The City of Boise enlisted a national panel of experts to weigh in on its plans for a recycled water program.
Earlier this month, a panel of six scientists, engineers, and water quality experts through the National Waster Research Institute gathered to hear more about Boise’s wastewater treatment plans, answer questions from the public and give public works staff advice on safety and program development. The panel will produce a publicly available report giving their final advice in six to twelve weeks.
This comes months before the city will ask the voters to approve a $570 million in November to help pay for more treatment capacity in the system, upgrades to existing infrastructure and a water reuse system to plan for climate change fueled drought. Boise’s water recycling program would be far from the first permitted to operate in Idaho, but it would be the first to be used for recharging the aquifer.
Earning back lost trust
The four-hour meeting covered a range of topics, including complex water quality engineering methods, community engagement strategies, and plans for cleaning the water of unregulated chemicals that could be harmful to public health.
Boise’s Environmental Manager Haley Falconer said the panel is a move to be transparent with the public about the program to earn back some of the trust the city lost in recent years. Activists in Northwest Boise were incensed in 2019 when they discovered the city signed a contract in 2014 with the Farmer’s Union Canal Company to discharge highly treated wastewater into the canal without informing the public. The project never proceeded.
“We do understand that we did not build trust with that particular project,” Falconer said. “…This is a part of that transparent and open process where we are relying on the information and knowledge of experts to build the foundation of our program while it is in its infancy,” Falconer said. “That is part of where we’ve been on recycled water, but it’s not where we’re headed.”
Plans for recycled water (or reusing treated wastewater for other purposes) is part of Boise’s water renewal utility plan, which was finalized by Boise City Council in 2020. It maps out the future of the utility for the next two decades.
How would water recycling work?
Boise’s water recycling plans have two major components. The first includes creating a third water renewal facility to treat wastewater from industrial users, like Micron, in Southeast Boise and send it back to the factories to be used again. The water treated in this facility will not be sourced from residential customers and will be a closed-loop system with only water that was used in the industrial processes, Falconer told the panel.
The second component of the plan includes treating wastewater and using it to recharge the aquifer for drinking water or other uses to keep the Treasure Valley’s water supply resilient from climate change. One of the panelists, who did not identify herself on the live stream, recommended that the city streamline the treatment process so the water is clean enough for the city to easily transition from industrial reuse to aquifer recharge if circumstances change.
One of the other panelists asked how at risk the water reuse program would be if Micron were to leave Boise. In response, Falconer said the program was designed to be nimble based on changing needs and the growing industrial area in the Gateway East urban renewal district.
“The plan overall is not built for one entity, it is built for our entire system and built with that flexibility in mind if things should change either increasing or decreasing we could adjust to the need and adjust to the capacity requirements of our system,” she said. “At the end of the day we need to add capacity broadly for our entire system for everyone that’s here and this is a way that allows us to do that and meet community expectations.”
What about emerging constituents?
One of the biggest sticking points with some members of the community over the water reuse plan are chemicals called emerging constituents.
These unregulated substances cover a wide range of chemicals including hormones, endocrine disruptors, and “forever chemicals” in the PFAS family found in common household items like Teflon, waterproof jackets, and other products. They enter the wastewater system and the overall environment through human ingestion, water runoff, and other sources.
Residents in Northwest Boise raised safety concerns around these emerging constituents and water recycling in recent years, prompting the city to conduct three rounds of testing for 308 different substances at multiple locations near the Lander Street Water Renewal Facility. The results showed they were on par with other major utilities.
Falconer said the city plans to take the next three years to study the industrial market of who would be sending water to the facility and what chemicals and other substances are in that specific water supply to develop the treatment plan for the water. The city will then move into a pilot phase before starting project design and organization in 2024. Falconer said the city hopes to have water recycling up and running by 2029.
She said the timeline walks the balance between urgency and safety.
“This (timeline) is aggressive, while also making sure we’re getting that meaningful data that is so important to us,” Falconer said.