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Deep Dive: A look at Boise’s proposal for the future of waste water

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Boise’s water renewal system coluld soon move into the future. 

On Tuesday, Boise City Council and the public got its first glimpse into the city’s water renewal utility plan for the next two decades. The plan includes upgrades to aging infrastructure and new processes to meet regulations and more capacity. But the centerpiece of the plan is the inclusion of recycled water in Boise’s future. 

Public Works Director Steve Burgos told the city council the inclusion of recycled water will help Boise weather climate change as water becomes scarce in the Treasure Valley’s high desert climate. He mentioned Boise’s history of building its first water treatment plan in 1946, decades before the Clean Water Act, as an example of Boise’s history of being proactive on environmental issues. 

“This really is our generation’s turn,” he said. “I do feel strongly we’re stepping up as part of today’s generation to address what we know is coming.”

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The city projects the plan will cost between $890 million and $1.3 billion – spread over two decades of construction. Upgrades would include a total rebuild of one of the city’s existing water renewal plans, two new facilities capable of reusing water, and improvements to the Boise River to meet EPA regulations. Boise City Council will need to give a greenlight on the general concept, including the use of recycled water, Oct. 13. 

Individual projects, like the construction of a new wastewater facility or recycled water in canals, will have to be approved by city council at a later date. 

Some skeptical of water reuse

Recycled water is the use of treated wastewater for new purposes, including irrigating crops, industrial manufacturing and even drinking water if it is treated enough. There are currently over 100 water reuse permits around Idaho. The City of Meridian uses highly treated wastewater to water grass in its parks. A large percentage of the nation’s lettuce has been watered with recycled water in California’s Central Valley for decades. 

The idea of recycled wastewater in the City of Boise sparked tensions in Northwest Boise last summer. The city explored the idea of putting treated wastewater into the Farmer’s Union Canal, which irrigates crops in the northwest edge of the city and into Eagle. Neighbors felt left out of the talks about the project, and continue to express concerns about “contaminants of emerging concern” in wastewater. 

Residents, led by Northwest Neighborhood Association President Richard Llewlyn say these chemicals including “forever chemicals” in the PFAS family, endocrine disruptors, and other chemicals from prescription medication are harmful to humans and would be detrimental to the health of thousands. Llewlyn has a doctorate in biochemistry. In response to their concerns, the City of Boise paused the project and started testing of wastewater for emerging contaminants to determine what levels of them already exist in the city’s wastewater system before talks resume. 

Burgos said in the 23 member advisory group the city convened on the plan there was strong support for recycled water. The concerned residents in Northwest Boise were not in the advisory group. 

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“Boiseans are willing to pay a little bit more if there is an added value,” he said, about water renewal upgrades. “While this isn’t the cheapest option, this is the lowest cost option of the portfolio of options we considered. We certainly heard loudly and clearly there was interest in pursuing multiple uses of the water.”

Cheapest option studied

Public Works looked at six scenarios, all of which included recycled water. The city settled on the cheapest option to implement, instead of the most expensive plan – with costs ranging up to $1.541 billion over 40 years. 

Part of the strategy includes the construction of a water renewal facility to process up to 5 million gallons per day in the industrial area in southeast Boise specifically to serve manufacturing operations in the area. The wastewater renewal facility would take wastewater, treat it, and send it back to a company in the area for reuse. Burgos said this type of water reuse would make the city an attractive place for companies to relocate and help add water capacity. 

The facility would also include the ability to pump the recycled water down into the aquifer to keep water levels steady if there is more water available than necessary for industrial uses. 

Burgos said the city would need a fourth wastewater treatment plant, also with 5 million gallons a day of capacity by 2035, but he did not say where that plant might go.

Lander Street Water Renewal Facility. Via City of Boise

The city will also completely rebuild the 1940s-era Lander Street water renewal facility off State Street over the next 20 years. Construction started recently and will continue through 2029. 

To meet new EPA regulations, the City of Boise will also be making improvements to the Boise River to keep the water temperature down to natural levels. The water heats up when treated wastewater from the plant is pumped into the river. To fix the issue, Burgos said the city will be restoring side channels of the river and restoring trout nesting habitat instead of using electric power to cool the water. 

“Initially the thought was we would have to put cooling towers and chillers at the end of the facility and it didn’t sit right with us,” he said. “All of the energy we’d put into cooling the water just to see it get warm again quickly down stream.”

Burgos said the city could expand the use of recycled water decades down the line to water greenhouses of crops to boost local food production. Those “closed loop” systems could go into future planned communities, but for now these options are prohibitively expensive to explore. A closed-loop system would entail wastewater going down the drain, being treated at a facility and piped back to the neighborhood to be reused to flush toilets or other non-potable uses. 

How to pay for it?

Affordability is a major priority of the city, according to Burgos. 

The average Boise customer pays roughly $400 per year for water renewal services, but this will continue to increase as costs rise. Boise increased rates roughly 5% annually for the last 20 years in order to treat wastewater. The funds come from water billing costs instead of property taxes. 

In order to pay for the improvements, Burgos suggested a combination of cash payments and a bond. If the city paid for all the improvements in cash, he said it would result in much higher costs for customers in the short term, although it would cost less over the longterm.

He likened it to choosing to take out a mortgage instead of paying cash for a home to keep your monthly payments lower, or to have cash left to invest in other expenses. Burgos also proposed to expand assistance programs at Public Works for residents struggling to pay their bills. 

“We don’t want this become a crisis moving forward where we don’t have a plan to deal with affordability issues,” he said. 

Council members praised the proposal Tuesday after a few questions. 

“I’m particularly impressed that you’re always thinking about what’s next, and what’s not good enough about what we’re doing today,” City Council President Elaine Clegg said. “With those things in mind, I look forward seeing how the public reacts to this and I suspect they will react as positively as we have and begin the next step.”

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Margaret Carmel
Margaret is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at margaret@boisedev.com or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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