There is an interesting and important demographic shift taking place in my state. And, it isn’t only my state that is experiencing this shift. The change is the gradual depopulation in large segments of rural areas in Nebraska. Local economies are becoming more and more based in bigger towns. Many of Nebraska’s small towns were built with a strong local farm economy as their base. But, the changing demographic is resulting in fewer and fewer farm families to support that economic platform. Agricultural production is getting more expensive to participate in, more efficient through technology, and more consolidated. This leads to larger farms and fewer local farm families to sell product, buy groceries, and send their kids to school. The impact of that dynamic is felt nowhere more strongly than in the small communities that have served those areas.
Nebraska is a large state with relatively few people. In all of its seventy-seven thousand square miles there reside only about 1.8 million people. Most of those folks live or work in larger cities like Omaha and Lincoln or near major transportation hubs and corridors. The further you move away from those centers, the more you see declining population. Many small towns in those areas are shrinking in size and increasing in average age. In some cases, towns can see their demise in the next generation or two.
These towns, whether in Nebraska or elsewhere, have been the backbone of our country. Small, local economies demand strong work ethic. Community spirit and common purpose craft people who know how to get a job done. Common sense and can-do attitudes are natural characteristics in these typically close knit communities. These towns have produced well-rounded, solid citizens for our country for many decades. As a country, they prop us up. They are worth saving.
And yet, in the realm of environmental regulation, small towns are caught in the same mix as their larger brethren. Infrastructure issues and the demands of water quality permits often are financially oppressive. The need to employ and retain qualified facility operators is very challenging. The need, and opportunity, for redevelopment is incredible but the ability to compete for assistance is daunting. The goal of regulatory common sense here is critical. A particular small town I recall was made up of a high percentage of residents living on fixed income. The town’s location and situation limited its prospects of growth. The local wastewater facility was outdated and capable of only meeting secondary standards. In order to meet new ammonia standards, major facility upgrades would be needed. Environmentally, the discharge was to a small stream in a farming area that would never realize a benefit from the miniscule reduction in ammonia from this minor source. But, the engineer delivered the solemn news to the Town Board that an upgrade would cost nearly a million dollars. For an aging community with fewer than 70 hook ups, the financial reality was overwhelming. Sadly, the state had little choice in calculating discharge limits.
This, and other similar examples, led Nebraska to look into better ways to make decisions. Objective use of data that examines demographic, economic, social and other information can help us make better decisions which are not as burdensome on small communities. This can be done without threatening our goal of environmental protection. State decision makers need to be able to look at each situation and decide what is right based on all available information rather than a script that applies to all. And, EPA has to accommodate these flexible approaches as we roll out more and more aggressive regulations. Place by place decisions based on local circumstances are a must. This is not the easiest way to run environmental programs but it is the right way. We owe it to these vanishing small towns that have helped make our heritage, and our country, strong.