Cleaning Up the Boise River

Dec 9, 2011

BOISE, Idaho — In a survey that was conducted for Boise State Public Radio, Idaho Public Television and other public media stations, Northwest residents say their top environmental concern is water quality protection.

Aaron Kunz has more on a river in Idaho, where residents are working to reclaim it from a legacy of pollution.

The survey, conducted by DHM Research, asked what concerned people the most out of ten categories. All three states in the Northwest indicated that water quality is the problem they care about the most.

In Idaho, the two biggest concerns based on the survey involve sewage leaking into the Boise River and pollution coming from homes. Liz Paul of Idaho Rivers United says for decades, the Boise River was thought of as a place to get rid of garbage.

“The Boise River was used as a waste disposal and sewage went into the Boise River. All kinds of waste from there was a lot from meat packing plants.”

In the mid 1800s the gold rush brought thousands of people hoping to strike it rich. There was gold but it took the form of tiny slivers buried within the riverbed. To get to it – the miners had to move a lot of water and dirt.

“Just humongous earth-moving machines that pulled the river upside down and totally disrupted the ecology of the river in order to free up whatever pieces of precious metals they had.”

The heavy dredging contaminated the water with dirt, branches, and rocks that changed the natural flow. By the early 1900s, humans caused other problems as well. Farming and ranching used the water from the Boise River –- but waste and fertilizer soon found it’s way back to the stream.

In a 1959 report produced by the Idaho Department of Health, the Boise River tributary, Indian Creek, was described as paunch with manure and meat scraps floating downstream from a packing plant. The creek was reddish in color from blood wastes. The bottom and sides of the stream were coated with black sludge deposits. Health regulators also noted a great deal of rat activity along the banks.

By 1965, the Boise River was thought to be the second most polluted river in Idaho.

Justin Hayes with the Idaho Conservation League says the 1977 Clean Water Act was instrumental in forcing people to re-evaluate how they treated the river.

“So the original framers of the Clean Water Act wanted to make it something that people could get behind and people could understand. So they developed the term fishable/swimmable. So the real goal of the Clean Water Act is to ensure that all waters in the United States are fishable and swimmable.”

Today, thousands of people swim, float and fish every year in the Boise River. But clean-water advocates say more should be done to improve the river’s health.

Justin Hayes explains that when it rains or snows – all the water has to go somewhere. Within the City of Boise, that water goes down the storm drain and dumps directly into the Boise River. Recently Hayes collected some storm water in glass mason jars as it dumped into the river.

“I’ve got a glass bottle in my hands here with about a liter of water in it. And it’s brown and it’s full of contaminants that come off our roadways.”

Dirt, oil, leaking gas and metal from brake pads all get left on the road – washed away in the rain.

While the Boise River is considered fishable and swimmable through Boise, it gets progressively worse downstream. The Environmental Protection Agency lists the Boise River as impaired. The area that needs the most work runs from Indian Creek west of Boise to the mouth of the river where it enters the Snake River on the Idaho-Oregon border. The EPA found a mixture of fecal matter from wastewater treatment plants and sediment including dirt, garbage and agricultural runoff.

The federal agency is pushing to reduce the flow of some of those pollutants into the Boise River. It is imposing tougher regulations for wastewater treatment. Most of the cities and towns along the river will have to meet those goals in order to license their waste water treatment plants, starting next year with the City of Boise.

In Boise, I’m Aaron Kunz.