As Zameer Ingram dropped a line into the Fontenelle Park lagoon earlier this week, the sunlit ripples emanating from his bobber and the children racing shopping carts on a shoreline trail took him back to little-kid times.
Fishing gives a body time to think. Fifteen-year-old Zameer was thinking mainly about the good old days, and not much about Omaha’s sewer overhaul, the primary reason that the city recently expanded and embellished the lagoon in his neighborhood city park.
“All of this was just dirt for a long time,” Ingram said. “Seeing it come so far kind of takes me back a little bit, to when my cousin Iggy and my brother and me played up here all the time. We used to run up and splash each other with water.”
The water was dirtier back then than it is now. The lagoon was shallower. There weren’t as many fish in it. It was surrounded by a golf course.
And no one back then expected the lagoon to play a significant role in Omaha’s effort to meet a federal order to clean up the runoff and wastewater that the city dumps into the Missouri River. Now it plays that role.
Mayor Jean Stothert, City Councilman Ben Gray and other city officials will make speeches Thursday to mark the opening of the lagoon in the north Omaha park.
The $7 million worth of construction on the lagoon and a new trail around it was finished in fall 2018. But now that new native plants have had time to grow and green a bit, the city decided to have what it’s calling a celebration of the completion. It’s scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Thursday at the lagoon, near the intersection of Fontenelle Boulevard and Ames Avenue.
The lagoon is part of Omaha’s massive sewer overhaul effort. The whole thing has been projected to cost more than $2 billion, with work lasting at least through 2037. All sewer users in the metro area are helping to pay for the work required when the federal government told Omaha it had to reduce the amount of pollution it dumps into the Missouri River.
The city often releases wastewater from sanitary sewers, including raw human waste, into the river because its combined storm and sanitary sewers and wastewater treatment plant can’t handle significant rainfalls.
To solve the problem, the city primarily has been separating many of its storm sewers from sanitary sewers. It also has turned to what it calls “green infrastructure” projects. Those include features in certain parks — including lagoons in Adams and Spring Lake Parks and, at Elmwood Park, a series of low dams — to slow the flow of water into the sewers.
Fontenelle Park is home to the latest such project. It came about when the city’s plans to close the Fontenelle Golf Course converged with city officials’ interest in finding less expensive, more environmentally friendly ways to clean up Omaha’s wastewater.
The city closed the 9-hole Fontenelle Golf Course in 2012. It was losing money, but it had devotees who fervently opposed the closing as representing a reduction in recreational opportunities in north Omaha.
The city touted improvements to Miller Park Golf Course in north Omaha and said the Fontenelle Park improvements would add recreational amenities, including a trail, improved fishing and a disc golf course.
Contractors made the lagoon larger and deeper. It grew from 6.5 acres to 8 acres. It was an average of 2 feet deep. Now it’s an average of 7 feet deep, 11 feet at its deepest points.
The project almost tripled the amount of water the lagoon can hold: from 12 acre-feet to 31 acre-feet. That holds back rainwater and snowmelt so the water will be slowly released into the combined sewers and eventually the sewage treatment plant.
Sign up for The World-Herald's afternoon updates
Receive a summary of the day’s popular and trending stories from Omaha.com.
Only rainwater and snowmelt will go into the lagoon. The water comes from newly separated storm sewers in areas south and west of the park. To keep the lagoon clean, the storm water will be filtered as it enters Fontenelle Park from the neighborhoods, trapping sediment and debris in giant concrete boxes, said Jim Theiler, the city’s assistant Public Works director.
“Then our staff comes and cleans those out,” he said.
The sediment and debris go to the landfill instead of into the lagoon. That makes for a cleaner lagoon that doesn’t fill up with sediment like it did before, Theiler said.
The deeper, cleaner lake should lead to better fishing, he said. The city is working with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission on the fish part of the equation.
The project included adding a paved trail around the lagoon, plus two concrete platforms for anglers to cast from and four stone landings at the water’s edge.
The disc golf course has not yet materialized. It’s still officially in the plans for Fontenelle Park. City officials said Wednesday that it remains under consideration.
On Tuesday, Zameer Ingram stood on one of the casting platforms, trying to get a 4-inch sunfish off his hook without ending the little creature’s life.
“I’m a catch-and-release guy,” Zameer said.
He has mixed feelings about the new lagoon in his old neighborhood park. He’s glad that the park is no longer a construction site, “finally.” He likes that the water’s cleaner.
“It’s still something nostalgic,” Zameer said. “I feel like they should’ve kept the golf course. But I feel it’s an improvement in a way. It gives people more opportunities to fish and watch the ducks.”