Editor’s Note: In advance of the 22nd Annual Earth Day Omaha on Saturday, April 20 in Elmwood Park, The Reader organized and interviewed the event’s speakers. This is the first of two installments, featuring speakers focused on local issues.

Patrick Leahy, Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District

Patrick Leahy has a “gene” in his DNA for protecting Omaha’s urban watershed. His grandfather was Gene Leahy, Mayor of Omaha from 1969 to 1973, the man after whom the central park mall is named. Because of the mall’s signature feature — a meandering man-made creek with waterfalls — the younger Leahy seemed destined to become a board member of the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District (NRD). The 30-year old Leahy graduated from UNO with a degree in Political Science and Economics. He is currently working toward a Masters in International Relations at Creighton while serving in the Army Reserves, assigned to the Strategic Command at Offutt Air Force Base. Leahy’s previous political experience includes working for U.S. Senator Ben Nelson, traveling around Nebraska listening to citizen and constituent concerns on behalf of the senator.

Of his grandfather, Leahy said, “That creek in the middle of the city was his vision — to have green spaces in the urban setting. That’s so important. The more you have the better. Not just because it mitigates run-off issues or pollution and helps water quality. It also helps out with the quality of life. Getting outdoors in a safe setting that’s environmentally friendly. How many studies have been done that say taking a walk in the park improves your mood and health?”

The top six priorities of the NRD are to reduce flood damages, maintain water quality, reduce erosion and sedimentation, provide outdoor recreation, provide domestic water supply and improve fish and wildlife habitat and forest resources. Development increases the danger of flash floods because roofs, streets and parking lots prevent water from seeping into the ground. In the past, flood control measures included channelizing streams, building levees and removing trees.

With Omaha’s population expected to grow by over 100,000 people by 2030, how to manage flood risk and future development is a major focus for the NRD. “I’m a huge person when it comes to urban sustainability and conservation issues. I know I’m going to raise my family in Omaha. If we develop more land, we have to do it right. Going back to those decisions to channelize Papio Creek and the Missouri River, people weren’t thinking about the long-term issues. We have to look not just three or five years down the road, but 20 years down the road. What should this city look like and how can I help achieve that vision?”

On Earth Day, Leahy will speak about current projects underway with the NRD and grants available for neighborhood water quality improvement.

Bob Webber, Solar Electrician www.continuingelectricaleducation.biz

Bob Webber isn’t waiting for policy makers to get on board with solar electricity — he’s just doing it on his own, and teaching his competitors how to do it, too. Webber became an electrician as a teenager as a way to “get off the ranch.” Raised in Fort Pierre, S.D. on an 18,000 acre cattle and horse ranch on the Bad River, Webber was educated in a one-room schoolhouse until sixth grade.

“I like the country, but there’s more to life than cattle and horses,” he said. Webber’s website is a metaphor for his career-continuing electrical education. He began working as an electrician in 1973, moved into contracting in 1981, began electrical education in earnest in 1990, obtained his electrical inspector’s license in 2010 while simultaneously becoming a code instructor and also went through photo voltaic solar training in Winter Park, Fla. He is certified to do electrical training in a 10-state area. A longtime resident of Omaha, Webber can point to numerous large construction projects in the metro area that he worked on as a contractor including a Home Depot and the Hruska Federal Courthouse.

For now, Webber is hooked on solar. “Solar energy — I’ve never heard of a war being fought over sunshine yet. I believe in solar energy over other types of renewable energy because it’s clean and versatile.”

On Earth Day, Webber will speak about taking the mystery out of solar energy. “People don’t understand, they hear all these myths and horror stories such as solar electricity is way too expensive, the payback is too long. In my classes I talk about return on investment — do you expect to have an ROI on your house of five years?” he asked.

“If everybody would do this, and here’s what I see for the eventual future, if you had solar panels on your roof and a wind generator and a gas generator for back up, why would you need a power company? The power company would be for large businesses. If the power companies were smart, they would use John Q. Public to generate power and not have to build nuclear or coal plants.”

One of Webber’s recent projects was to help renovate the old Carver Savings and Loan Association at 24th and Lake for the Bemis Foundation. Solar panels will provide approximately one third of the building’s energy. Webber donated two panels and his time to the project. “I want people to see that solar can work. The Bemis is on the cutting edge. I like to give back where I can.”

Rick Cunningham, City of Omaha Planning Department, Alternatives Analysis

Rick Cunningham is one of those rare individuals with both a Masters in Architecture and a Masters in Civil Engineering. He obtained his education at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln and spent two decades working in the private sector for international firms HDR Engineering and Parsons Brinckerhoff in Nebraska, Kansas and the Washington, D.C. metro area before coming home to Omaha. 

Cunningham has been the Omaha City Planning Director since July of 2009. He oversees a staff of over 120 and an annual budget of $12 million. The department’s three major divisions are responsible for the City’s long-range planning, annexation, capital improvement programming, housing and community development, economic development, code enforcement, permitting and inspection activities. 

Omaha’s Metropolitan Area Planning Agency (MAPA) projects that Omaha will add 130,000 residents by the year 2035. Figuring out where to put them and how to move them around, is something Cunningham spends a lot of time thinking about. 

“Omaha is a river city. What we’ve done historically is to grow north or south or west. We can’t keep doing that. One of the key elements we need to work on is re-densification of the city.” According to Cunningham, the density per square mile dropped from 5,200 people per square mile in 1950 before streetcars were removed to 3,400 in 2010. Redeveloping the 15,000 empty lots and other available spaces inside the Interstate 680 loop is part of the Master Plan for the city’s future growth.

“We have to make that area attractive, to give residents a reason to want to live there.” Good transportation is a part of that priority.

Cunningham will speak about a Federal Transit Administration “Alternatives Analysis” study on Earth Day. According to www.omahaalternativesanalysis.org the $1.3 million 18-month study is a partnership with MAPA to “develop and evaluate potential transit alternatives in the corridor between Downtown Omaha, Midtown Omaha, University of Nebraska Medical Center, University of Nebraska at Omaha and the Crossroads and Aksarben Village areas. This study will analyze the mobility needs in the area, and identify and compare the costs, benefits, and impacts of various transit alternatives. At the end of the study, locally preferred transit alternatives will be recommended for future evaluation.”

One more public meeting on the Alternatives Analysis is planned for May or June.

Kara Henner Eastman, Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance

Kara Henner Eastman is President and CEO of the Omaha Healthy Kids Alliance, a local nonprofit focused on improving children’s environmental health through safe and healthy housing. The non-profit was started in 2006 as a liaison between the EPA and the community as part of the residential SuperFund site clean-up of lead in Omaha’s neighborhoods. OHKA has raised over $6 million from government funding sources, local philanthropic groups, corporations and individuals and has developed and managed numerous successful lead poisoning prevention projects. They currently have a budget of $750,000 a year and a staff of seven. Eastman holds a Master’s Degree in Social Work from Loyola University of Chicago. She has over 15 years of experience with start-up nonprofit organizations focusing on social and health issues in places as different as Chicago and Laguna Beach, Calif.

“OHKA started in lead and expanded to healthy housing,” she explained. “We do have 84,000 homes built before 1978, the year that lead-based paint was banned. Europe started banning lead in paint in the early 1900s. The United States got around to it in 1978. Lead is a neurotoxin. But, we were up against big paint companies with names like DuPont. Lead has an interesting history. Dutch Boy paint was founded by a lead manufacturing group. They knew that lead was a neurotoxin, but they were marketing it as safe because it made walls easier to clean, to prevent germs.” 

“We do all kinds of assessments of things that might cause problems and we offer solutions. Lead can be in paint or dirt so you should take your shoes off at the door when you come in your house. Water can be an issue if you have old pipes because some of the copper pipes have lead fittings. We don’t have as much of an issue with water because our water is alkaline.” (It doesn’t react with metal like acidic water.) “Workplaces, hobbies, construction, even fishing where you are handling lead. It’s easy to bring that home, hug your baby. The finishes on old furniture have lead in them.”

At the last Earth Day, Eastman talked about the Omaha One Touch program. “Housing service providers came together to collect uniform data and coordinate energy efficiency along with healthy housing,” she said. They inspected about 300 homes. One of the things they learned is that a majority of homes did not have a carbon monoxide detector. This year Eastman will be giving an update on the program.

Kristi Wamstad-Evans, City of Omaha Sustainability Coordinator

Kristi Wamstad-Evans has a lot of letters behind her name: LEED-AP BD&C, BPI-BA, BPI-ES. It stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional, Building Design and Construction, Building Performance Institute – Building Analyst and Building Performance Institute – Envelope Specialist. What it means is that Wamstad-Evans knows construction, sustainability and energy efficiency. She has a Bachelors degree in Biology and Environmental Science from the University of Colorado and a Masters in Planning from UNL with an emphasis on environmental planning. She has worked on a high-speed rail project in Boston and multiple bridge construction projects in Oregon. At HDR Engineering, she was the first national sustainable solutions coordinator.

In 2009, she jumped at the chance to head up the Re-Energize program for the City of Omaha. “At HDR, I kept jumping back in forth on projects from Dallas to Boise to Alexandria. It was difficult to see what the results were. What I wanted to do was see a project through, to see how it could impact a community directly. I had experience with energy efficiency block grants so it was a pretty easy transition,” Wamstad-Evans said.

On Earth Day, she plans to focus on the Re-Energize program successes and what they have built since 2009. “We went from zero qualified contractors to 26. There were eight energy evaluator who were mainly doing OPPD energy evaluations. We’ve tripled that number,” she said.  “We have a comprehensive energy management plan. Part of the tool allows us to track how community energy use has changed over that time. We’ve got a big chart that shows 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012.” 

In 2011, a report was published that calculated a figure for total greenhouse gas emissions per year for the City of Omaha: 7.7 metric ton equivalents. Approximately 70 percent comes from buildings and 30 percent from transportation. “Nebraska is heavily reliant on coal so that leads to the emissions. When we have lights on, air conditioning, anything that requires electricity, we are putting emissions into the air via the coal plants,” she said.

By the program’s completion in September of this year, the Re-Energize program will have completed about 1,300 homes in Omaha and Lincoln. “We didn’t want Re-energize to be something that would be temporary that would only involve the grant money. We wanted it to be the underpinnings of a future market, to continue the work that we started.”

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