”

Snell returned home last weekend after attending the eighth World Water Forum March 18-22 in the Brazilian capital of Brasilia.

He had been invited to speak and participate in a panel discussion at the forum as part of a delegation sponsored by the University of Nebraska’s Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute. NU covered all costs of his participation.

Snell said he was grateful to be asked to attend the forum, which attracted around 15,000 participants from 170 nations. Events took place in the national soccer stadium and in a giant convention venue located nearby.

“There were 13 different presidential motorcades from different countries there,” he said. “It was a big, big deal.”

The Water for Food Institute is a highly regarded organization at the international level, Snell said, and representatives of the institute travel nearly constantly for meetings and consultations around the world related to sustainability of water resources.

The institute had a hand in organizing the World Water Forum, which is presented by the World Water Council in consultation with dozens of groups. “Sharing Water” was the theme of this year’s event.

The forum takes place every three years; the next one will be in the West African country of Senegal in 2021.

Snell said he was invited to be part of the Nebraska delegation after getting to know Nicholas Brozovic, director of policy for the Water for Food Institute.

Snell, who joined the NRD around 15 years ago, has attracted attention around Nebraska and beyond for several of his public relations initiatives, including construction of “River Run” and “Operation Conservation” interactive educational displays that have traveled widely to schools and special events.

He also has produced literature explaining Nebraska’s unique network of 23 natural resources districts, which have statutory responsibilities for groundwater management and regulation, soil conservation, flood control, hazard mitigation, education and public recreation, among other duties. NRDs are overseen by elected boards and supported by a property tax levy among other funding sources.

In addition to his NRD role, Snell serves on the board of directors of the Nebraska State Irrigation Association, a surface water irrigation group, as a representative of the Blue River Basin.

Snell said he was thrilled by the invitation to the World Water Forum, where he had 15 minutes to speak and then participated in a panel discussion that also included John Berge, general manager of the North Platte NRD in Scottsbluff, and Kate Gibson, program associate with the Water for Food Institute. Brozovic served as moderator.

“I was blown away,” he said of the invitation when it was presented to him. “I thought, ’What an opportunity to share our story.”

The Upper Big Blue NRD encompasses all of York County, virtually all of Hamilton County, and parts of Adams, Clay, Fillmore, Saline, Seward, Butler and Polk counties. The district’s land area includes more than 1.2 million irrigated acres.

The session where Snell, Berge and Gibson presented was called “Lessons in Sustainable Groundwater Management from the Mid and West U.S.” The session was attended by 50-60 people the afternoon of March 20. In a scene reminiscent of the United Nations, all present wore headphones or earpieces for language translation.

Snell talked about the many hats he wears in his own life — NRD employee, surface water organization leader, local city councilman, and father — and how he interacts with water policy in all those roles. To illustrate the point, he took along several ballcaps labeled with his different roles and put one after another onto his head.

During the question-and-answer period, he had a chance to describe the innovative project now under way by the city of Hastings to protect residents from high nitrate levels in their drinking water.

During his presentation and in other experiences at the forum, Snell said, he interacted with other participants from such far-flung places as Australia and Thailand along with many Brazilians.

While water resources are stressed in much of the world, Snell said, that’s not the case everywhere. One notable example of plenty is the area of central Brazil where Brasilia lies — an area of rich soil, abundant rainfall and sunshine, and tremendous surface water resources where leading farmers have put together irrigated operations encompassing 100,000 to 200,000 acres or even larger, just in the last 10-20 years. Some of the land that makes up those farms has been reclaimed from the Amazon rainforest.

During his time in the region, Snell had an opportunity visit one such massive farm near the town of Cristalina, south of Brasilia. With just 11 employees, that heavily mechanized farm, with aid from satellite telemetry that helps in monitoring field conditions and running center-pivot irrigation systems, produces three crops per year, with crops constantly rotated and no-till farming practices employed.

Snell said those large-scale farmers have had to build their own roads and even hire their own police to patrol their property, since the government does not provide that infrastructure or those public services the way they do in the United States. He said the farmers also pay extremely high prices for the diesel fuel and electricity that powers their farms, and that they know they must be as efficient as possible if they are going to be profitable.

“They want water meters,” he said. “They go out and buy the latest and greatest technology because they know it affects their bottom line.”

Just like in an area where water is scarce, Snell said, those Brazilian farmers know they need to work together to be successful, and that they would benefit from the existence of community-centered organizations to address conservation and sustainability challenges in their local area.

“Their strength is by working together,” he said. “They’re already wanting to work with each other.”

Snell said it was enlightening to visit with the Brazilian farmers, and he wishes he had had another day or two to spend with them. He said he hopes to help establish an agricultural exchange program for families from Nebraska and central Brazil to increase knowledge and understanding across the equator.

During the World Water Forum, he said, he also was honored to be asked to sit in on a side meeting between Water for Food Institute representatives and officials from South Africa where water sustainability has become a critical issue.

He stands in awe of the work being done by the Water for Food Institute, headquartered on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Innovation Campus in Lincoln, on a worldwide basis. The institute’s work has humanitarian overtones, related as it is to Earth’s burgeoning population and how humans’ food needs will be met in the future, given limited land and water resources.

“It makes you proud to be a Nebraskan,” Snell said.

Building relationships and partnerships — even partnerships that span oceans and continents, as well as all kinds of cultural divides — does a great deal to broaden thought processes and solve problems, Snell said.

“You have everything to gain and nothing to lose by putting yourself in others’ shoes,” he said.

He was edified by the people he met in his travels and how warm, friendly and unpretentious they were — as well as by how easy it was to strike up a good conversation about topics of mutual concern, even in an international venue.

“Language is not a barrier,” he said. “It should never be looked upon as a barrier. The sharedness, the same compassion we have for sustaining our resources, supersedes language.”