A Windstar tour bus sat at the Douglas/Sarpy County Extension Office waiting for the 55 people attending the 2012 Omaha Green Infrastructure Tour. It was going to be a long day.

As the city moves forward with a $2 billion Clean Solutions Omaha (CSO) plan to comply with environmental regulations and reduce sewage overflows from 52 times per year to four, controlling stormwater is estimated to double residential sewer rates from an average just under $25 per month in 2012 to almost $50 per month in 2017.

The University Nebraska-Lincoln Extension Stormwater Management group has sponsored this tour since 2009 with the help from a U.S Department of Agriculture and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA) grant. The goal is to enhance public awareness on rainwater runoff by assisting, directing and holding workshops to educate landscape architects, master gardeners, designers, property owners, engineers and city officials.

They are teaching a ‘greener’ approach conserving water resources rather than the traditional ‘gray’ approach with curbs, pipes and storm drains. The ‘greener’ method includes creating and designing green infrastructure systems, or Best Management Practices (BMPs) such as rain gardens, bioretention gardens, permeable pavement, rain barrels, green roofs and bioswales to collect rainwater runoff.

Andy Szatko, an environmental inspector for the City of Omaha, guided the tour. He explained how before [green infrastructure], water runoff from the parking lots would flow into sewer pipes and dump into creeks or waterways. During heavier rainfalls, water would potentially overflow causing erosion and damage to property. Green infrastructure is designed to reduce the amount of water that reaches sewers by capturing it and slowing down the process, also reducing sewage overflows

“We’re just trying to slow the water down,” Szatko said, “sneak it into the ground and we’re also trying to spread it out so it doesn’t erode.”

Ralston Schools Facility was the first stop where a bioretention garden was constructed in 2010. The design consists of cobblestone, native plants and 50% compost soil. The school staff was trained to maintain the rain garden and the children pull out weeds twice a year.

Steven Rodie, an associate professor/landscape horticulture specialist and member of the UNL Stormwater group, says that one thing they are trying to do is to keep water off the street and if everyone in Omaha puts a rain garden on their property, it would be a huge benefit.

“The other thing that comes up is maintenance,” he said, “they’re obviously going to have to take care of it.  For gardens on public property, there are concerns from the city perspective about maintaining plants and watering them.”

Maintenance is an issue when it comes to BMPs – many people don’t want to deal with it or they assume rain gardens won’t need additional care. The UNL Stormwater group is working to educate the public on how rain gardens are built and how a little maintenance is worth it in the end.

Planning and designing larger BMPs takes a diverse group of experts – landscape architects, civil engineers and sometimes horticulture specialists for the plant specifics. For smaller BMPs, it usually only requires a landscape architect. Maintaining a traditional rain garden consists of caring for the native plants, pulling weeds and mowing around it.

As the bus drove through the windy streets of Omaha, past the airport and city parks, Szatko pointed to older projects they had shown on past green infrastructure tours and gave us some background on more projects we would see that day.

Newer green infrastructure BMPs included a bioretention garden at DiVentures Company, permeable pavement at the OPPD Facility, a storm sewer diversion and bioretention garden at Elmwood Park (a CSO project), a green roof at Midtown Crossing and a bioswale at Common Ground community center.

One of the older projects at Under-the-Sink had a mixture of rain and bioretention gardens. It was a good demonstration project because of the variety of BMPs on the city-owned property where they can be seen up close.

We stopped for lunch at a church that sat directly behind Saddle Hills neighborhood. The property was overflowing with plants. Rodie offered a delicious mulberry off one of the trees. Water runoff from the neighborhood has been slowly eroding into a church property and an abandoned Greg Young Chevrolet car dealership property behind it.

This issue brought the city, church, the UNL Stormwater group and the abandoned dealership together. The UNL Stormwater group is taking charge as they work to provide educational programming to the community while monitoring the water flow at the same time. As people take on these practices, the UNL Stormwater group can track any benefits or changes in the neighborhood.

The UNL Stormwater management group is organizing more tours in Lincoln and Hastings this summer and fall. For more information, visit water.unl.edu/propertydesign.

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