Down a steep hill off Chinden Boulevard, Joplin Road cuts a curvy path through rocks and scratchy brush. After a short distance, a security guard motions for approaching cars to stop. Emerging from his parked SUV, badge and belt buckle glinting in the afternoon sun, the guard scribbles visitors' names, addresses and phone numbers on his clipboard. It feels eerily more like entering the set of Erin Brockovich than taking a trip out to the Boise WaterShed.
Giant space-age tanks with spiraling ladders form the skyline in this sewage city. Past all the looming metal machinery and piles of rocks, the brand new Boise WaterShed Environmental Education Center breaks into view. The building, designed by Dwayne Carver, is a serene combination of public art and sustainable modern design. Amy Westover's form-liner-cast concrete walls flow around the perimeter while Irene Deely's steel pipe tree reaches its branches out, beckoning you into the courtyard. But lest you forget where you are, the smell of sewage is ever present.
Donna-Marie Hayes, an ex-Public Works commissioner and current director of Boise WaterShed Exhibits Inc. has been a driving force behind the creation of the WaterShed. For 17 years she's pushed for the city to create a facility that educates the public on what happens every time they flush their toilets. In 2005, Hayes founded BWE in order to raise the $1 million it took to develop all of the high-tech educational exhibits inside the WaterShed. Her vision finally came to fruition May 15 when the WaterShed had its official opening, but she's a little perplexed by why the public is paying more attention to the art than the educational components.
"The Boise WaterShed is not a museum. The Boise WaterShed is a teaching institution," explains Hayes. "And because it's a teaching institution, we worked very hard to bring all of the elements together so that they are all integrated. All the art pieces are integrated because they are all teaching a message that we're trying to get across to people."
But not that the art isn't important. The Public Works Department saved up $250,000, earmarked through the Percent-for-Art ordinance, to fund all of the art at the WaterShed. Now, one of the city's arguably least appealing and hard to get to places has one of the largest collections of public art. This has, quite rightly, started a buzz in Boise's art community. But as Hayes explains, art is just one of many important tools that help to create a memorable educational experience at the WaterShed.
"The philosophy is that there's an integrated process of teaching people about what public works is and the people that make it work. Because the reality is, without the people that make it work, our whole community would be full of disease. One of the best ways to teach that is through art."
And Deely's pipe tree is the embodiment of functional meets educational art. The tree, made with old sewer pipe joints, recycled steel and hundreds of faucets, took Deely six months to complete. It's oddly Gothic, with a Tim Burton-esque steel stitching around the trunk and hundreds of dangling metal leaves. Deely was inspired to make the pipe tree after she started ruminating on the miles of underground sewage pipes that connect every house in this community. Like the tree's natural root system, our man-made system is vital to the maintenance and, ultimately, survival of our city.
"We're all connected through this natural and man-made system. So the idea came to me that, what if we became so interconnected with nature that the pipes began to form together with the water system and grow into a tree?" Deely says.
Another piece that combines art and the WaterShed's message is Westover's stained-glass "Windows into Wet Land." The windows, which Westover made at the renowned Derix glass studio in Germany, depict how water is an integral part of our landscape. Placed on the south side of the building, the windows are designed to bring in sunshine to heat the building in the winter.
"My husband and I work with a lot of those ideas already. We have solar power and we have solar hot water, and we do all this kind of stuff anyway. So when I saw how they were designing the building I thought that was great and wanted to bring more attention to that passive solar aspect of the building," Westover says.
Unfortunately, the windows that were supposed to be unveiled in a couple of weeks don't fit. To Westover's credit, the problem has nothing to do with her design, but rather a circular miscommunication between the city, the builder and the architect.
"There's a discrepancy there between the builder (Wright Brothers) and the architects and the city on what window framework was supposed to be there and what's actually there. Who knows how long these things take to get worked out."
But after 17 years, it seems time isn't really of the essence.
"The thing to understand is, the Boise WaterShed is not something that just kind of is done," says Hayes. "It's a work that's always in progress and we want it that way. We want the technology to be cutting edge and we want improvements as we go along. We don't want it to become just something that somebody put up and then it stays like that forever. We have to attract the attention of young people who are daily bombarded with high-tech things. If we don't keep up with that, we're going to lose our audience."
For the time being, technological advancement isn't something the facility is lacking. Inside the building, there's a refreshing lack of didactic plaques. All of the exhibits are interactive, from the Eddy Trout quiz show to the exhibit in which you run a stressful cartoon waste treatment plant by activating aeration basins and loosening gas feeds. Though keeping a poo plant from exploding is not quite as glamorous as inciting gang wars in Grand Theft Auto IV, the exhibits do the best they can to make excrement exciting. Take for example, the exhibit in which visitors can map the travel time from flushing their toilets at home to the waste's arrival at the treatment plant. From the BW offices, it takes a whopping 2.4 hours for a single flush to travel 3.3 miles.
To keep things moving, Hayes has already started raising money for phase two of the project—a 1.2-acre pedestrian water feature and interpretive grounds that will include a miniature Boise city grid and wastewater treatment plant. The landscaping will highlight water conservation by including special permeable pavement in the parking lot to discourage water run-off. Phase two will also include ample opportunities for more public art, including Patrick Zentz's already approved, wind-activated sound installation "H2O." Though Hayes is adamant that public art at the WaterShed should be a secondary draw to the space, it's apparent that it is an integral, and very deliberate, component. Turning a poop-shaped paperweight over in her hands, Hayes quotes one of her favorite adages, "Nothing is by accident."
West Boise Wastewater Treatment Plant, 11818 W. Joplin Rd., 208-489-1284, cityofboise.org/bee/watershed.