Farmers Union Canal

Water of the Farmer's Union Canal flows past a control valve in northwest Boise, Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019.

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BOISE — City officials are still studying recycled water after the community expressed concerns about the issue.

On Tuesday, Boise City Council heard a presentation from the Public Works Department and a consultant on the possibility of recycled water in the city. Recycling water means the city would take wastewater, treat it to a high level, and then reuse it for things like irrigating crops, watering lawns or, eventually, for potable drinking water.

It could help the city weather a growing population straining the water supply and increased droughts due to climate change. There are some concerns about contaminants in the treated water.

The city has been embroiled in its long-term planning for the utility over the past five years. Part of this process includes studying the possibility of recycling water, which still needs city council’s approval. Moving toward recycling water is something the city says a broad range of citizens support and it would help to meet climate goals, but it would require costly additional infrastructure and there are questions remaining around “emerging contaminants” in the water supply.

“We have an opportunity here to create a resilient drought proof water supply that meets our community’s expectations,” Boise’s Environmental Division Senior Manager Haley Falconer said.

Neighbors in Northwest Boise raised alarms about the possibility of the city recycling water last summer when they got wind of the city’s plan to pump treated wastewater into the Farmer’s Union Ditch Company’s canal to help it meet new federal environmental regulations and boost the water levels. They felt left out of the city’s process to explore the possibility without talking with the residents, who use the canal water to irrigate their yards, and are concerned about exposure to chemicals and bacteria in the water.

There are a broad range of chemicals found in water throughout the environment, which are called “emerging contaminants” or “contaminants of emerging concern,” which include unregulated chemicals, personal care products, hormones from birth control pills and endocrine disruptors. Research on how exposure to these chemicals in recycled water and other water in the environment is still underway nationwide, but many of them are currently not directly regulated.

In response to concerns from neighbors in Northwest Boise, Falconer said the city paused it’s process of planning for the possibility of recycling water in Northwest Boise until more sampling can occur. Falconer said the city is currently sampling the water and studying it for levels of emerging contaminants so they can better understand what the levels are in the water right now before possibly proceeding.

Recycled water has been used around the world for decades to water crops and for other non-potable uses. In California, recycled water has been used to irrigate fields of lettuce and other vegetables often eaten raw without any signs of sickness or effects for those who eat the produce or work in the fields for twenty years. Pompano Beach also uses recycled water to water citrus groves and Israel heavily relies on recycled water to grow crops in the Negev desert in the southern part of the country.

To better understand the issue the city hired California-based environmental engineering firm Carollo Engineers, which specializes in recycled water, as a consultant for $45,000. Jason Assouline, a representative from the company, told city council emerging contaminants are measured in nanograms per liter, which is equivalent to a single drop of water in 20 Olympic sized swimming pools.

He showed a graph showing how often people are exposed to some emerging contaminants in their everyday life, versus how much they would be exposed by eating food from crops irrigated with recycled water. For the chemical family PFAS, an ingredient in carpeting, upholstery, Teflon and other products, it would take five years for an agricultural worker to get the same exposure to the chemical as someone gets in a normal day. It would take a child playing on a playground irrigated with recycled water every day 22 years to get the same level of exposure as someone does in their everyday life, Assouline said.

No neighbors from the Northwest Neighborhood Association were able to speak because it was not a public hearing, but Falconer said after hearing their concerns about emerging contaminants the city paused any work on the Farmer’s Union Canal project due to their concerns. In the future, she said the city will do community outreach before starting any recycled water project.

“We realized starting with the permit process without the public education piece was not the direction we should be going,” she said.

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