Growing urban areas pose environmental challenges in eastern Nebraska
by Brian McManus
Growing population and expanding urban areas are important factors affecting the environment in the Tall Grass Prairie region (the eastern portion of the state.) While many smaller communities across the state have seen decreases in population, the large metropolitan areas in eastern Nebraska – Omaha, Lincoln and surrounding communities – have experienced significant growth in recent years.
Altogether, the 1.23 million people living in these 26 counties in eastern Nebraska comprise over 70 percent of the state’s population. According to the 2000 census, Nebraska experienced an 8.4% population growth, and this growth occurred primarily in the Tall Grass Prairie region.
Although population growth is a positive trend for the state’s economic development, strategic planning and regional coordination is needed to prevent this growth from causing adverse effects to the environment of the region.
“Urban sprawl” – the trend for cities to spread out far and wide as the population grows – is a significant issue in eastern Nebraska. For example, the Omaha Planning Department estimates that the Omaha metropolitan area will grow by about 16 square miles in the next 10 years.
This continued growth creates a number of environmental challenges both for the larger cities and for nearby smaller communities that are affected by the rapid expansion. These challenges include:
- Flood control, stormwater runoff – Land development creates numerous issues relating to flood control and stormwater runoff. Rooftops and concrete reduce the amount of area that can readily absorb rainfall, and construction can lay soil bare and susceptible to being washed away. Lawn chemicals running off residential areas can affect water quality in nearby streams and lakes. Larger communities are now required to obtain Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System permits, which provide details about how they handle stormwater issues, and developers of construction sites larger than one acre are required to follow these stormwater regulations.
- Wastewater issues in new developments -- When development occurs in previously rural areas outside of Omaha and Lincoln, wastewater treatment for these developments becomes an important planning issue. When new housing developments are proposed, city and county planners, and the interested public, need to consider whether homeowners will be permitted to own acreages with their own septic systems, if a treatment system will need to be designed for the development, or whether there should be a cooperative effort to hook new developments into a larger community treatment system. Smaller communities also face infrastructure issues when regional growth is creating higher demands on their wastewater treatment systems.
- Air quality – Vehicles, industry and construction all contribute to more pollutants in the air of this region compared to less populated areas of the state. Despite all of this activity, Nebraska is an “attainment state,” meaning it is in compliance with federal air quality standards.
Planning for Growth
Planning and regional coordination are two keys to maintaining growth while minimizing the environmental impacts of increased population. For example, the Papio Missouri Partnership and the Papio-Missouri Natural Resources District are taking regional approaches to some of the important environmental issues in Omaha and surrounding communities. The partnership has led to the development of a unified approach to develop stormwater management plans. Comprehensive studies have also been conducted to assess flood control in the Papio Creek watershed, and the conclusion is that more flood control is needed, and should be pursued before urban growth makes it impossible to obtain the land.
In addition, planning in Lincoln and Omaha and other urban areas has led to incorporation of trails, green spaces, stormwater management, increased tree cover and the overall management of “sprawl.” As these communities continue their inevitable growth, continued cooperative planning will be essential to reduce the environmental impacts of our growing population.
Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality
1200 "N" Street, Suite 400
P.O. Box 98922
Lincoln, Nebraska 68509