Earthmovers excavate a scenic gully on the edge of Elmwood Park in central Omaha to reroute storm water into a nearby creek.
To the northeast, the city has closed the public golf course at Fontenelle Park and, among recreational changes, proposes to enlarge a storm water and fishing lagoon.
To the south, at Spring Lake Park, another Omaha storm water and fishing pond is planned, this one in an area that wildlife watchers prize for its natural habitat. In ways large and small, the city is turning to eastern Omaha's parks to shave millions from the $1.7 billion cost of a federally mandated sewer modernization project.
City officials say most of the changes — wetlands, ponds and water-filtering landscapes — build upon the parks' historic role in collecting urban drainage while adding features such as fishing and picnicking.
“We're not doing anything that hasn't been done throughout time,” Mayor Jim Suttle said. “All we're doing now is managing the storm water. We'll be doing this up and down each of the watersheds where it makes sense.”
Whether the changes improve or harm a park depends on perspective. Some park users are excited; others are angry.
Parks that could be affected and work already under way
Partial list of parks that could be affected
Adams Park – Minne Lusa Basin
Forest Lawn – Minne Lusa Basin
Miller Park – Minne Lusa Basin
Bemis Park – Burt-Izard Basin
Dewey Park – Burt-Izard Basin
Gifford Park – Burt-Izard Basin
Leavenworth Park – Burt-Izard Basin
Bohemian Cemetery – Saddle Creek Basin
Norris Middle School – Saddle Creek Basin
Deer Hollow Park South – South Interceptor Basin
Spring Lake Park – South Interceptor Basin
Dorothy Patach Natural Environmental Area – Ohern/Monroe Basin
Upland Park – Ohern/Monroe Basin
38th and Frances – Ohern/Monroe Basin
Hanscom Park – Leavenworth Basin
Work at Elmwood Park
The city is rerouting runoff from 29 acres of the adjoining neighborhood into the creek that flows through the park. To do so, crews are digging into a ravine on the side of the golf course, where they will bury a storm water sewer to carry runoff under the park road and into the creek. Once the pipe is buried, the city will landscape the ravine with several filtering basins to catch surface runoff. About 12 large trees are being removed from Elmwood, as are a number of smaller scrub trees near the creek. Per parks policy, the city is replacing the lost trees with 50 young ones.
Work at Spring Lake Park
In the ravines that straddle F Street, southwest of Spring Lake Drive, a pond, wetland and silt basins to catch and filter runoff would be built and the existing creek would be extended. The proposed 2-acre pond would be stocked with fish. Design is under way, with construction to begin in 2014.
Work at Fontenelle Golf Course
The city hasn't decided what it will do, but public input will be taken. Options unveiled so far vary. One would use sediment from enlarging the storm water lagoon to fill in the valley, making it flatter and more of a recreational field. Another would convert the valley into a natural prairie and build a stream and filtering basins in it. The city proposes making the storm water changes by 2016. Recreational features replacing golf include the larger fishing pond, walking and running trails, a Frisbee golf course and picnic tables.
Diana Failla, president of the Elmwood Park Neighborhood Association, said she's hopeful that the project at Elmwood will become a park asset.
“Not being an engineer or sewage control expert, I can only hope that the city is not compromising our beautiful parks for a $2 billion project that could have gone through less intrusive areas,” she said.
“We'll see. For some parks, I believe this project may be potentially harmful ... (but) the city may not have a choice as to where it can run piping, tear up and restructure.”
The city won't decide for years the total number of parks it will use. It is evaluating how each might fit into individual neighborhood sewer projects over a 15-year period.
Other parks that could be affected include Bemis, Dewey, Hanscom, Benson and Adams, based on a partial list the city shared with the Environmental Protection Agency in February.
The city is rebuilding sewer lines east of 72nd Street because, about 50 times a year, raw sewage flushes into streams following rains. That violates the federal Clean Water Act. About 770 cities face similar problems.
Although Omaha is required to cut sewage overflows, it was the city that chose to use parks as part of its solution, said Steve Goans of Nebraska's Department of Environmental Quality, which is overseeing Omaha's compliance with the federal law.
Omaha's potential savings per project depends on how a park's changes tie into neighborhood sewer plans, said Marty Grate, the city's public works official overseeing the sewer updates.
The city isn't using every park, he said, only those where doing so makes sense. In the Elmwood area, the city's use of the park will trim about $500,000 from an $8.1 million neighborhood sewer project. At Spring Lake, the proposal could save more than $3 million from a nearly $16 million sewer project. Savings at Fontenelle haven't been calculated because plans there haven't been finalized.
Such projects save money by giving storm water a place to pool before draining into sewers. This slows some runoff, which lessens the peak volume of water going into sewers. A smaller peak means some sewer pipes can be smaller and others might not need to be built.
Grate said ratepayers are unlikely to notice the difference on individual sewer bills. That's because the savings are dwarfed by the cost of the overall project. But the changes could help avoid other inconveniences. The Elmwood-area work will allow the city to avoid tearing up 8˝ blocks of the adjacent neighborhood.
And with each park project, Grate said the city will incorporate designs to make them an amenity.
In addition to parks, the city is seeking storm water partners with available green space, such as cemeteries and schools.
“It's a win-win,” he said.
Jim Ducey, an Omaha birder and with a master's degree in habitat management, said the city isn't adequately taking natural features into consideration.
“In each of these instances, they're looking at parks as city property that they can do whatever they want with,” Ducey said. “They're not looking at it like a park, but rather as free space to address storm water runoff. I can't necessarily say that what they are doing is completely negative, but there needs to be more respect given to the parks and some of the features they're changing.”
At Spring Lake, habitat around an oak-hickory woods is in jeopardy. The project area includes natural springs and tree species difficult to find elsewhere in Omaha. The city did redraw some of its plans there to allay such concerns.
“Those plans look OK, as long as they are completed with an eye to leaving the vegetation intact in the more sensitive areas,” said retired University of Nebraska professor David Sutherland, a botanist.
Up around Fontenelle Park, some residents and golfers wonder whether the sewer project was a behind-the-scenes factor in the golf course closure. Suttle maintains that Omaha's storm water plans and the golf course decision “had nothing to do with each other.”
Councilman Ben Gray, whose district includes Fontenelle, said the course's demise was mostly about steep declines in the number of golfers and revenues. But, he says, storm water savings were a factor.
“I won't say it's insignificant,” he said. “We have to find places to hold water. ... And we need to be looking at a park that's more inclusive, that has more than just a few things going for it, like golf.”
Construction of an enlarged lagoon and associated water-filtering features at Fontenelle could begin about 2016, but Fontenelle-area residents say the city has a poor track record at nearby Miller Park. Litter washed into the pond and was left untended for long stretches.
Grate said the city has since modified the design at Miller and assigned a crew to maintain such projects citywide.
Asked if the storm water sites would smell, Grate said no sewage would flow into them.
“I want anything that is going to better the community,” said Marvin McClarty Sr., a retired Omaha police sergeant and north Omaha resident who co-hosts a call-in show on community access television. “But how are we supposed to react to something we know nothing about? Other people should be concerned too, because these things need to be better explained.”
Grate said Omaha is turning to parks for multiple reasons: As city-owned property, the city has direct physical access to the land and can control design, construction and long-term maintenance. Parks offer large open spaces for development and tend to be in low-lying areas.
“There's a logical element to this,” Grate said.
In South Omaha, neighbors interviewed generally embraced the proposal for turning a Spring Lake ravine into a fishing pond.
“The park has been in a state of benign neglect from about 1930 or so,” said Janet Bonet, a longtime neighborhood advocate. “It's only because the park has some practical use as a water feature that the city is willing to invest in it.
“But this is one of those lucky moments ... when a community's dream (of rebuilding the lake) has a government application. It's going to be good.” Contact the writer: 402-444-1102, email@example.com
For removed trees less than 4-inch caliper (four inches in diameter) – 1 tree replaced
For removed trees between 4-8 caliper – 2 trees replaced
For removed trees between 8-16 caliper – 3 trees replaced
For removed trees between 16-24 caliper – 4 trees replaced
For removed trees between 24-36 caliper – 5 trees replaced
For removed trees over 36 caliper - 6 trees replaced
Outside of parks, the standards for the sewer modernization project generally require a one-to-one replacement. However, on streets that have been designated as greenscapes or are within areas designated to be of civic importance, two trees must be planted for each tree removed, if the trees can be planted in conformance with city planting guidelines.