This story was first published in the Summer 2017 issue of the UNO Magazine
Drive any direction in the Omaha metropolitan area and—sooner or later— you'll cross a branch of the Papillion Creek Watershed. Most commuters and residents pay little attention to these peacefully flowing ribbons of mud-stained water—as long as they stay between their banks.
What those who live and work in the metro area may not realize, however, is that those snaking branches form the most flood-prone region in the state—a massive triangle surrounding 402 square miles of Douglas, Sarpy and Washington counties.
That’s home to one-third of Nebraska’s population. And should the clouds drop enough rain, flooding creek waters could cause an economic calamity on par with any disaster the state has ever suffered.
It’s happened before.
Taming the Papio
The Papillion Creek watershed is made up of three primary creeks—Little Papillion Creek, Big Papillion Creek and West Branch Papillion Creek. Once joined, they form the Papillion Creek that empties into the Missouri River near Bellevue. Fed by rain and runoff, the water that flows under numerous bridges and past thousands of homes and businesses each day originates north of Omaha on a ridgeline near Bennington.
Today, the branches of Papillion Creek flow much the same way they have for eons. However, many man-made changes have tamed the waterways and reduced the threat they pose to Omaha.
"The waterways have been changed, there’s been straightening of the channels for agriculture and flood control," says Amanda Grint, a water resources engineer with the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District. "In the ’20s through the ’40s there was a lot of work done to channelize, straighten and build dams and levees."
Nebraska’s 24 Natural Resources Districts were created to manage flood control, soil erosion, irrigation run-off and groundwater quantity and quality issues. They are charged under state law with 12 areas of responsibility, including flood control, soil erosion and groundwater management.
The Papio-Missouri River NRD currently owns and operates more than 90 miles of levees and channel improvements in the Papillion Creek watershed. Recent flood control measures include the addition of reservoirs, including Dam site 15A, located at 168th and Fort streets. The NRD broke ground on this project, its largest to date, in October 2015. Prairie Queen Reservoir at 132nd Street and U.S. Highway 370 in Papillion was the last reservoir completed. It opened in 2015 and today is a popular destination for anglers, bicyclists, walkers and joggers.
While reservoirs and an extensive trail system that follows the creeks are popular destinations for outdoor recreation, canoeing, kayaking, swimming and wading in the branches of Papillion Creek is discouraged due to fast-flowing currents, contaminated water and dangerous conditions.
In 2004, former UNO student and wrestler Jesse Greise tragically drowned while kayaking in the creek near Papillion. His kayak capsized after going over a 5-foot drop-off near the Washington Street bridge.
While the addition of reservoirs and trails have provided numerous safe recreational opportunities and eased the threat of flooding, the potential for catastrophic floods like those that hit the Omaha metro area in 1959, 1964 and 1965 remains.
The 1964 flood remains one of the most costly natural disasters to strike the Omaha area. According to reports from the Omaha World-Herald, that "100-year storm" produced eight inches of rain on June 16 and 17 of that year. A massive wall of water formed on Hell Creek near Boys Town and flowed into the West Branch of Papillion Creek. The powerful swell stretched 50 feet across and produced waves 5-foot high that pushed homes off their foundations and leveled garages.
North of Dodge Street, more than 4,500 acres of farmland near the Big Papillion Creek was flooded. South of Dodge, the Big Papillion flooded 108 homes and 34 businesses. Ninety-five trailer homes in Millard were swept more than a half-mile downstream and seven people died.
The disaster compelled the Army Corps of Engineers to draft a comprehensive flood control plan that was completed in 1967. The plan proposed building 21 dams and reservoirs. In the 50 years since, however, only nine have been built.
Fighting flooding…and development
Originally, Omaha’s flood control plan was the responsibility of the federal government. It was turned over to the Natural Resources District upon that organization’s creation in the mid-1970s. The NRD’s efforts have included the construction of dams such as those at Wehrspan, Zorinsky, Walnut Creek and Prairie Queen reservoirs.
While those provide some protection against flooding, the threat of increased runoff grows each time more concrete is poured or a new home is built.
"With development, there is more pavement, mass grading and rooftops," Grint says. "This creates more mass runoff."
In addition to creating more runoff, new housing developments, shopping malls and office buildings are springing up in places once slated for flood control reservoirs, according to Papio Creek-Missouri River NRD General Manager John Winkler.
"Once we lose a site to development, we can't just move it downstream," says Winkler, who graduated from UNO in 1991 and has been with the NRD since 2006.
"We rely on cities to keep those areas clear. We used to go to land owners and go through the negotiation process to purchase the land. But those land owners have developers knocking on their doors. We just don't have the resources to buy 100 acres on six different locations. We tell the land owner that we can't pay them until 2040 and their jaw hits the floor. They're saying to us that’s their retirement."
Winkler cited a housing development near 180th and Harrison as a recent example of urban sprawl covering up an area once considered for a flood control reservoir.
In the areas controlled by the NRD, the organization employs hundreds of gauges in the creeks that transmit real-time data to the Natural Resources District, U.S. Geological Service and National Weather Service, the agency charged with issuing flood warnings. The current rate of flow, measured in cubic feet per second (cfs), and the flood stage, measured in feet of elevation, in the Papillion Creek watershed can be viewed at water.weather.gov/ahps/
Depending on the terrain, flows on the branches of the Papillion Creek can vary from about 150 cfs to 180 cfs under ordinary conditions. But that can change rapidly after a large storm or in periods of heavy runoff. When a storm dumped 2 inches of rain across the metro area June 16 this year, a gauge located near downtown Papillion recorded a spike in the flow from 172.3 cfs to 2,425.4 cfs and a rise in flood stage from just over 1 foot to 14.92 feet.
"It’s a 'flashy' system," Grint says. "The creeks can come up fast. It’s not uncommon to see increases of 10 to 15 feet after a big storm."
The Ames, Iowa, Flood: What If It Happened Here?
Still, Omaha’s safe from any more Papio floods, right?
Perhaps not, if you consider what happened over three days in 2010 when Ames, Iowa, was inundated with more than 9 inches of rain. The resultant floods caused one death, left the community of 56,000 without drinking water for days, and caused more than $40 million in damages to the Iowa State University campus alone.
Because it’s likely a weather event of that magnitude could hit the Omaha metropolitan area, meteorologists used rain gauge and radar data from the National Weather Service to reconstruct the Ames storm over the Papillion Creek Watershed.
The study estimated a total of 13,240 acres of land would be inundated with water — commercial and industrial tracts, residences, farms, civic spaces, roads, railways and more. Additional estimates calculated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in conjunction with 2010 census data estimated damage totaling $2.1 billion with more than 13,000 displaced people. The expenses included $1.5 billion in building losses and $601 million dollars in lost infrastructure.
It’s a hypothetical, of course.
But it’s something Grint, Winkler and others must consider seriously.
"Flooding is the biggest risk to the Papillion Creek Watershed," Grint says. "Water quantity and quality are our two highest priorities with the Omaha metro so populated, it’s a concern for us."
Water quantity and quality are our two highest priorities with the Omaha metro so populated, it’s a concern for us.
- Amanda Grint, Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District
UNO Students Playing Role in Clean-Up Effort
In 2012, the Nebraska Watershed Network was formed at UNO to help monitor and ease the threat to people and wildlife caused by unclean water. Its mission is to involve students, citizen scientists and local stakeholders in projects that focus on the environmental stewardship of freshwater resources. Depending on funding levels, the number of UNO students participating has ranged from one to 11 during the six years the network has been operational.
As part of its many research efforts, the network’s researchers test water quality in the Papillion Creek watershed each spring. Depending on the weather, those tests reveal varying levels of coliform bacteria, as well as herbicides such as atrazine and other agriculture chemicals including nitrates and phosphates. Their findings reveal levels that exceed standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
No matter what the cause, there’s agreement that the water in Papillion Creek is dangerously dirty.
According to information posted on OmahaCSO.com, the home page for Clean Solutions for Omaha, the city is one of 772 communities nationwide that the federal government has ordered to reduce combined sewer system overflows to improve water quality in receiving streams.
Under this federal mandate, Omaha must reduce its annual number of overflows to the Missouri River and Papillion Creek from about 52 per year to less than eight per year. The mandate is not federally funded, so local users of the system will be required to pay for the improvements. According to a 2011 Omaha World-Herald article, it could cost up to $3 billion to modernize the city’s sewer system. Improvements began that year and are expected to take 18 years to complete.
While Papillion Creek is not a source for drinking water for the metro area, the danger to public health posed by the contaminated water has a much larger reach, Kolok says.
"Papillion Creek drains into the Missouri River. Do we really want to advocate dumping sewage in the river when other municipalities downstream are using it for their drinking water? Is that the appropriate thing to do?" he says.
A Flood of Bacteria
Papillion Creek doesn't need a heavy rain to threaten Omaha residents. In fact, with as little as a tenth of an inch of rain, the water flowing past thousands of area homes and businesses can hide an invisible danger.
Water quality analysis of the creek shows it routinely contains abnormally high levels of coliform bacteria—more commonly known as E. coli. The source of the harmful bacteria has long been debated. Some researchers believe it is introduced to the water by livestock and wildlife. Others believe it is a by-product of an antiquated sewer system, known as a Combined Sewer Overflow (CSO), that runs beneath the bustling streets of the city’s oldest neighborhood between the Missouri River and 72nd Street.
Commonly used in cities along the East Coast and throughout the Midwest in the 1800s and 1900s, CSO systems have a significant flaw. With as little as a tenth-inch of rain, the troughs overflow and their contents intermingle, creating a putrid cocktail teeming with nastiness. The disease-carrying mix eventually dumps from 29 outflows into surface waterways — including the branches of the Papillion Creek.
John Winkler, general manager of the Papio Creek-Missouri River Natural Resources District says the sewers are only partially to blame.
"Most of the water-quality issues are caused by wildlife," Winkler says. "The CSO has an impact, but most is generated by wildlife."
UNO professor Alan Kolok, who serves as director of the Nebraska Watershed Network, disagrees. His research shows the sewer system used by hundreds of thousands of Omaha residents is polluting the water with the harmful bacteria.
"It is very clear that raw sewage is entering Papillion Creek," Kolok wrote in a response for this article. "If the population is 446,000, and if only 10 percent are serviced CSO sewage, that means the sewage from 44,000 people periodically enters the local rivers when it rains. Given that each person weighs 100 pounds, on average that means the waste from 4.4 million pounds of human biomass is periodically entering the creek."
"What wild animal population in urban Omaha comes anywhere remotely close to that biomass? Geese? Dogs? Coliform in Papillion Creek originates from humans."
This article appeared in the UNO Magazine - the flagship publication of the University of Nebraska at Omaha, for alumni, faculty, staff, students, donors and friends of UNO.
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