Nowhere to Go

As we look back through history it becomes apparent that the advancement of civilization is characterized by a few notable attributes: expanded economies, functional governments, advanced weaponry, an educated populous, sewer systems… If you’re scratching over your head over the last item, think about it, at the most basic level, is there anything that better says “advanced society” than indoor plumbing? Does a bear, obviously not a very advanced member of the animal kingdom, s**t in the woods? Although there is archeological evidence of societies that had some crude form of indoor commodes and associated sewer systems, the Romans generally get credit for making the bathroom part of the home, right down to the guest towels, via their sophisticated system of aqueducts and sewers and things have progressed from there. Sure, they dumped the accumulated refuse into the Tiber, but hey, you’ve got to start somewhere. Nowadays we take these advanced modes of sanitation for granted but, even now, in the 21st century there are areas of the country that have avoided building the sewer facilities that can support development – as the good people of the southern portion of Sarpy County, Nebraska are finding out.

Before anyone jumps to the conclusion that bathroom doors in Southern Sarpy County all feature hollow cut-outs of half-moons, it must be pointed out that the area is bisected by a natural ridgeline, and the majority of development to date has been in the northern sector. The result of this geographical anomaly is that the northern area has the infrastructure, including sewer systems, to support development while the people and businesses in the more sparsely populated south have had to use alternative modes of waste water removal like septic tanks. This state of sewer imbalance was okay for years, but now Nebraska has decided that if other states, like Iowa, that most Americans couldn’t distinguish on a map, can become magnets for new data centers then the Cornhusker state needs to join the club. And why not, there is plenty of land, it’s cheap and there are tax exemptions a plenty that the erstwhile data center builder can benefit from based on size and number of employees. Unfortunately, for southern Sarpy County their lack of a functional sewer system would make ancient Rome a viable competitor…if they were still around, of course.

Like so many things these days, this dearth of an advanced waste removal system has now become a political issue. This makes sense since you can’t count on every potential newcomer to the area spending $690,000 like Facebook did to build a pump station to move wastewater from its southern location to the north. From a development perspective, pretty much everyone agrees that without a sewage system, and other infrastructure, the future for data centers in southern Sarpy County will look a lot like the present. The outstanding question of course is, who’s going to pay for it? A bill seeking $220 million to help fund the effort has been introduced in the state legislature, but its provision that local property taxes be imposed to make up for any shortfall has the potential to make the natives a little restless since, in this case, residents in both the northern and southern portions of the county would be on the hook. Naturally, the argument against the bill can be characterized as being of the “I got mine, you get yours” variety. The idea of development just doesn’t mean as much when you’re already developed. I don’t know about you, but it always seems just a bit crass when a couple of hundred million stands in the way of progress.

If for no other reason than shame, I think this whole sewer issue will be resolved. Does anyone want to tell the governor that there may not be another “Big Kahuna” coming to town because they don’t find a few hundred porta-potties to be an acceptable sewage solution? No sirree. Southern Sarpy County may be a little late to the game, but ultimately it will become just another historical footnote that reinforces the old maxim that, “our future is in our sewers”.