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Suez, Boise spar over water renewal plan with groundwater levels & contamination potential key issues

Ada County’s largest drinking water provider says it is skeptical of the City of Boise’s hopes for using recycled wastewater to recharge the region’s aquifer. 

Water recycling is a centerpiece of Boise’s strategy to handle growth and combat climate change as summers get hotter and the snowpack shrinks. As part of its water renewal utility plan adopted in 2020, the City of Boise hopes to build a third water renewal facility in the industrial area of southeast Boise to treat its wastewater and send it back to be reused again. 

[ICYMI 2021: Some Boise wells are drying up amid rapid development. What’s going on?]

The city’s plan also calls for some of this heavily-treated water to be pumped back into the ground to replenish the sprawling network of aquifers underneath our feet. Boise officials say this will help keep the Treasure Valley ahead of the curve on drought before it gets to critical levels seen elsewhere in the West. It says its plans to pilot treatment techniques and technology before seeking approval will ensure its safety and effectiveness. 

But, Suez, the French-owned corporation that provides most of Ada County’s drinking water, is not convinced it won’t hurt its drinking water supply or the status of the valley’s aquifers makes it necessary at all. Suez was recently acquired by another French firm, Veolia. The company says it’s been asking the city to provide more information on how its plans intersect with the company’s operations, how exactly the wastewater will be treated and how the city is planning for dangerous contaminants not yet identified. 

“If the aquifers were unintentionally contaminated, it is the community who will ultimately pay the price,” Suez spokesperson Madeline Wyatt wrote in an email to BoiseDev. “Not only will we lose a source of clean drinking water, we will need to build expensive treatment facilities at the existing wells – a cost that is ultimately paid by the customer.”

City of Boise: ‘We are an open book…’

Suez and the City of Boise haven’t seen eye to eye on this project for years. 

Starting in 2020 when Boise rolled out its water renewal utility plan, including water recycling, Suez said it was caught off guard. A letter from the company’s legal counsel with Givens Pursley sent a letter to Boise expressing concern with the potential impact to the company’s water supply and frustration at the lack of communication from Boise’s Public Works Department about their plans. 

The letter was provided to BoiseDev by Suez in the course of reporting this story and was not made public at the time the plan was being approved. 

City of Boise spokesperson Natalie Monro said Suez’s concerns two years ago didn’t fall on deaf ears. She said the city took their criticism to heart and has scheduled more than a dozen meetings with the company since then, including monthly meetings since January, to discuss the water recycling project and its details. Monro said the city is “an open book on this” and wants to be as transparent as possible with the water company and the community as a whole. 

Lander Street Boise
The Lander Street Wastewater Facility in Boise. Courtesy City of Boise

She said many Suez’s questions surround unknowns about the water treatment process, but those can’t be answered yet because the city hasn’t started its small-scale testing to develop the water treatment process and test what contaminants it would need to remove. Monro said Suez being involved early in the process means they will naturally have questions, which will help the city plan better for hitting its goal of recycling water by 2029. 

“We do have the ability to get the water very clean, but we can’t answer specific questions about the water quality until we start doing that pilot treatment,” Monro said. “That might be something that has to be an open question until we get further in the process. Part of the process is understanding what those concerns are so we can address them in our studies.”

Location, location, location

A significant question yet to be settled is where Boise’s aquifer recharge facility would be. 

Haley Falconer, Boise’s environmental division senior manager, said the city is targeting a large area south and east of city limits for a potential site to pump the treated water into the ground. She said the city has been eyeing an area of hundreds of square miles bordered by the Boise Airport, the Twenty Mile South Farm north of Kuna, the New York Canal, and the Boise Foothills for the potential site. 

There are numerous factors that will determine where the site would be located. The aquifer recharge site doesn’t necessarily have to be near the water renewal facility planned for the Southeast Boise area it will source its treated water from. But, the further away it gets from the plant, the more expensive it will be to pipe the water from one place to another. 

Falconer said the site also has to have the proper geologic characteristics, like the proper amount of basalt and the type of sand in the aquifer for the water to naturally filter through. The city also plans to keep the aquifer recharge site 1,000 feet from any well used for drinking water as required by the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality and aims for a “three-year travel time” to ensure the treated water will not directly impact a specific water source. 

Travel time is a hydrologic way of measuring how long it takes water to travel from one point to another through the aquifer. 

A map of Suez’s drinking water wells in the Southeast Boise area, with the sites of two planned wells outlined in red. Via public records.

Suez has several high-producing drinking water wells in the area and plans for two more, according to an email between the company and the City of Boise obtained by BoiseDev through a public records request.

“We have a lot of questions about how this program might affect our clean drinking water sources,” Wyatt wrote to BoiseDev. “These are the questions our community, customers, and area leadership should want us to ask. You should want your water company to protect and care for our valley’s drinking water supplies. It’s our responsibility to get involved.”

On April 22, Suez vice president and general manager for municipal operations Marshall Thompson emailed the City of Boise and with Department of Environmental Quality staffers copied on the message looking for a compromise. The company suggested the city use the aquifer beneath Micron for its aquifer recharge program or locate the recharge project at Boise’s Twenty Mile South Farm north of Kuna. Thompson said if the city is willing to relocate the site further from Suez’s wells Boise will “gain a more willing partner.”

[Micron pitches congress for US expansion aid, with Boise a candidate: ‘one of the largest semiconductor investments’ in US history]

Boise’s Public Works Recycled Water Program Manager Royce Davis responded six days later noting the city’s commitment to keeping the Treasure Valley’s water clean and protecting the environment. He said the City of Boise’s work to contract with Suez to extensively pilot different water treatment techniques shows the city’s commitment to clean water, not just meeting the bare minimum of the state permit.

“We will spend the next two years completing engineering studies, pilot plant operations and analysis, community outreach, stakeholder engagement, University of Idaho reverse osmosis concentrate graduate studies, Boise State University hydrogeological studies, and NWRI panels,” Davis wrote in his email. “…We acknowledge that your suggested outcomes have been heard and will certainly be considered along with all the other feedback received when reaching a final decision.”

Why do this at all?

Boise and Suez also don’t agree on the necessity of aquifer recharge in the Treasure Valley. 

Suez says it supports aquifer recharge and it is an option to combat water scarcity, but the company is not sure it’s the right move for Ada County right now. Wyatt told BoiseDev the company extensively monitors water levels in Ada County through its 83 drinking water wells and has not noticed a dip. 

“We know water levels in that area are stable, and our wells are healthy,” Wyatt wrote. “We have seen no water-level declines in the wells, even after increased water use and last year’s drought. The water levels in the areas we draw from are stable and do not require recharge.”

But, Boise doesn’t see it that way. Falconer pointed out that part of the area they’re looking at recharging in has been classified as a Groundwater Management Area by the Idaho Department of Water Resources since the 1990s. And while there isn’t much activity in the area currently, there is the potential for new development in the coming years to test the water supply. 

A map of Idaho Department of Water Resource’s Designated Groundwater Management Area in Southeast Boise

This includes the possibility of a water-intensive Micron semiconductor fabrication plant, as BoiseDev previously reported

“The drought we’re facing is placing a high priority on this recycled water in our minds and if we’re able to produce this drought-resilient water supply, which is in response to what the community expects,” Falconer told BoiseDev. “While it’s proactive in nature, we’re seeing that need for the proactive work in the drought and water supply concerns we’re facing.”

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Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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