Sustainability and resiliency are the new reduce, reuse, recycle. We’ve all heard these phrases before and for many of us, when we think about Earth Day, those words come to mind. But what does it mean for us here in Omaha?
To answer that question, we looked at 10 different environmental challenges and issues — ranked roughly in order of importance –we are working with right here and asked the experts to weigh in. At the end, we have a shining example here locally that every municipality could follow.
“Every action each person takes adds to the total of good,” explained Bellevue City Councilman and former state senator Don Preister. “While it may seem small, collectively we can change the world.”
He knows from personal experience, starting with his corner of the metro.
1- Climate Change
Almost every other challenge shares one thing — the impact on reducing climate change. Tucked here in the heartland, we might seem somewhat insulated from its effects, but it’s already disturbing the growing season and its impacts will hit even closer to home than we think.
“Climate change will exacerbate the severity and frequency of health problems that are already affected by climate and weather factors and create unanticipated health problems or health threats in places where they have not previously occurred,” according to Dr. Ali Khan, Dean of UNMC’s College of Public Health.
Dr. Khan said climate change is happening now as are known effects on the environment, agriculture and fisheries. In Nebraska, the temperature has risen 1⁰F since 1895. This has been associated with 5-25 increased frost-free days since 1895 and a 16% increase in very heavy precipitation events in the Great Plains Region.
“The Paris Agreement on climate change which came into force on November 4, 2016 with 134 signatories to the Agreement reaffirmed the political commitments and puts in place the policy and institutional frameworks to combat climate change. This gives impetus to the several legislative and administrative frameworks already in place in many countries and brought the issue of climate change to the forefront of international and national attention,” he said.
For their part, UNMC works with state and community organizations on climate change issues and supports research aimed at understanding the environmental and public health implications of climate change.
Climate change must be addressed through both mitigation and adaptation interventions.
Mitigation strategies consist of measures aimed at reducing the emission of greenhouse gases that are the cause of global warming. In other words, using renewable energy resources, implementing energy efficiency interventions, reforestation, using new technologies or changing consumer behavior.
“While we mitigate against climate change as a first line of defense, we also need to implement measures that help communities prepare for and manage the risk posed by climate change,” Dr. Khan said.
Some of these include disease surveillance to detect outbreaks early, putting measures in place to respond to climate emergencies, using water scarce resources more efficiently, and developing drought-tolerant crops.
2-Bringing Solar Home
“Nebraska is ranked 48th among 50 states. The Solar Energy Industries Association said that our state has the potential to rank higher; 38th for rooftop solar in urban areas and 10th in rural areas,” said State Senator Carol Blood.
She said many things can impede the process of solar installations including local ordinances, restrictive building codes, landscaping such as trees and grid connections.
But that ultimately, solar energy is worth exploring. She said in order for more individuals to take advantage of solar, Nebraska needs to continue to strengthen its policies for driving renewable energy investments.
“Congress needs to support the Federal Tax Credits for solar. It declined from 30% to 10% in 2016. Nebraska needs to continue to plan to reduce emissions to comply with the EPA’s carbon standards,” Blood said.
The state also needs better science when it comes to energy storage. And utility companies really need to modify their business models to encourage solar development at all levels she said.
Right now, solar energy is just not economical in its current format, with the net metering law of 25kw. It’s fine for most homeowners.
But, “utility companies are fighting increases which prevents mid-sized farms and businesses from participating,” said Blood.
And that’s a real problem. Even so, cities like Bellevue are marching ahead and embracing solar where they can.
3-Eliminating Coal, Keeping The Lid on Natural Gas
“Coal facilities benefit from having significant levels of fuel on site which can be used at a moment’s notice and increases the overall reliability of coal generators. Conversely, coal generation does produce more emissions, specifically mercury, than most new natural gas units,” said Troy Via, division manager of Energy Marketing & Trading for OPPD.
But is natural gas the answer?
Via said depending on the type of technology, natural gas units tend to start and “ramp” (the speed at which a generator can produce electricity) much faster than coal-fired generators. However, since natural gas is not stored on site, it is dependent on the reliability of the natural gas transportation system (pipelines).
“Natural gas pipelines require large users to anticipate how much natural gas they will use during the following day and schedule that expected consumption a full day in advance to ensure surety of delivery. As you can imagine, with changes in weather, availability of other generation and customer usage, accuracy of predictions can sometimes be challenging,” he said.
Brad Underwood, director of Corporate Planning & Analysis for OPPD, explained over the last few years OPPD has reduced its dependency on coal generation by procuring more renewable wind generation from Nebraska wind facilities.
According to OPPD, year-end calculations showed renewable energy contributed 16 percent of OPPD’s retail energy sales in 2016. (Note, this calculation is based on retail sales and not generating portfolio. “Retail sales” is a more stable value as our generating portfolio continues to change over time.) Based on the strategic directive from its board of directors, OPPD will achieve at least 30 percent renewable energy from retail sales by 2018.
Based on OPPD’s latest resource planning efforts, its Integrated Resource Plan, which is part of its contractual commitment to the Western Area Power Administration (WAPA), OPPD is working toward a goal of 50 percent of sales coming from renewable resources within the next five years.
Underwood said this incremental renewable generation has helped reduce our dependence on natural gas generators for electricity production.
As environmental conditions persist, Via said the trend towards new renewable generating sources and natural gas consumption should continue.
4-Getting the Lead Out
Did you know that Omaha is the largest residential EPA-designated Superfund Site in the country as a result of lead-contaminated soil?
Additionally, Omaha has over 84,000 homes built before 1978, the year lead-based paint was banned. In addition, our city has over 12,000 lead service lines; the lines that connect the water main in the street to your house.
Kara Eastman, President & CEO of Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance, said the issues with lead are manifold.
“Lead is a neurotoxin that causes IQ deficits, behavioral problems and even criminal behavior later in life in children. A child who has high levels of lead in his or her body is seven times more likely to drop out of school. Children are more susceptible to lead exposure as a result of their rapidly developing brains and bodies and the hand to mouth behavior of young children,” said Eastman.
But lead can also cause health problems in adults including kidney damage and hypertension.
Unfortunately, there is lead in soil, paint, dust, imported pottery, vinyl mini blinds, some imported candies, makeup, batteries and cigarettes. According to the Douglas County Health Department, in the majority of cases where a child has been identified with a high blood lead level, there is an interior lead-based paint hazard present.
“The City Planning Department’s Lead Hazard Control program spends an average of $12,000 to replace windows and stabilize lead-based paint in homes of children in our city. But we know that an investment of $1 in lead hazard control yields a savings of anywhere from $17 to $221 in lead-associated ADHD treatment, incarceration for lead-related crimes, and in general health care costs,” Eastman said.
In Omaha, Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance, the City of Omaha, the Douglas County Health Department and the Methodist College of Nursing are all working together to address lead exposure in our community. In October of 2016, the Lead Free in Five Plan was launched, which lays out how everyone in the community can be involved in solving the city’s lead issue.
5-Boosting Urban Development
According to Jay Lund, Principal at GreenSlate Development, one of the environmental challenges with urban development is trying to build on a site that has been one or many other things in the past. He said often times you have to remediate hazardous materials that may exist from former uses. For example, underground fuel storage tanks and asbestos. Lund said storm water management could also be a big challenge.
He explained urban areas typically have dense populations and land use types. When you have a large amount of dwelling units, employment centers, and retail stores, city services become that much more efficient.
“Think about it, you don’t have to re-build that street and sidewalk, sewer system, or any of the other infrastructure that you otherwise would have to recreate with suburban sprawl. A dense urban area also allows for services to be provided for about two to three times the amount of people in a concentrated area, compared with less dense suburban areas,” said Lund.
He said the greenest building you can develop is the one that is already there.
“There have been over 20 buildings restored in the Blackstone District in the last three years. Many of these structures were in substantial disrepair and were in danger of collapsing. When you save an old building you don’t have to re-produce all those building materials and the existing materials do not end up in a landfill,” he said.
And living in the urban core allows people to better take advantage of public transportation and other modes of transit.
“What better way to live green than to get rid of your car,” said Lund.
But how close are we to becoming less dependent on our cars in the Omaha metro?
6-Expanding Transportation Options
Angie Eikenberry, of Mode Shift Omaha, said a major issue relates to the Omaha Metro area’s air quality problem. According to the Little Steps, Big Impact program, run through the Omaha-Council Bluffs Metropolitan Area Planning Agency (MAPA), on an average hot day, the Omaha-Council Bluffs Metro is close to “non-attainment,” or exceeding the regulated threshold level for one or more of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS).
“Reducing the daily use of one low occupancy vehicle and using public transit can reduce a household’s carbon footprint by between 25-30%,” she said.
How do you alleviate the issue? Well, the simple answer is to provide residents with alternate transportation options.
Metro has received a federal grant to pay for a large portion of the cost to bring Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) to the Dodge Street corridor, set to start in fall 2018.
As far as bicycles go, Eikenberry said the city already has a great trail system but unfortunately, it provides few east-west options for commuters.
“The Papio Missouri River Natural Resources District (NRD) and City of Omaha Parks and Recreation have tried to address this through new trails projects, such as the recent addition of the South Omaha Trail. The City of Omaha Planning Department has also worked with Live Well Omaha and Omaha Bikes on trying to get a 20-mile bike loop (the Bike Omaha Network) implemented to address connectivity issues,” said Eikenberry.
She explained walking is a great alternative to driving a car but it often gets the least amount of attention, “The City makes little investment in walkability. Again, when they do help fund projects, they are typically paid for by private philanthropy rather than through regular transportation dollars.”
Eikenberry said for the same cost of widening one mile of road on 96th Street, the City could fund the entire capital costs of the Dodge Street BRT running from downtown to Westroads Mall.
7-Growing More Local Food
One of the biggest drivers of climate change is transportation fuel, a significant portion of which is used to deliver our food. As food systems across the world face disruption from climate change, growing more local food becomes even more important. Ed Berna, President of Paradigm Gardens, believes growing your own food is the single biggest component of changing the local food “paradigm.”
“If everyone truly knew how difficult and rewarding it is to produce food themselves, they would have a renewed respect for “real food” and all the systems that effect it, such as weather, seasonality, water quality, air quality, sustainability-greenhouse gas/transport emissions, etc.,” he said.
Berna speculated that it would also begin to help people understand and appreciate things like organic waste systems, local composting, how much water it takes to grow food and how water quality affects plant growth.
“We vote three times a day on how we can influence local food support. If we can show people how to easily and consistently do this, we will begin to truly effect our developing local food system,” said Berna.
One of the biggest challenges in terms of growing your own food is education. Berna said that’s closely followed by the existing scale and scope of the local food infrastructure.
“Education would also be inclusive of how to develop sustainable year-round production systems that are consistently profitable,” he said.
Ultimately, even if you don’t want to grow your own food, you can still support the local food movement by buying local.
Berna said, “If we could encourage incremental support of local producers, over time our community would see huge measurable results. This would include job creation, tax base increases, health and wellness improvements and much more.
8-Improving City Waste Options
The Sierra Club recently completed a commissioned Solid Waste Study of the Omaha Metro Area that found that the City of Omaha’s 2015 decision to discontinue separate yard waste pick-up and composting for Omagro is actually causing a huge spike in greenhouse gas emissions at the landfill.
That’s because everything is being dumped in together.
James Cavanaugh, Legal Counsel for the Nebraska Sierra Club, said the Sierra Club is launching a major public information program to Green the Stream of solid waste in the Omaha Metro area by returning to separate pick up of residential waste, yard waste and recyclables and by continuing the Omagro program.
“As part of its Green the Stream program, the Sierra Club is launching a major public engagement campaign calling on the City of Omaha to take immediate action to stop the dumping of co-mingled yard waste and residential waste at the landfill, restart the Omagro composting operation and institute an ordinance establishing a fee to correctly price plastic bags at point of retail sale,” he said.
The fee revenues would then be dedicated to funding recycling, composting and waste reduction educational programs to reduce the harmful impact of solid waste disposal in the Omaha Metro Area and to Green the Stream of solid waste in Omaha.
9-Keeping Clean Water
The quality of water in the Metro is good. That’s according to Tracey Christensen, Director of Communications for M.U.D.
She said M.U.D. provides safe water that meets or exceeds all state and federal drinking water regulations. The Safe Drinking Water Act requires public water supply systems to prepare annual water quality reports for customers to provide accurate, comprehensive information about their water supply,” she said.
M.U.D. performs hundreds of tests daily from the source water to the customers’ taps.
“We will continue to monitor emerging water quality issues, including contaminants and adapt our treatment to meet current and future regulations. To improve system safety and reliability, M.U.D. began a program in 2008 to replace more than 1,200 miles of aging cast iron water mains over the coming decades,” she said.
This initiative is funded through water infrastructure fees on customers’ monthly bills.
She said M.U.D. is working diligently to ensure a safe and reliable drinking water supply to its customer-owners, as well as safeguarding the water system for future generations.
To keep our water clean, never flush drugs down the toilet, don’t dump waste into storm sewers and don’t overuse toxic cleaners.
Another green step you can take right now? Beautify your landscape.
“Plant flowers, trees, grasses and other natural buffers to help reduce water pollution,” said Christensen.
Monitoring industrial agriculture developments, like the planned Costco poultry plant in Fremont, will also be critical.
10-Being More Like Bellevue
Green Bellevue is a Green Team that is made up of more than 600 volunteers who work all year long. And they’ve been quite busy.
As Don Preister, Green Bellevue President, said, the group has accomplished a lot since its inception including passing a tree ordinance establishing regulations and oversight by a Tree Board with City Code and planting 1,000 trees with grant funds, improving parks equipment and accessibility and enacting the first Complete Streets Ordinance in Nebraska with a Citizen Panel and measurable objectives.
“We also retrofitted three existing buildings rather than build new ones. We have a larger consolidated City Hall campus complete with solar panels and electric car chargers. And we used grants to buy four electric cars for city work,” he said.
That’s not all; Green Bellevue also upgraded all city buildings for energy efficiency, approved community gardens and streamlined the process for residential and business solar electric generation.
And Preister said they did all this with will, leadership, patience, persistence and determination. “You need to keep asking how it can be done and not accepting, ‘no we can’t’ as an answer.”
What are the benefits of changes like these? Of course it improves efficiency by reducing consumption of utilities which means cost reductions are realized but what about the benefits that are a bit more difficult to see?
“These changes improve health quality, air quality and water quality. And this enhanced quality of life aids economic development, common well-being and reduces our carbon footprint too,” said Preister.