By Ned Bagniewski

Cities take up less than three percent of land surface, but they are responsible for producing between sixty to eighty percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. And like any city in the world today, Omaha, Nebraska must find ways to adapt to climate change. 

This spring, Nebraska suffered catastrophic flooding that resulted in over two billion dollars in damages. The flooding resulted from a combination of a wet winter with a rapid spring melt and heavy, sustained rains falling on still-frozen ground. Ice dams formed in local tributaries to the Missouri River, and eventually broke loose. As the ice dams broke they released a sudden wall of water, breaching levees, flooding communities, washing out bridges, and taking human lives.

Planning for adaptation: While attributing a single catastrophic weather event to climate change is extremely difficult, it is reasonable to say that climate change is increasing the likelihood that extreme events will take place. From 1958 to 2016, the Northern Plains have seen a thirty-percent increase in heavy downpours, and the number of flood events has increased as well. As the atmosphere warms, the potential for increased evaporation and drying of soils increases, as does the moisture content carrying capacity of the atmosphere.

Green tactics: Worldwide, 238 cities with a combined population of 436 million residents have pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Even though Omaha has taken little action to address the issue specifically, the city has been exploring green infrastructure for stormwater retention and treatment.

  • City employees have teamed with two local universities to experiment with various vegetation arrangements and subgrade materials, to find what best works for the area. In fact, Omaha Stormwater has developed twelve rain gardens and bioretention ponds recently. These installations can contribute to increased groundwater recharge, improved water quality, and reduced runoff entering the hard stormwater infrastructure during heavy precipitation events. 
  • A beneficial step in ensuring sustainable water resource availability for the area would be to use a sustainability indicator scorecard that measures agency performance, based on topics of water governance, drought and emergency preparedness, water monitoring, water affordability and social justice, water-use efficiency and conservation, water quality, and watershed protection. 
  • Curbside compost pickup had been available under the City’s previous waste collection contract, but the mayor recently announced that this service would be eliminated in the new contract to reduce costs. Sending the compostable material to the landfill would result in it being decomposed anaerobically and thus increase methane emissions. Fortunately, the mayor has agreed to continue reviewing proposals from waste removal contractors in an effort to maintain curbside compost pickup. While landfill waste decomposition makes up less than one percent of the average city’s carbon emissions, composting is one area where improvements could be made.
  • The power generation facilities that provide residents with electricity are also related to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Nebraska’s power utilities are public and governed by a board of directors. There are different power districts throughout the State, and Omaha is served by the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD). In the past three years, OPPD has gone from approximately twenty percent renewable energy generation to approximately forty percent by the end of 2019. Additionally, Omaha’s first community solar installation is expected to come online this fall, and all of the shares sold out rapidly enough that OPPD is already planning a second community solar development. The OPPD board of directors recently announced a plan to study even further decarbonization of power generation in the Omaha metropolitan region.

Danger of droughts: Climate impacts to Nebraska, and the Omaha area, are projected to include warmer weather, wetter winters and drier summers, and extended periods of drought. Under a business-as-usual greenhouse gas emissions scenario, the average July temperature of Omaha by the end of this century is expected to be near 97˚F, which is comparable to the current climate near the United States-Mexico border. 

Omaha has already experienced a quick but dangerous drought that continued through the summer of 2012 into 2013. A combination of high summer temperatures and minimal precipitation caused depleted groundwater reserves for much of the State of Nebraska. Without drastic reductions in global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, it is anticipated that these widespread impacts will continue to affect the Omaha metro area. 

The city government should step up its efforts to identify vulnerabilities in infrastructure and any ensuing risk for residents in order to better understand how to mitigate the impacts of climate change. Omaha’s civic leaders should strive to find meaningful ways to engage the population and come up with tangible solutions. It is never too late to begin taking corrective action, but the longer the city waits, the more difficult and expensive these solutions will become. By acting now, Omaha can become a more equitable, sustainable, prosperous, and resilient community for all.

Ned Bagniewski

Ned Bagniewski is a graduate student in the Online Master of Natural Resources program at the Virginia Tech Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability (CLiGS). This story is based on Ned’s report written as part of the Urban Ecology course.