The saying, “When it rains, it pours,” can often apply to the heavy rain events in Omaha, Neb. where flooding is a concern. Due to the large amount of hard surfaces – roofs, parking lots, streets, etc. – a lot of the rainfall doesn’t soak into the ground. This generates runoff, which can quickly lead to flooding.
On a recent tour, Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Robert Bonnie was able to see firsthand how the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) flood control projects are helping to protect lives and property in Omaha.
NRCS has worked closely with the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District (NRD), headquartered in Omaha, to help repair and prevent flooding damages. USDA programs like the Emergency Watershed Protection Program (EWP) and the Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Act are tools NRCS uses to help manage floodwater in the Omaha area.
Helping to prevent flooding is especially important and challenging in Omaha.
“Omaha is the largest city in Nebraska and one-third of Nebraska’s total population lives within the Papillion Creek Watershed. When flooding damages happen, we have to react quickly. The Emergency Watershed Protection program helps us get the job done fast,” said Papio-Missouri River NRD Assistant General Manager Marlin Petermann.
The Emergency Watershed Protection program is used to help with recovery following a natural disaster. NRCS engineering staff provides assistance in designing disaster recovery measures. NRCS may bear up to 75 percent of the cost of these emergency measures. The remaining 25 percent must come from local sources. In Omaha, that “local source” of funding is often the Papio-Missouri River NRD.
During Under Secretary Bonnie’s visit to Omaha, he toured an EWP site in the Cambridge Oaks subdivision. In 2009, heavy rains and flooding caused the banks of the West Papillion Creek to erode. Large sections of the stream bank slid off into the creek, taking the backyards of several homeowners with it and exposing utility lines. It was determined that if the banks weren’t stabilized, the homes, utilities and property adjacent to the creek in the subdivision could be lost.
A plan was created to help repair the damage and stabilize the creek bank to prevent future erosion problems. The Emergency Watershed Protection program was used to help fund the project.
Another important component to urban flood protection is to install and maintain flood control structures. These structures help capture and control flood water to help prevent damages. The USDA’s Small Watershed Program has been an important tool for installing these flood control structures.
During the tour, he also visited several watershed structures. Some were located in the heart of fully-developed communities, while others were in rural settings. Regardless of their location, these structures all function together to help reduce flooding in the Papillion Watershed and the Omaha area.
In addition to providing flood protection, these flood control structures offer recreational opportunities like hiking, boating and fishing. They also provide much-needed wildlife habitat, according to Marlin Petermann.
“These water control structures create an oasis in a concrete jungle,” Petermann said.
With nearly 900 dams constructed statewide, the Small Watershed Program funded structures have benefited more than 1.6 million acres in Nebraska. Benefits include significant savings in soil erosion, water conservation, road and bridge damage reduction, wetland/upland wildlife habitat creation and most importantly, saved lives and property. The total benefits to Nebraska exceed $37 million each year.