Nebraska Environmental Partnerships
The Nebraska Environmental Partnerships (NEP) program is a unique and innovative effort that helps Nebraska's small and rural governments cope with public health and environmental laws and regulations. The program was originally launched in 1994 as the Nebraska Mandates Management Initiative and was designed to help small Nebraska communities cope with the increasing number of unfunded federal mandates related to environmental regulations. In working with communities, it was discovered that although most communities were not in violation of environmental regulations, many had significant environmental health issues.
Today, the program's focus remains on environmental issues. However, increased attention is being placed on developing and strengthening partnerships to better assist small communities as they respond to an ever-increasing number of environmental health-related regulations and environmental infrastructure needs. The program uses an intergovernmental and interdisciplinary team process to: help local leaders better understand regulations; analyze the local situations and issues; prioritize the problems according to their association; and find technically and financially feasible solutions to the identified problems and risks.
The NEP Team Approach and Process
Because meeting environmental health obligations is increasingly complex, it is often impossible for one person or one organization to have all the expertise to address all of the issues that arise. That is why the NEP program employs an interdisciplinary and intergovernmental team process to work with communities. The NEP team consists of representatives from state agencies, the University of Nebraska, statewide organizations, regional organizations, and the federal government. These partnerships provide communities with a range of technical expertise that is not usually available to smaller communities that have limited resources. This approach also challenges the State to enhance regulatory flexibility without compromising the protection of public health or the environment. A majority of the funding for the Nebraska Environmental Partnerships program comes from the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality and from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Regional office in Kansas City, KS.
Community Assessment Grants
Many times the first steps of the team process are accomplished through a Community Assessment grant. The grant provides funding to the community to hire a consultant of their choice to assess the community's environmental health risks. The consultant brings both local expertise and credibility to the process because of their familiarity with the community. In many instances, the community has relied on their consultant for advice on many issues.
Community Meetings and Assistance
The next step is a meeting between the consultant, NEP team members, and the village/city board to discuss the consultant's technical summary and answer any community questions. The consultant and NEP team members offer continued assistance during the time the community implements their plans. This may include: locating additional resources for such activities as properly closing abandoned wells, establishing wellhead protection areas, identifying potential funding sources for capital projects, or setting up meetings to educate community members on the identified problem(s).
An Issue Summary of NEP's Successes
The program has proven extremely successful in helping small communities address: a lack of fiscal and human resources dedicated to environmental issues; aging infrastructure; a significant number of regulatory requirements; the decline of federal funding; unaccommodating "one-size-fits-all" regulations; the responsibility of managing multiple programs and ever-increasing costs.
Examples of the NEP Participating Communities' Benefits:
- Significant savings of capital expenditures.
- Better community coordination.
- Grassroots empowerment of local leaders and regulatory officials.
- A better understanding of: the regulations, available technical assistance, and environmental financial aid programs.
NEP Program Selected Success Stories
The following information summarizes the benefits some communities have received by participating in the NEP program:
- The Village of Salem (population 160) had high levels of chlorinated solvents, iron, and manganese in their drinking water. A NEP team assisted the Village in exploring and evaluating alternative solutions for providing safe drinking water. The Village selected the option of purchasing water from Falls City, NE by constructing a six-mile transmission line.
- The Village of Benedict (population 230) had a total retention lagoon* system that was discharging. After completing a community assessment, they realized that their water usage averaged 300 gallons/person/day. The Village installed water meters with the hope of reducing the flow to their lagoon system so they can maintain their total retention system. NEP will collect usage data for one year to compare with usage prior to installing meters. (*a large volume lagoon: created to retain wastewater and not meant to discharge any of its wastewater.)
- The Village of Concord's (population 156) technical summary identified drinking water and waste water problems. The community has only one drinking water well. Their water system is not metered, and the total retention lagoon system occasionally discharges. The community received assistance to apply for grant and loan funds to site a new back-up well, install new meters, install new water mains, and replace nine hydrants. The occasional discharge from the existing lagoon system may be solved by the decrease in water usage resulting from the installation of the service meters.
- Assistance from NEP helped the Village of Crab Orchard (population 47) identify options for a public wastewater project. Currently, each resident maintains individual septic tanks. The NDEQ Water Quality Division worked closely with the village to acquire an EPA Hardship Grant. EPA Hardship grants are available for small communities that meet special employment and income criteria. The community is also working with their Natural Resources District to protect their private wells by properly closing abandoned wells. Abandoned wells that are not properly closed are a direct route for numerous pollutants into the ground water.
- The Village of Murray (population 418) originally believed its highest priority was replacing water distribution lines but decided to complete an assessment of its water, wastewater, and solid waste infrastructure and systems. After reviewing information from the technical summary, the Village Board agreed that the highest priority was addressing wastewater deficiencies. The existing mechanical plant is not able to handle the current flows and needs replacement.
- The Village of Diller (population 298) met to discuss the results of its community assessment and agreed that the wastewater system was its first priority because the total retention lagoon was periodically discharging. However, the technical summary showed that the village did not have accurate data to show the actual flows into the lagoon system. The Village Board contracted with an engineering firm to collect the flow data and has completed a list of options based on annual flow. The option selected by the Board was to build an additional lagoon cell to operate a controlled discharge system. The second meeting with the Village resulted in the approval of this construction project.
- The Village of Bloomington (population 129) is experiencing high nitrate levels in its two municipal drinking water wells. Many entities have worked with the village to determine the possible source of the contamination. Possible causes of the nitrate contamination in the wells have been identified as high nitrate levels in the valley, a 1985 anhydrous ammonia spill, and possibly from anhydrous ammonia tanks near the area. The Village is currently working through the Wellhead Protection Plan and is currently meeting nitrate standards but they are close to the limit. However, once the source of the nitrate contamination is identified, it will be important to develop a new well as soon as possible. Another activity being considered is strategically placing two monitoring wells to better determine the nitrate source.
Additional Benefits of the NEP Program
Another major thrust of the NEP is to identify new technologies and new management strategies to solve environmental health problems in small towns at a lower cost than traditional technologies and methods. The information gained through the literature searches and ongoing demonstration projects on a variety of technologies may provide low-cost options needed for these communities with similar difficulties.
EPA Region 7 Contact
Kathleen L. Fenton
CARE Program Manager