Every day, Omaha is being forced to dump about 65 million gallons of raw, untreated sewage into the Missouri River.
The putrid flow is expected to continue for weeks, if not months, until repairs can be made to the city’s flooded wastewater treatment plant near Bellevue.
The plant typically treats and cleans about two-thirds of what the Omaha area flushes or sends down a drain. But it had to be taken offline in March after floodwaters inundated about half of its buildings.
The sewage discharge is legal because of exceptions under state and federal environmental law for events beyond an operator’s control. But officials are concerned about potential health impacts downstream from Omaha.
Until now, three days was the longest sustained stretch that the plant had ever spewed sewage into the Missouri River.
That discharge occurred after the facility sustained tornado damage in 2017. The plant kept operating during the 2011 floods, despite water on the property.
Not this time. Without the plant functioning, sewage has been spilling into the river for more than two weeks, since March 15.
That’s in a city spending more than $2 billion to separate its sewers from storm sewers to limit much smaller flows of raw sewage into the river.
Rebuilding the plant to full strength could take two to three months, Omaha Public Works Director Bob Stubbe recently told the City Council.
Sign up for World-Herald news alerts
Be the first to know when news happens. Get the latest breaking headlines sent straight to your inbox.
Restoring even partial water treatment could take a month or more, said Jim Theiler, assistant director for environmental services.
The city’s repair timeline could complicate some flood recovery efforts downstream, where health officials worry about exposure to bacteria.
Sewage-related bacteria is most concentrated near the Bellevue-area plant; it must travel about 30 miles downstream, past Plattsmouth, before it is diluted enough to significantly reduce health risks, experts say.
Nevertheless, Omaha and Nebraska officials have warned downstream water systems that pull from the Missouri, including St. Joseph and Kansas City, Missouri.
Those municipal water systems should be able to use chemicals to keep their local drinking water safe, officials say.
Downstream wells inundated by flooding will need to be tested, said Bruce Dvorak, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Even without Omaha’s sewage, the floodwaters would not be safe because of human waste from septic tanks, animal waste and chemicals from farm fields, along with chemicals from urban and suburban parking lots and industrial sites, experts say.
Threats from those contaminants make it hard to tell whether Omaha’s sewage is making things worse, said Sheri Bowen, public health administrator in flooded Mills County, Iowa, about 20 miles downstream of Omaha.
But Omaha’s prominence in the environmental threat may increase over time, officials said, because the sewer flows are expected to continue weeks after the floodwaters recede.
“If there’s flooding, you need to assume there’s sewage in the water,” Dvorak said. “Anyone downstream no longer needs to assume. They know it (the water) is contaminated.”
Exposure of open wounds, mouths and eyes to such water risks infection, said Dr. Mark Rupp, chief of the division of infectious diseases at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
Still, experts said, there’s no reason to overreact. Municipal wastewater treatment plants often have to pump raw sewage into waterways after major floods.
Flooding along the Missouri River in the 1990s forced communities, other than Omaha, to pump untreated sewage into the river. A similar thing happened after Hurricane Harvey in Texas last year.
More than 30 wastewater treatment plants across Nebraska were knocked out of operation for at least a little while after this year’s floods, state officials say.
Testing of the river and other waterways by the state, local natural resource districts and others will resume once the flooding subsides, the state says.
“We don’t anticipate any long-term environmental impacts from the discharge,” said Reuel Anderson of the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality. “Really we’re going to see more impacts from the flood than we are from this discharge.”
Hard as it is to imagine, the situation could have been worse. The city’s other wastewater treatment plant, the one just south of the South Omaha Veterans Memorial Bridge over the Missouri River, also nearly flooded.
All that saved the plant from flooding were temporary berms and a whole bunch of sandbags, Theiler said.
It’s not yet clear how much repairs to the Papillion Creek plant will cost. The city privately insures the plant and will receive federal disaster aid, Stubbe said.
The Public Works Department gained access to the waterlogged property for the first time this week. They had to drive over a levee because the plant’s driveway remained underwater and in need of inspection.
Employees are assessing the extent of damage to the plant’s pumps and electrical systems.
From the air this week, the plant still looked like an island. On the ground, the plant “smells like a “septic tank,” officials said.
The city is working with the Omaha Public Power District to restore electricity. Workers will have to clean up a gross mess, officials said. They’ll bring in contractors soon to rebuild.
Officials with the Army Corps of Engineers and the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District are assessing nearby levees to see what repairs are needed. The NRD had previously approved plans to add an additional 2 feet in height to the levees that protect the plant and nearby Offutt Air Force Base.
Higher levees probably would not have stopped this year’s flooding, because so many tributaries of the Missouri River flooded at once, said John Winkler of the NRD.
But the extra protection could have bought more time for sandbagging and temporary berms than the hours plant operators had before they had to shut the plant down for a rising river, he said.
“I think it would’ve probably still inundated and shut down the plant, but they’d have been able to get back in there faster, and it would’ve probably done less damage,” Winkler said.
The flooding did expose a low spot in the levee system near the plant that the NRD and corps will address, he said. That area could be built higher.
World-Herald staff writer Steve Liewer and chief librarian Sheritha Jones contributed to this report.
Floods devastate Nebraska, Iowa in March 2019
A list of ways to help in the aftermath of the widespread flooding in Nebraska and Iowa.
By itself, the 'bombogenesis' would not have dealt Nebraska such a crippling blow. Our harsh winter set the stage. When the two combined, they produced Nebraska’s worst flooding in 50 years and worst blizzard in nearly as many years.
This recent deluge created damage immeasurably worse than anything in Camp Ashland's 100-year history, a National Guard officer says.
After a Facebook plea for help, volunteers show up to save rare San Clemente Island goats from a farm near Gretna.
What is perhaps Omaha’s greatest vulnerability lies in a potential flash flooding event caused by widespread, heavy rain in the Papillion Creek Basin, according to officials with the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District.
Girls will get a makeover and a dress; apparel is still needed for boys headed to prom.
The first Sunday after the flood, with the basement still stinking and roads outside submerged, Pastor Carl Ratcliff preached from a couch, streaming it to church members via Facebook Live. Last Sunday, after the basement had been scrubbed and sanitized by volunteers, he knew it was time to return.
Nebraskans in nine counties who have been impacted by the recent flooding can now apply for assistance from the state and federal government.
Vehicles from across the United States are converging on Nebraska, filled with hay, livestock feed, food and household goods.
The refuge will remain closed until engineers are able to assess the damage. "We have not had to evacuate the visitor center or our headquarters building. The only significant damage has been to our roads," says Tom Cox, director of the refuge.
We compiled stories about some unsung heroes who helped out in the aftermath of the recent flooding.
The #NebraskaStrong drive was hosted by the Nebraska Broadcasters in partnership with the American Red Cross.
Some homeowners may have to wait weeks or months for help.
Just over 8,500 Nebraskans, and a similar number of Iowans, have flood insurance policies. That’s a fraction of the people whose property the flooding has struck. And more could be damaged still as the flood threat lingers.
Conditions continue to indicate Nebraska has not seen the last of flooding, starting with forecasts for this weekend calling for up to an inch of rain Friday into Saturday across portions of Nebraska.
The fridge was packed full of Bud Light and Busch Light, and even the ice maker was still full.
It’s not that the Omaha area didn’t see its share of the record-setting floodwater that turned neighboring towns to islands and caused, so far, hundreds of millions in damage. It's that Omaha was able to withstand it.
In the before-and-after visuals below, using imagery from the EU's Sentinel-2 satellite, you can see whole Nebraska towns fall victim to the floods.
Beer giant Anheuser-Busch is sending more than 100,000 cans of emergency drinking water to Nebraska communities affected by the historic flooding.
Larry the Cable Guy is helping out those affected by the recent floods. All of his proceeds from his concert Wednesday at Pinnacle Bank Arena will be donated to the Red Cross for disaster relief in Nebraska, he said on Twitter.
From the banks of the Platte River, the Otoe Indians gave the wide, meandering waterway a name: Nebrathka. Roughly translated: flat water.
People who populate the towns and small lake communities along the Platte River west and south of Omaha were taking stock of their homes and futures this week. Some of the properties are second homes or summer getaways, but just as many are full-time residences, from small mobile homes to comfortable villas.
“I think farmers are putting their best foot forward even though damage is probably worse than they’re saying,” one industry source said.
The Nebraska Emergency Management Agency has posted estimates of monetary damages from flooding and recent storms across the state.
Steve Nelson, president of the Nebraska Farm Bureau, estimated that there will be $400 million to $500 million in livestock losses and about $400 million in crop losses because spring planting will be delayed or canceled.
Levees along some 210 miles of the Missouri River from Bellevue, Nebraska, to Leavenworth, Kansas, have failed or are at risk of failing, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.
“People leave their dogs in my care and I give them my word that these dogs are going to be safe,” said the owner of a pet motel.
On Thursday, two boats had capsized in the high winds and raging waters east of Fremont during an attempted rescue of a family that had called for help.
After drenching rains Tuesday and heavy snow on Wednesday, Gibbon’s low spots became apparent, first as water filled streets to the curb, and later on Thursday and Friday as the water spilled into lawns and driveways before lapping at foundations. “I’ve never seen so much water, or the force and damage it can do in a short time,” firefighter Jamey Rome said.
As floodwaters in some areas began to level out or slowly recede, the reality set in that cleanup and reconstruction efforts would stretch months — or longer.
Thirty buildings, including the 55th Wing headquarters and the two major aircraft maintenance facilities, had been flooded with up to 8 feet of water, and 30 more structures damaged. About 3,000 feet of the base’s 11,700-foot runway was submerged. No one, though, had been injured.
In areas like Boyd County and Glenwood, water shortages and boil-water orders could last for weeks as critical water and sewer infrastructure is repaired.
Rescuers were unable to get to Betty Hamernik because of the fast current, high waves and wind gusts of 60 mph, according to the Platte County Sheriff’s Office.
The devastation in this recreation-based community of 370 was a testament to the pummeling power of Mother Nature when huge chunks of winter ice are propelled by an estimated 11-foot wall of water. In that way, it was a different scene than many others across flood-ravaged Nebraska.
Work to improve the levee system has been in the planning or construction stages almost from the time the Missouri River dropped below flood stage in the fall of 2011.
When Lisa Lemus was about to close the door to her house in the Paradise Lakes neighborhood, the “backyard of Offutt Air Force Base,” she knew that everything she was leaving behind would be destroyed.
A pickup driver drove around a barricade at Skyline Drive and West Dodge Road about 10:45 p.m. into high floodwaters and stalled, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office said.
When the Elkhorn River marooned the city on one side and the Platte cut off access, the people of Fremont were all in the same position of being stuck. And they were of a united spirit in wanting to do something about that.
Both Ricketts and U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse, whose own Fremont-area home was taking in water, said they had been in contact with President Donald Trump in the past 24 hours. Sasse said he had also spoken to Vice President Mike Pence.
On Saturday, high-rail vehicles provided by Union Pacific Railroad, which traveled along U.P. tracks, transported evacuees to a shelter at Elkhorn Middle School.
Gov. Pete Ricketts toured the Platte and Loup Rivers by helicopter with the Nebraska National Guard and after a short stop in Norfolk, planned to survey the Elkhorn River.
That reality hit home here on Friday as Fremont residents and visitors alike became stranded. In every direction, roads out of town were blocked by floodwaters. Fremont, a town of 26,000, was surrounded.
CJ Cunningham knew things were getting bad when the water was about ankle or knee deep around 1 a.m. Friday, so he took his family as high as he could get them. "We got up on that roof," Cunningham said. Then he called for help.
Rescuers worked through life-threatening conditions overnight to pull hundreds of people from homes encircled by floodwaters — and more work lies ahead.
The Corps of Engineers' explanations of what it did and why will do little to soothe people who experienced flooding along the Missouri River, and political leaders are leveling varying degrees of criticism.
The bill for destroyed roads, bridges, culverts, water systems and flooded buildings will be in the millions.
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts and Nebraska Speaker Jim Scheer, while surveying storm damage in the state, stopped at the Norfolk airport Friday …
Historic flooding in Nebraska and Iowa has claimed at least one life, flooded an unknown number of towns and cut off communities — and the worst could still be ahead.
Seven people were taken to the hospital apparently suffering from hypothermia, at least one in critical condition, according to 911 dispatch reports.
Late Thursday afternoon, the searchers were still finding people holed up in homes surrounded by at least a couple of feet of brown water.
After the Spencer Dam on the Niobrara River was compromised, water washed out a road, a tavern and more, and inundated pastures and livestock pens.
Flooding is causing extensive damage across Nebraska and Iowa on Thursday.
Nebraskans are nervously scanning the skies and checking their basements for water creeping in as forecasters and home contractors warn of flooding that could do some damage.
Hay is going out to help farmers and ranchers as quickly as people donate it.
An official with the state office of the Farm Services Agency said Monday that because of earlier livestock losses from below-zero temperatures and wet animals, the agency has asked the federal government to add another 30 days to the period in which livestock deaths can be covered by federal aid.
The 2 inches of rain that fell on the frozen Niobrara earlier this month sparked more than just flooding. On a long stretch of the river, chunks of ice had nowhere to go but up and across land.
In the 47 years that Mike Kaminski’s dad, Darrell, has lived on the family’s farm along the west side of the Middle Loup River south of Loup City, an area of sandy hills 6 to 8 feet high along the river never had flooded. Not when heavy, wet snow melted. Not when 5 to 6 inches of rain fell. Not until this month.
The two, ages 27 and 59, were found dragging 40-foot roofing trusses from a wooded area near 252nd and State Streets.
The Salvation Army, American Red Cross, United Way and more all have ways in which you can help those affected by the flooding.
Sherman County farmer-cattleman Richard Panowicz knows nothing will ever be the same after this month’s winter cyclone triggered a flood on the Middle Loup River less than a half-mile from his back door.
Tax relief is available to some of those affected by the historic storm and flooding that occurred this month.
The State of Nebraska released some numbers Sunday to help quantify the recent flooding and blizzard in the state.
“They come in overwhelmed by what they have lost at home, and some of them begin to cry,” said volunteer Sabrina Ayala. “Then they see all the volunteers and the support. They are amazed. I’ve heard ‘Thank you’ so many times this week.”
Michelle Oertwich says she picked the right guy after her then-fiancé moved quickly to arrange for a second wedding date.
The bones appear to have been in the water for an extended period of time, officials said.
Brenda Bolkema wondered if she'd be able to see her mother before she died. Then a pilot volunteered to fly her into the flooded town.
More than 800 tons as of Wednesday, if you're keeping tabs.
It's one of the largest campaigns ever for the organization, a spokesman said.
An informal survey of about 100 Pacific Junction residents this week revealed many are still unsure of how to proceed, an official said. Fifty percent of respondents said they were unclear about their next step, 40% vowed to stay and 10% indicated they were leaving for good.
Scott E. Goodman, 30, was swept away by floodwaters near Norfolk on March 14. His body has not been recovered.