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Water system expected to spur growth
By Marion Rhodes, Omaha World-Herald, November 8, 2004

A new water system being built in Washington County is expected to play a vital role in the area's future growth.

Promises of more and cleaner water, an emergency backup system and improved fire protection in some areas are expected to draw more homeowners into the countryside.

"It's definitely a selling factor," said Steve Huber, vice president of Curt Hofer Construction, whose affiliate is planning a 100-lot subdivision east of Highway 133.

After a two-year push by some residents, work has begun on the rural water project, which includes a water tower and pump station in Blair and a 35-mile distribution system in the southeastern part of the county.

The pipelines will supply water to about 270 households south of Blair and north of the Douglas County line, between Nebraska Highways 75 and 133.

Anticipated county growth was a driving force behind the $3.5-million project, County Planning Director Doug Cook said.

With 3,100 additional residents since 1990, based on U.S. Census estimates, Washington County is among the state's fastest-growing counties.

Its proximity to Omaha makes it attractive for commuters who want to spend their free time away from city life.

The area between Highway 133 and Fort Calhoun, in particular, is growing. In recent years, several subdivisions have sprung up, and Huber's new development is expected to join the corridor next year.

"That seems to be the place to be," Cook said.

For Huber's development, Cottonwood Creek, the water system means more houses can be built on smaller lots.

Without rural water, Huber said, homes probably would have been built on five-acre lots to avoid overextending local wells. Because the developer agreed to connect to the new system, most lot sizes have been scaled down to two or three acres.

Rural homes currently draw water from community wells, which produce a limited quantity and often bad quality, said Dick Sklenar, special projects coordinator for the Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources District. The new system addresses those problems, which Sklenar said will increase the resale value of connected homes.

Hookups to a rural water system also provide a draw for people who are unfamiliar with wells, Huber said.

"People just feel better about that," he said.

The system will connect to 10 fire hydrants west and south of Fort Calhoun, covering about 50 percent of a district that now relies on tank trucks, Fire Chief Mike Smith said.

A connection to the Metropolitan Utilities District will ensure an emergency supply of water in case a natural disaster such as a tornado or earthquake disables Blair's water plant, which is the primary water source for the distribution system.

"It's a good thing for the existing people, and it's a good thing for the future people," Cook said.

Not everyone welcomes the changes expected, said Wayne Talbert, one of several residents who have pushed for the improvements.

"A lot of them moved out here to be in the country and have some privacy," Talbert said. For them, making the outlying areas more attractive to development wasn't one of the upsides of the project.

"Trying to convince some of these old-timers and old-towners was a battle. We got tarred and feathered," Talbert said.

As the planning progressed, however, it became clearer that the advantages of the new system will outweigh the disadvantages, Talbert said, and opposition quieted down.

"I don't think it's going to be like you're living right next door to your neighbor, as in Omaha," he said.

The system, which is a joint enterprise of Washington County, the City of Blair and Papio-Missouri NRD, is expected to be up and running by October 2005, Sklenar said.

Residents near the water lines will be able to decide whether to connect to the system, Sklenar said. Hookup fees are $3,500 for a single-family residence. A private service line to the house can cost up to $1,500.

Talbert said most residents now are excited about the system.

"They realized it wasn't going to change things," he said. "It's just going to make it bigger and better."

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