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Boise council makes ‘most important’ decision of the year: approving water renewal plan

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The future of water renewal services in Boise took a step ahead on Tuesday, but more decisions lie ahead.

Boise City Council unanimously adopted a Water Renewal Utility Plan, which maps out two decades of wastewater system projects. The proposal includes upgrades to aging infrastructure and additional water capacity to accommodate the growing population. It also lays out a plan to pursue recycled water projects in the future. 

[Early water tests show low levels of emerging contaminants in and around Boise River]

Approving the plan didn’t commit the city to any spending or completing any specific projects. It marked only a broad commitment to the overall proposal. Each council member and Mayor Lauren McLean thanked staff of public works for their multi-year effort on the project.

City Council President Pro Tem Holli Woodings called approving the plan the most important thing the council will do all year. 

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“This plan is going to make sure we can flush our toilets for the next 50 years,” Woodings said. “…Water is a scarce resource and in the coming years it is going to become less dependable and we’re going to have to be really smart with the way we treat it.”

Concerns about emerging contaminants

Some residents laid out heavy criticism of the plan, particularly in Northwest Boise. Thet expressed concerns about emerging contaminants in recycled water being returned to the community. These contaminants, which contain a range of “forever” chemicals in the PFAS family. That includes hormones from prescription medication, endocrine disruptors and other harmful substances which can enter the wastewater system through the overall environment or human waste. 

The bulk of the criticism comes from a contract signed during Former Mayor Dave Bieter’s administration allowing the possibility of treated wastewater to be piped down the Farmer’s Union Canal. After neighbors learned of the contract and raised concerns about transparency and emerging contaminants, the city paused all work on the project. It said any approvals for specific projects would come before city council for a public discussion and vote. 

Public Works Director Steve Burgos acknowledged public concerns surrounding transparency and said the city would focus on “education, communication, and outreach.” He also agreed with residents that emerging contaminants should be studied and impacts considered as they plan.

“If we had it to do over again, we would do it differently and we will,” he said. 

What’s next

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

Up next, the city will discuss how to pay for the program. It could opt to pay overtime in cash or ask for voter approval for a bond. Those decisions will come before council in the next few months.

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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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