Tensions ran high at a hearing on the possibility of recycling water in Boise Tuesday night.
During the hours-long hearing, residents from Northwest Boise came out to express skepticism and frustration at the city’s proposal for the next twenty years of water renewal services in Boise. The broad outline of the plan includes the possibility of reusing highly treated wastewater for industrial uses, recharging the aquifer or irrigation. City council could vote on it in mid-October.
The possibility of water reuse sparked significant opposition online and in Northwest Boise over concerns the wastewater will expose Boiseans to “contaminants of emerging concern.” These chemicals, which enter wastewater through the overall environment or through human waste, include prescription medications, hormones, and “forever chemicals” in the PFAS family found in household products like Teflon.
Public Works Director Steve Burgos launched the public hearing on the plan with multiple assurances there were no specific projects up for consideration. He said city council will only approve staff to explore recycled water this fall. Individual projects would come before council later with public input. Although individual projects were not up for a vote, most residents focused their testimony on the specific proposal of piping treated wastewater down the Farmer’s Union Canal in Northwest Boise.
Burgos said the city is equally as concerned about the contaminants as the residents.
“We don’t have all of the science yet on these emerging constituents,” he said. “There are unanswered questions of how to regulate them, how to treat them and how to dispose of these substances. As this science evolves, we will continue to evolve our approaches.”
Neighbors not convinced
But, residents remained skeptical. In nearly all of the testimony throughout the night, residents accused the city of only looking at studies produced by the water reuse industry instead of unbiased scientific research. They expressed concern about the effluent in their yards from flood irrigation, or exposure to contaminants in the food they grow in their gardens watered from the canal.
Richard Llewellyn, president of the Northwest Neighborhood Association and the recipient of a doctorate in biochemistry, said the city has not sought out the information it needs to make an informed decision.
“The water reuse plan fails as written by not addressing scientific realities that are known to compromise water recycling efforts,” he said.
The vast majority of the testimony came from concerned neighbors, but the overall plan to explore recycling water in Boise received a thumbs up from the Idaho Conservation League and Conservation Voters for Idaho. City Council Member Patrick Bageant noted during the hearing he is a board member of the Idaho Conservation League, but he did not ask the group to testify in favor.
Throughout the hearing, several council members stopped testimony from residents concerned about contaminants in their yard to try and reassure them of the city’s intentions. Bageant said he does not want to pollute anyone’s yard or garden and would not support any policies doing so.
“I want to have an open conversation to confront the reality that we may run out of water in the future and we may be in the situation where the only drinking water we have is owned by a french company called SUEZ that sells it to us,” he said. “The last thing I am going to support is poisoning our neighborhoods.”
Strong opposition to recycled water in Farmer’s Union canal
Much of the bad blood between Northwest Boise residents and the city of Boise stems from a 2014 contract between the city of Boise and Farmer’s Union Canal Company. Under the agreement, the city of Boise would pay the ditch company $50,000 annually for 25 years so the city could have the option of sending recycled wastewater down the canal part of the year. The city’s interest in the idea stems from new environmental regulations set to take effect in 2022 requiring water entering the Boise River to be a certain temperature.
City officials explored the concept of sending some of the water cleaned at the Lander Street Water Renewal Facility down the canal instead of into the Boise River to meet the temperature requirement without using large amounts of electricity to artificially cool the water. But, neighbors were not informed of the contract or possibility until they discovered documents related to it last summer.
Burgos said he “owns” the city’s mistake in not communicating with residents about the possibility earlier and said the project has been paused while the contaminants are under further study. One resident who testified directly questioned Burgos about the contract and why it was still in place, despite his assurances the city is only exploring the possibility.
“There is no obligation from the city to put the water in the canal,” Burgos said.
Some council members skeptical of canal project
Although the Farmer’s Union Canal project was not directly up for discussion Tuesday night, several council members weighed in on the project. City Council Members Jimmy Hallyburton and TJ Thomson said they would not support the project given the strong public opposition, and the amount of unanswered scientific questions on emerging contaminants.
“The Farmer’s Union component is a dead issue at this point,” Thomson said. “I will not be supporting that until we have broad science that supports the idea and broad public input.”
City Council Member Lisa Sanchez had a little bit of a different take. She compared the possibility of putting recycled water into the canal to the practice of Mexicans eating tacos de cabeza, which are made from the roasted meat of a cow head. Sanchez said Mexicans began roasting cow heads after they were able to get them for free from slaughterhouses.
Sanchez said in order to address climate change the city may have to look at alternatives it might consider unsavory at first, but it could become necessary as water resources become scarce.
“If we needed to use that canal, maybe at first we would look at it as a cow head, but we just don’t know how difficult our lives are going to get,” she said. “This year is teaching us that.”