BOISE — Many rural Boiseans made clear on Tuesday they oppose discharging highly treated wastewater effluent into the city’s canals. The opposition previewed a battle over wastewater recycling that’s likely to come as the city explores ways to combat climate change through water conservation efforts.
The Water Renewal Utility Plan, developed by Boise Public Works’ Water Renewal Services department, lays out projects the city could pursue to replace its aging wastewater infrastructure; it also proposes initiatives related to wastewater recycling, a process by which highly treated wastewater is reused for other purposes, such as irrigation. Any project outlined in the utility plan would need to be approved by the Boise City Council after a public hearing process.
City officials have made no concrete proposals on the topic of wastewater recycling.
The federally mandated utility plan will serve as a policy guide for Water Renewal Services, the city’s wastewater utility. Public Works Director Steve Burgos presented the plan to the city council earlier this month.
Among other things, the utility plan suggests diverting highly treated effluent from the Boise River to local canals and irrigation systems “may be an effective strategy” to reduce nutrient and temperature levels in the river.
More than a dozen Boiseans — most of whom live in northwest Boise and utilize irrigation water from the Farmers Union Canal — said they opposed that proposal during a public hearing Tuesday. Dissenters called out a lack of “unbiased” scientific research on the health effects of using recycled wastewater for irrigation.
“I applaud your support of considering water recycling to help prepare a strong likelihood of the coming water crisis here in our high desert,” said Richard Llewellyn, a northwest Boise resident, who holds a doctorate degree in biochemistry. “However, you as council have not been informed of the very real threats to the long-term water and soil quality and human health from water reuse. To put it frankly, you have been given outdated, inaccurate and biased information from an industry that has a commercial interest in promoting less expensive, less responsible water reuse.”
Llewellyn said information provided to council by Carollo Engineers, a local engineering consultant, was “biased.” A study on the health affects of water reuse that the company referenced in an August presentation to the council was conducted by wastewater industry consultants rather than independent researchers, he said.
Council members and Burgos assured detractors that the utility plan does not commit the city to any wastewater recycling projects and further scientific study would be required before water reuse projects are proposed.
“This plan does not commit us to recycling water,” Burgos said. “It commits us to looking at options for recycling water, which we’ll bring back to (council members) in subsequent meetings. We agree there is emerging contaminants and concerns that are out there, we’re not ignoring them. We’re just as concerned, and we’ll continue to follow the science as needed.”
Councilman Patrick Bageant, speaking to a Boise couple concerned about pollutants in recycled wastewater, said, “I don’t want to put anything toxic in your ditch, in your garden, on your lawn.”
“There’s a lot of, frankly, inflammatory and misleading information about what we’re trying to do,” he said. “The truth is we’re not trying to do anything. The Public Works department is asking us for permission to find out what the correct answers to these questions are and then engage the public in a process.”
Representatives from advocacy groups Idaho Conservation League and Conservation Voters for Idaho endorsed the city’s utility plan. Elected officials have ties to both groups. Bageant said during the meeting he participates on advisory boards for both groups. Bageant said he didn’t invite either representative to speak at the meeting.
Conservation Voters for Idaho contributed more than $150,000 to Mayor Lauren McLean’s campaign last year. McLean’s chief of staff, Courtney Washburn, who was hired in December, is the former executive director of Conservation Voters for Idaho.
The Boise City Council will consider whether to approve the Water Renewal Utility Plan at its Oct. 13 meeting.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to clarify that Conservation Voters for Idaho is an advocacy group. It also has been updated to reflect Richard Llewellyn's qualifications.