Water, Water: New EPA Guidelines Force Expensive Sewer Changes

Sewer rates to rise, major changes in the pipeline for Boise's wastewater treatment


In the coming weeks, Boise citizens will learn two things: 1) Their sewer rates are about to go up for the third time in as many years, and 2) city officials need cash to undertake one of the biggest public-works projects in a generation. Nothing less than the integrity of the Boise River and the region's aquaculture are at stake but understanding the urgency of the project and the necessity of the funds requires an economic and scientific analysis.

Crunching the numbers

When Neal Oldemeyer, Boise's Public Works director, put pencil to paper two weeks ago, he concluded that the resources needed to re-engineer the city's wastewater treatment facilities would tap the city's sewer fund perilously close to its cash reserves.

"As soon as we crunched the numbers in our most recent analysis, I knew I had to get in front of the Public Works Commission and City Council as soon as possible," Oldemeyer said. "It was difficult, but it was my obligation to do so."

Within days, Oldemeyer laid his dilemma in the laps of Public Works commissioners and Boise City Council members. In a detailed presentation, Oldemeyer said that when the Environmental Protection Agency issues new permits for the city's wastewater treatment facilities in 2012, it will unveil never-before-seen restrictions on phosphorous and water temperature. Adhering to the new limits will be complex enough, said Oldemeyer, but he had a more immediate challenge: how to pay for such significant changes.

"It will require nearly $4 million in immediate capital improvements and nearly $1.5 million in annual chemical costs," Oldemeyer told commissioners on July 15 and council members on July 20.

But his $5 million request was just the beginning. Oldemeyer explained long-range improvements to the West Boise Wastewater Treatment Facility could cost anywhere from $67 million to $92 million, with an additional $4 million to $36 million for the city's Lander Street Wastewater Plant.

"I know it's a huge range, but that includes at least four to five scenarios," Oldemeyer told BW. "As for right now, we're asking for council approval of $5 million from the city's sewer fund."

The so-called "sewer fund" is the depository of fees collected from residential and commercial customers, and it traditionally holds $8 million in cash reserves. But looking at the possibility of capital expenses approaching $50 million during the next five years, Oldemeyer recognized the huge outlay might possibly threaten the reserves. Oldemeyer asked the council's approval to raise sewer rates for every business and citizen in Boise by an additional 5 percent.

Most council members, while acknowledging the need for the improvements, balked at the request.

"I understand the circumstances," said Council President Maryanne Jordan. "But I'm just not comfortable with a rate increase for 2012. It just doesn't seem right."

But Councilman TJ Thomson said the safety and integrity of the city's water had to take priority.

"If this were a park or library, that would be one thing," said Thomson. "But this is one of two services--sewer and safety--that we absolutely have to provide."

Council Pro Tem Alan Shealy looked for a compromise.

"Five percent is just too much," said Shealy. "And clearly, zero is not meeting Neal's request. I don't know where anybody else is on this, but I'm willing to split the difference."

Ultimately Shealy moved and each council member approved a motion asking Oldemeyer to return with a request to raise sewer rates by 2.5 percent. Council member David Eberle Lauren McLean was absent.

A 2.5 percent increase would bump up an average residential bill by 57 cents each month. The average residential customer currently pays $22.68 per month. Commercial bills have extreme variances, with customers as big as Micron compared to small businesses located in homes. The median average sewer bill of Boise's 4,315 commercial customers is $41.45 per month.

Much Ado About Phosphorous

When the Environmental Protection Agency issues permits to water treatment facilities, its foundation is the Federal Clean Water Act, the statutory basis for regulating discharge into the waters of the United States. The CWA grants ultimate authority to the EPA to oversee state and local aquacultures.

Following decades of focusing on toxins, the EPA will focus on two new regulations in 2012: phosphorous and water temperature.

"Our permits have never had a limit on phosphorous before," said Paul Woods, Boise's Environmental Division Manager. "This is brand new, and it's a very big issue."

While phosphorous is necessary for plant or animal growth, too much phosphate can choke a waterway with algae and water weeds, using up large amounts of oxygen, thereby threatening fish and aquatic organisms.

When asked what the current phosphorous levels were at the outtakes of Boise's wastewater treatment facilities, Woods took a deep breath.

"We're at about 5,500 micrograms per liter," he said. "We need to be at 70 micrograms per liter."

So how does Boise reduce its phosphorous by nearly 8,000 percent? Oldemeyer and Woods told Boise City Council that they had a two-part plan. The initial step will take a lot of money and science. The next step will take some first-rate bargaining.

"Number one, we have a project called our Enhanced Biological Nutrient Removal," said Oldemeyer. "That's what we'll need the $5 million for now. That should take our phosphorous levels from 5,500 micrograms per liter down to about 500."

But the second step, to bring phosphorous levels all the way down to 70 mg/L, includes a bit of a gamble involving something called the Dixie Drain.

What is the Dixie Drain?

A year-and-a-half ago, the City of Boise purchased a 49-acre parcel of land between Notus and Parma, known as the Dixie Drain. Hundreds of miles of canals in the Boise Valley Irrigation System flow into the Dixie, including untold amounts of phosphorous running off from fertilized farmlands. The Dixie Drain, further downstream from Boise, flows back into the Boise River and eventually the Snake River, sending all of its phosphates into the region's water systems.

"Instead of asking us to install very expensive filtration systems at our city's wastewater treatment facilities, costing us tens of millions of dollars, we're proposing to engineer a cleanup at Dixie Drain, costing us significantly less money while having a greater impact on the environment," said Oldemeyer.

Oldemeyer and Woods are currently negotiating with the EPA and the Idaho Dept. of Environmental Quality concerning the unique arrangement.

"This is something very new," said Oldemeyer.

"But the EPA will have to be the one to stand up and say that this plan would have the greater environmental impact," said Woods.

The Dixie Drain deal, formally known as the Lower Boise Phosphorous Removal Project, would not involve wastewater treatments. Instead the design uses a gravitational pull of water through a series of wetlands, eventually allowing sediment to be collected in settling ponds before sending the cleaner water back to the Boise River.

"What's exciting about Dixie is being able to remove a lot more phosphorous for substantially less money," said Marcia Schmelzer, operations manager of the West Boise Wastewater Treatment Plant. "To get that last 5 percent of phosphorous out, we would have to add so much more here at the West Boise plant, with a price tag of $40 million to $60 million. This alternative just seems like a win, win."

The plan already has some political muscle behind it. Idaho's congressional delegation, which toured the Dixie Drain in July 2010, signed off on the proposal.

"This is an excellent collaborative project that should move forward," said Sen. Jim Risch.

"The use of the Dixie Drain as a filter is an innovative model for local water quality improvement," said Sen. Mike Crapo, a ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee's Subcommittee on Wildlife and Water.

But phosphorous is just one challenge facing Boise in its effort to comply with the EPA's new standards. Another demand involves temperature.

Cooling Off

When considering the temperature of the Boise River, officials use Celsius instead of Fahrenheit. The approximate temperature reading of water flowing from Boise's wastewater plants runs 18-24 degrees Celsius (about 64-75 degrees Fahrenheit). But new rules from the EPA will soon require those temperatures to be dropped to 13-15 degrees Celsius (55-59 degrees Fahrenheit).

"It's possibly our biggest challenge," said Woods. "The good news is that the Treasure Valley's climate generally works in our favor. The Boise River usually runs cold enough to support the spawning."

Woods referred specifically to three native species--brown trout, rainbow trout and mountain whitefish. The EPA singled out the fish when deciding appropriate temperatures for propagation. But when wastewater is treated, a fair amount of heat enters the equation.

"It's certainly warmer than the river," said Woods. "The new standards will be based on a lot of deep science. The EPA will basically end up telling us that we need to control the temperatures in order to protect this population."

Woods acknowledged that the temperature control would be the subject of intense negotiations between the city and the EPA but could cost significant amounts in capital expenses.

"A Tough Sell"

The Clean Water Act, hundreds of pages long, has been amended twice (in 1977 and 1987) but its enforcement is strict.

"It doesn't allow you to say you simply can't afford to make changes," said Woods. "If you don't meet their expectations, the act has some pretty good teeth to it."

EPA compliance fines have been known to top $37,000 a day.

"We don't want to get into that," said Woods. "The agency would like to see this done as quickly as possible. Temperature regulations? Well, that will take about 10 years, for sure. Phosphorous limits? That's more like eight years."

Which is why Oldemeyer requested from the Boise City Council--and was granted--$500,000 to begin designing the phosphorous removal project as soon as possible.

But Oldemeyer is the first to confirm that his most immediate task will be to convince the citizens and businesses of Boise that a 2.5 percent sewer rate hike is warranted, especially following a 12 percent hike in 2009 followed by a 5 percent hike in 2010.

"I think in this environment, any increase is a tough sell," said Oldemeyer. "But likewise, I think we have a story that goes with it. It's a complex story, but it's a good one."