Environmental Alchemy – Omaha’s Sewer Solutions

Most people don’t spend much time thinking about sewage. This is generally a good way to approach life. But there’s some interesting stuff going on down there once you get past what’s actually going on down there.

Nearly 800 cities in the U.S. have antiquated sewer systems that, with as little as 0ne-tenth of an inch of rain, flood local waterways with a combination of storm water and waste water. Most of those cities are confined to the northeast and midwest – with a few old Gold Rush  outposts in the Pacific northwest thrown in – allowing you to basically track the westward migration of the U.S. population. Up to a point, most cities used a combined sewer system before engineering evolved to make separated systems more of a reality.

On the Great Plains, Omaha is that point and its going to cost the city and its taxpayers nearly $1.7 billion over the next 15 years to minimize the impact of Combined Sewer Overflows on the Missouri River.

Here’s an excerpt from my cover story on the project for this week’s Reader:

There was a time in Omaha’s history when raw sewage flowed through the streets — not by accident, but by design. Or, rather, lack thereof.

For the first few decades of the city’s existence, Omahans simply emptied their outhouses and privies through trenches that poured directly into the street. Human waste pooled in wagon ruts during rainy weather and baked in alleyway cesspools during the hot summer months. Faced with a calamity of unsanitary conditions and citizen complaints, the City Council proposed Omaha’s first sewer system in 1878, according to city records.

The city tried to do it right. The original plan called for separate sewer systems for storm water and sewage at a cost of nearly $1 million dollars, a $20 million project today. But with Omaha’s explosive growth in the early 20th Century, the plan was abandoned in favor of a much quicker and more common solution – the combined sewer system.

Until the mid-1960s, all of Omaha’s wastewater emptied directly into the Missouri River without treatment. The city began to build separate sewer systems in developing West Omaha and constructed two treatment plants that sterilized all of the city’s wastewater prior to release into the waterways to service East Omaha under normal conditions.

Combined sewers were the exception, and the City of Omaha, along with the other cities, operated under special permits from the EPA and state regulators due to the limitations of their antiquated system.

But as concrete replaces grass and cities continue to grow, so does the amount of storm water runoff. By 1994, the EPA had developed its first control plan to address the growing dangers of combined-sewer overflow and had set a series of minimum controls for cities to meet by 1997. Omaha met that deadline, but a new one emerged in 2005. Because of increased federal requirements in the Clean Water Act, the EPA gave Omaha two years to have a draft of its longterm plan to address overflow issues in place. In 2009, the city submitted its completed plan to the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality, the state organization charged with monitoring the project.

Read the rest of the story here.

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