Boise River cleanup brings Idaho farmers, cities together

A brown current of nutrient-rich sediment flowing from the 15-Mile Drain into the Boise River near Middleton marks the line between where Boise meets federal Clean Water Act standards and where it doesn’t.

Lance Holloway, Idaho Department of Environmental Quality regional water quality manager, grew up fishing and farming nearby. He went off to study health science at Boise State and returned to find a way to clean up the river and satisfy people on both sides of the dividing line.

“It’s hard to clean up water,” Holloway said, “and it’s even harder to get consensus.”

But he and other DEQ regional staff got the Lower Boise River Watershed Council to support a plan that included a complex scientific model, vetted by all, which says phosphorus levels can be reduced to a fifth of today’s levels. City residents, anglers, boaters, farmers and industrialists have reached a consensus on how to clean up 15 Mile and other waterways that irrigate and drain tens of thousands of acres in the Boise River Valley.

This pollution clean-up plan is expected to go to public comment next month. Most of the clean-up will be voluntarily done by farmers like Glen Edwards of Meridian, who has converted some of his land to no-till techniques that reduce the amount of soil that runs off into ditches and, eventually, the river.

Phosphorous is a nutrient common in human and animal waste and farm fertilizers. It feeds algae growth in bodies of water that can choke off fish and other essential aquatic life. Drains are canals or other channels that return irrigation water to the river. They often carry a load of fertilizer, sediment and other materials that contributes to overall river pollution.

Larger projects that remove phosphorus from the drains operated by the irrigation districts will be paid for by the cities along the river through a pollution-trading program that allows them to meet tough standards for wastewater treatment. Instead of paying more to remove small amounts of phosphorus from their own wastewater, the cities will pay for projects that reduce far greater pollution levels – but unregulated – at lower cost.

“We’re almost going to be forced in ways to pursue innovative approaches to clean the water,” said Steve Burgos, Boise city environmental manager.


The city already has been innovative. It is building the Dixie Drain Phosphorus Offset Project to allow it to meet phosphorus-removal requirements under its Clean Water Act discharge permit. It will do that by sending water in the drain into settling ponds to remove the phosphorus; the project removes enough phosphorus from agriculture sources to save the city having to upgrade its treatment facilities.

The $12 million project will provide critical data on how much phosphorus can be removed and help develop the pollution-trading market on which the clean-up depends.

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 or industrial plants — 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.

But Southern Idaho farmers didn’t just stand by. City officials, farmers, canal companies, conservationists and others formed the Lower Boise River Water Quality Plan Group in 1992, before a federal court order in 1996 that ordered the cleanup.

Together they worked on pollution plans, including a phosphorus cleanup plan for Brownlee Reservoir on the Snake River on the Oregon-Idaho border, which set limits for the cities to meet. But it wasn’t until 2008, when another court ordered Idaho to develop a plan specific to the lower Boise, that work on the current plan began.

“It had to be grounded in science, technically achievable and economically viable,” said Dan Steensen, an attorney for the Nampa-Meridian Irrigation District, who has been involved since the 1990s and serves on the watershed council.


Holloway got his degree at Boise State University and worked for the Idaho Soil Conservation Commission helping farmers with projects to reduce erosion. When state and federal dollars for that work dried up, he moved to the state DEQ in 2012. Now he leads the effort to develop the cleanup plan that sets a limit for the river — total daily maximum load — and then allocates cleanup targets between various polluters. His first meeting in 2012 set the tone.

“When I sat down at that meeting and I said we could get this done in a year, they laughed,” Holloway said.

It took more than a year, but now the plan is ready for public review. It relies heavily on a computer model developed by the EPA. DEQ staff developed a model specifically for the Boise River’s complex plumbing. Most of the phosphorus cleanup responsibility falls on the cities, with the agricultural drains second and stormwater and groundwater (polluted groundwater can seep into the river) nearly tied for third.

“Everybody had to believe and trust the model,” said Liz Paul, the Boise River campaign coordinator for Idaho Rivers United and a member of the watershed council with Steensen.

Paul, a longtime environmental activist and mother, already has seen results. Boise has upgraded its Lander Street wastewater treatment plant near Veterans Memorial Parkway. Paul’s home in the Plantation Country Club is along the river, below the plant.

“My family swims in the river all the time, and it’s cleaner now,” Paul said.

It will get cleaner soon, when Boise begins operating its $24 million Enhanced Biological Phosphorus Removal Plant at its West Boise wastewater treatment facility as early as next month.

The overall cleanup is going to take at least another 20 years . After the public has had its chance to comment, the U.S. EPA has to sign off. But that’s expected relatively quickly, because it has been involved closely with the process, said Jim Werntz, EPA Idaho operations director.

Also in the future, Congress could decide that farmers must reduce their pollution. Andy Waldera, an attorney who represents Pioneer Irrigation District in Caldwell, said Boise Valley farmers will be ahead of the game because of the existing cleanup plan.

Ultimately, he said, the effort is bringing the fate of farmers and city residents together.

“There’s a lot of partnership that goes into flushing your toilet or draining your tub,” he said.

Related stories from Idaho Statesman