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BOISE — Recycled wastewater programs and Boise River enhancement projects are among proposals recommended by Boise's Water Renewal Utility Plan, which Public Works Director Steve Burgos presented to the Boise City Council on Tuesday.

Five years in the making, the federally mandated utility plan will serve as a policy guide for Water Renewal Services, the city's wastewater utility. Water Renewal Services is a utility within the city's Public Works Department that collects and renews 30 million gallons of used water every day. The utility operates on enterprise funds, meaning it funds operations and projects using service fees, not city tax revenue.

Water Renewal Services' recommended approach to the plan — developed with public input collected through focus groups, surveys and an advisory committee — proposes projects that could be completed over the next several decades to overhaul the city's wastewater treatment. Projects include upgrading aging infrastructure, such as the more than 70-year-old Lander Street Water Renewal Facility, and expanding wastewater capacity through new facilities. Additionally, Water Renewal Services hopes to complete more ambitious projects to meet — or exceed — ever-increasing federal environmental standards and combat the effects of climate change.

Two proposals recommend using recycled wastewater. One suggests establishing an industrial water reuse program, which could attract sustainability-minded companies to Boise and will increase the utility's wastewater capacity as used water is treated and given back to industrial sites. The other proposal involves recharging groundwater with recycled wastewater and storing it for future use. 

The utility also recommends enhancing the health and uses of the Boise River beyond federal requirements that regulate pollutants and effluent temperature. Those enhancements could include restoration of animal habitats and additional water treatment at wastewater facilities. 

On Tuesday, before presenting Water Renewal Services' recommended approach to the utility plan, Burgos recalled construction in the late 1940s of the Lander Street facility. The wastewater treatment plant was built before passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972, which regulated pollutant discharge in waterways. Boiseans choosing to build the facility was "an example of the generation before us taking action … ahead of anybody telling us we had to do it," Burgos said.

"Our community expects us to take on big challenges and to be proactive and to be prudent in our investments," he said. "This really is our generation's turn. So when we talk about the recommended approach, I do feel strongly that we're stepping up as part of today's generation to address what we know is coming."

The utility plan proposes the following: 

  • Enhancing the health and uses of the Boise River through restoration projects and increased water renewal.
  • Reinvesting in the city’s existing infrastructure by repairing, replacing and upgrading crucial system components.
  • Supporting the city’s economy by establishing an industrial water reuse program.
  • Developing a recycled water program and aquifer recharge.
  • Adding two new water renewal facilities.
  • Creating new affordability programs and exploring new options to pay for system improvements.

Water Renewal Services' utility plan represents "a fundamental shift" in Boise's management of resources, particularly water, Burgos said. The recommended approach to the utility plan was selected from six different investment portfolios, ranging from the least to the most changes to the department's existing wastewater renewal strategies. Selecting the approach balanced public input, which leaned toward significant investment in recycling programs and river enhancement, and affordability, Burgos said. 

While the utility plan is mandated by the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, the project also presented an opportunity for the wastewater utility to explore new ways to use its resources to combat climate change, Burgos told the Idaho Press Wednesday.

In 2016, a climate adaptation assessment, developed in partnership with the University of Idaho, identified eight issues the city should address related to climate change, and six were water-related. That's when Water Renewal Services decided to "think a little more innovatively about what the utility can provide," as it began developing its utility plan, Burgos said.

"There's challenges coming that we need to start addressing and Water Renewal Services is kind of uniquely situated to do some things that could help on those fronts and mitigate those impacts," he said. 

The department's recommended approach could amass capital costs between $890 million and $1.3 billion over 20 years. Projects and programs could be funded by user rate revenues, bonds/loans or a combination of the two.

"Certainly, as public works director, the costs aren't lost on me," Burgos told the council. "Those are big numbers, and I certainly appreciate that. One of the concerns we have moving forward will be affordability."

Burgos stressed that the utility plan is not static — he told the Idaho Press it's a "living document" — and each project Water Renewal Services pursues separately requires city council approval via a budget request.

"This plan sets policy direction," Burgos told the Idaho Press. "It sets the idea that city of Boise is going to start getting into recycled water solutions. It sets the policy that we're going to be proactive and prudent on asset replacement."

The Boise City Council will host a public hearing on the Water Renewal Utility Plan Sept. 15.

On Oct. 13, the council will vote on whether to approve the plan. 

Ryan Suppe is the Boise reporter for the Idaho Press. Contact him at 208-344-2055 (ext. 3038). Follow him on Twitter @salsuppe.

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