‘It’s been a wonderful job’ – Bev Norby retires from CRWD after 28 years
When the Cedar River Watershed District announced its largest grant in its eight year history Wednesday, the woman who has led it since its inception and who has led the Mower County Soil and Water Conservation District for nearly three decades stood quietly to the side never taking the stage. It was a passing of the torch, of sorts.
“It’s been a wonderful job,” she said. “I can’t tell you enough how much I appreciate the work that the staff has done and the board that I work for has just been so supportive, but we work hard to get a lot of things done.”
Nordby, 59, has led the office through a myriad of changes, and Justin Hanson, 38, who’s worked as a resource specialist in the office since 2004, has been hired to replace Nordby.
Nordby admits she never dreamt she’d end up in water and soil management.
Though many hail her as an expert, she actually has no formal or college training in natural resources or water management; in fact, she wouldn’t meet the minimum education requirements to be hired today.
“It was strictly 28 years of on the job training,” she said. “But I have learned so much, and I never stop learning.”
Nordby was born and raised in Austin and after high school worked for about 12 years as a bookkeeper at Norwest Bank, now Wells Fargo, before becoming a part-time bookkeeper at the SWCD, which worked well as she raised her children.
In 1989, Nordby was surprised to be offered the SWCD district manager’s job. Despite not having any formal training, Nordby dug in and got to work.
“I was motivated, I was very dedicated, I was loyal to the office,” she said. “That helped me do my job.”
“The biggest thing was I believed in what I was doing,” she added.
Hanson praised Nordby for learning on the job and becoming a state SWCD leader and role model.
CRWD Board Chair Sue Olson was surprised to learn Nordby has no formal or college education in the field.
“I seriously thought this woman had a master’s degree in this area,” Olson said. “She’s brilliant.”
But to Olson, that just shows Nordby’s drive and ambition.
“The amount of institutional knowledge we’ll lose with her going is tremendous,” Olson said.
A progressive legacy
The SWCD aims to sustain and enhance the state’s natural resources, which in Mower County often boils down to soil and water. The CRWD, operated out of the SWCD office, aims to reduce stream flows and improve water quality. Both are guided by boards and aim to implement projects and practices. Nordby and the office work closely with the county and the state’s other 90 SWCDs and other state agencies to accomplish those goals.
“We’re very progressive here, but we’re progressive because of the board and the staff that work with me,” she said. “We push ourselves and it’s been quite a ride, it has.”
Often, Nordby has looked for ways to secure funding through state programs and other means to fund those projects and practices.
She was proud of her work on the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, for which she was the regional spokesperson. That project entailed conservation easements to take lands out of productions that had marginal ag benefits and likely shouldn’t have been farmed in the first place. Nordby was given the Outstanding District Employee Award in 2003.
Nordby always looked for ways to improve the office and learn from others, as she said you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Nordby said that has been her biggest strength: “I bring information back to the office.”
Hanson has seen Nordby wear many hats, from boss to friend. They even joke she’s like a momma bear who goes to bat for her staff to supporting them. He called her someone who’s great at delegating and empowering staff.
“She’s just a great role model,” Hanson said.
Nordby has had to build trust with landowners, which she said came over time through many discussions and simply letting them know she’s there to help. Farming practices have changed over the last 28 years, and farmers are looking to improve their bottom lines and their yields, but they also know they have a role in preserving resources.
But farmers are open to conservation practices, Nordby said.
“I see producers being extremely interested in putting in soil erosion practices,” she said.
Nordby said farmers are going to continue raising corn and soybeans in Mower County, but she said her office’s job is to help them sustain the soil and the waterways.
“Mower County is an ag county,” she said. “Our economy is driven by ag, and so we’re very, very fortunate to have the prime ag land that we have in our county and we have to work with that. It’s not going to change.”
As a farmer, CRWD and SWCD board member Jim Gebhardt said he’s been impressed Nordby’s knowledge about farmers and their needs.
“She’s very understanding that way,” he said.
Nordby remembers coordinating and assisting with the formation of the Cedar River Watershed District in 2007 as one of her most meaningful accomplishments, though it was a difficult time.
After many floods, residents wanted solutions.
“We knew that we had to do something to try and slow the water down in the watershed,” she said.
But when a new watershed district was first discussed, Nordby admits she initially didn’t support it, because she thought it would be just another layer of government. But a watershed district was the only way to enact practices to improve the river, and the watershed was merged into the Mower SWCD office.
“It has worked out very, very well,” she said.
When the CRWD formed, Hanson said Nordby was a lightning rod and key leader in getting it off the ground, especially when it’s a new government entity with new taxes.
“She was the face of that development,” Hanson said.
Hanson remembers her shouldering a lot of the negative comments when that formed. While it was a challenge, Hanson remembers Nordby handling it with class and dignity.
The Cedar was named one of America’s most endangered rivers in 2010 by American Rivers. The Cedar and Dobbins Creek are still listed by the state as “impaired” for aquatic life and turbidity, which relates to the water being muddy or cloudy. However, Nordby said they’re making progress.
“Nothing like that happens overnight,” she said.
Nordby will leave as the office is on the cusp of change.
On Wednesday, The Hormel Foundation announced a grant to fund half the $6.4 million, 25-project Accelerated Results Plan, which will ramp up efforts on the Cedar River and Dobbins Creek to improve water quality.
“I see some real exciting times for the office, and it kind of makes me sad that I’m leaving right now,” Nordby said.
After years of implementing smaller programs, the $6.4 million Accelerated Results Plan will help the CRWD implement bigger, more expansive and expensive programs to add large retention areas to slow water flows during peak events.
SWCDs are also leading end of Gov. Mark Dayton’s buffer strip initiative, which will kick off in 2016, and they’ll be tasked with educating and working with producers. And if anything, the SWCD’s ties to other state environmental offices will only grow.
“I see big, big opportunities for not only our offices, but other SWCDs in the state,” Nordby said.
While sad to go, Nordby said the time may be right for younger faces and new ideas. She is confident in Hanson’s skills taking over, as she praised him as someone who will bring a different set of technical skills.
“He is so much more technically strong than I am,” she said. “He will bring some real technical skills to my position, and that has not been the case throughout my tenure.”
Though board members said the transition should be seamless with Justin’s experience, they’re miss Bev’s personality and her skills as a great communicator always willing to talk with landowners.
“She’s a little spitfire,” Olson Joked. “I like it.”
“God we’re going to miss Bev,” she added.