NOTUS, Idaho — A groundbreaking project that removes large amounts of phosphorus and sediment from an agricultural drain in southwestern Idaho has gained significant interest from municipalities and companies looking for ways to meet federal discharge requirements.
The $21 million project has created a template that could allow these entities and farmers to work together to meet federal Clean Water Act standards.
EPA officials told Capital Press the project could set the stage for efforts to create water quality trading programs that would allow producers to receive financial credit for implementing best management practices.
“If farmers were wondering when was the right time to get involved and start working on this, we would suggest to them that now is the time to do this,” said Mark MacIntyre, senior communications officer for EPA’s regional office in Seattle.
A treatment facility built by the city of Boise near Notus will remove about 10 tons of phosphorus from the Dixie Drain each year.
That will allow the city to meet federal discharge regulations for phosphorus. The city is making improvements that will allow it to remove 93 percent of the phosphorus at its existing facilities.
However, new federal regulations require the city to remove 98 percent of the phosphorus. To achieve that final 5 percent, the city built a treatment facility on the Dixie Drain, the site of intense agricultural activity. Though the cost of the project over its 20-year life span will be about the same as if the city had made the improvements at its existing facilities, the environmental benefit will be far greater at the Dixie Drain site, said Shawn Wilson, the city’s project manager.
About 80 percent of the water treated at the city’s existing facilities ends up downstream, where it’s used to irrigate farm fields, picking up more phosphorus before draining back into the Boise and Snake rivers.
The 49-acre Dixie Drain facility, which became operational this year and collects surface and ground water from agricultural operations 40 miles downstream in the lower watershed, removes 50 percent more phosphorus, Wilson said.
And by removing the water at that point, there are no additional large discharges of phosphorus before the water drains back into the rivers.
“That’s the crux of why we did it,” said Steve Burgos, Boise’s environmental manager. “It didn’t make any sense to clean water that was going to get dirty again.”
The Dixie Drain project, an eight-year collaboration between Boise, environmental groups, EPA and state regulators, has created a model that can be used elsewhere, EPA officials said.
The project has generated a lot of interest from irrigation companies and farmers interested in potential water quality trading efforts that could reward producers for improving water quality, said Jim Werntz, EPA’s Idaho operations officer.
That could result in cities and industries that face federal water discharge requirements paying farmers and others to implement practices that help them achieve those standards, he said.
“There is a potential for doing some ... other offset projects similar to the Dixie Drain,” Werntz said. “It hasn’t been done quite like this before that we’re aware of.”
If those type of projects happen, “it will be market-driven, outside of any government type of action,” he said.