It wasn't long ago that GOP Rep. Mike Simpson was cutting billions from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's budget and blasting the agency for expanding its regulatory reach.
But Simpson had a different message Tuesday at Boise's WaterShed Environmental Education Center as federal, state and local officials unveiled an agreement for a project that should efficiently clean up phosphorus in the Boise River.
"I really want to thank the EPA for looking outside their rulebook," Simpson said.
The Dixie Drain Phosphorus Offset Project should allow the city of Boise to meet phosphorus-removal requirements under its EPA discharge permit by sending water through an irrigation "drain" into settling ponds instead of having to upgrade the city's treatment facilities.
Simpson said the collaborative efforts of EPA Region 10 Administrator Dennis McLerran's staff were following the "mindset" of EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, who wants EPA to "get out of the way" and let state and local governments innovate.
If Canyon County officials give their OK, construction on the $12 million project would begin next summer with completion expected in spring 2016.
With downstream cities such as Nampa and Caldwell also needing to reduce phosphorus, the project could be the first of several that include public-private partnerships and pollution trading. In this case, Boise owns the project. But in the future, cities might pay farmers or entrepreneurs for similar projects.
Phosphorous is a nutrient common in human and animal waste and farm fertilizers. It feeds algae growth in bodies of water that can be more than eyesores: It can choke off fish and other essential aquatic life.
The requirement that Boise River communities reduce phosphorus pollution grows out of rules based on the Clean Water Act's mandates that all of the nation's rivers be cleaned up.
The challenge has been that the EPA regulates "point sources" - specific sources such as sewage systems - but has no authority over the numerous, smaller "non-point" sources such as farm fields. Because farmers don't have to do anything, cities end up having to do more.
Boise officials tried to set up a pollution-trading program a decade ago. But those efforts failed, and Boise had to build a $22 million plant to remove phosphorus from its discharges.
Idaho's congressional delegation pressed EPA to take another look at a pollution-trading program. The result is the Dixie Drain project.
"This innovative project can help catalyze water quality improvements in the Boise River watershed, creating the opportunity for trading between municipalities and agriculture that should ultimately provide both environmental and economic benefits for all," McLerran said.
Before that happens, the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality and EPA must complete the Boise River's pollution clean-up plan, called the Total Daily Maximum Load. Once finished, individual polluters will know how much cleanup they are responsible for.
The Dixie Drain project is located a few miles upstream from the Boise River's confluence with the Snake River, which has a high concentration of phosphorus from agricultural uses.
The project will divert water from the drainage canal into ponds. There, phosphorus will be removed by adding a chemical that causes up to 140 pounds of phosphorus a day to coagulate and settle to the bottom. Treated, cleaner water will flow through a return canal to the river.
Over time, the Dixie Drain Project will cost about the same as a new treatment plant Boise is building that will cut its phosphorus pollution to 95 percent. But for every pound of phosphorus removed at the Boise plant, the drain project will remove a pound and a half.
For the city, the project saves money and cleans up the river - and does so using a natural process with a small carbon footprint, which is important to the city's efforts to combat climate change.
"We could accomplish our permit requirement with more filtration at the plant," said Boise Public Works Director Neal Oldemeyer. "But the Dixie Drain Project has a much better environmental return on investment and would be less expensive in the long run compared to traditional filtration treatment."
Even better, it provides incentives to clean up unregulated ag runoff, meaning the Boise River will keep getting cleaner.
"This can be the driver to achieve our water quality goals we, frankly, couldn't achieve with just (municipal) treatment," said Idaho Department of Environmental Quality water chief Barry Burnell.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484