Letters From the West

EPA says it won’t require zero discharge for Caldwell stormwater

Pioneer Irrigation has suggested that the City of Caldwell’s efforts to continue draining stormwater into its canals is a short term solution that will be outlawed soon.

Pioneer has pointed to EPA requirements for Boise and other Treasure Valley cities to go to low impact development rules by 2014 for reducing stormwater pollution into the Boise River under the Clean Water Act. I wrote about their dispute last month.

Brent Orton, Caldwell's Public Works Director looks at a drain in Caldwell that carries both ag and urban runoff and runs right through Caldwell. (Idaho Statesman File Photo)

Brent Orton, Caldwell’s Public Works Director looks at a drain in Caldwell that carries both ag and urban runoff and runs right through Caldwell. (Idaho Statesman File Photo)

Now first remember that regular farm runoff is exempt from the Clean Water Act. So the farmers that Pioneer considers its most important patrons don’t have to worry about treating the runoff that runs into canals and ditches and eventually into the Boise River.

Stormwater from urban sources, such as subdivisions, is not exempt and since the 1990s has been the subject of a series of increasing regulations aimed at reducing the effects of this pollution we all see. Pioneer has warned its patrons about the dangers of this pollution but no the farm pollution.

In areas where it is possible, cities will be encouraged to require drainage systems that capture all of the runoff of a subdivision, even for flood events, filter out oils, chemicals and as much of the pollution as possible, before it seeps into the ground. But some areas, including Caldwell, which are underlined by clay and other material that is not permeable enough to allow seepage into the ground, some treated stormwater runoff will be allowed to go into the river.

The Environmental Protection Agency is pushing cities to go to low impact development by 2014 but Misha Vakoc, EPA Region 10 municipal stormwater permit coordinator in Seattle.

“That does not mean that Caldwell would not be able to discharge,” Vakoc said.

Caldwell and much of the Treasure Valley presents a rather unique challenge for stormwater clean-up, she said. Historically, when the Boise River gravity irrigation system was developed, some lower-lying areas flooded, turning farmers’ fields into wetlands.

That required drainage ditches along with the irrigation canals. Since the farms and cities were developed together the ditches along with the canals run through older and newly developed urban areas alike.

“In the Treasure Valley these agriculture drains are interwoven where people live,” Vakoc said.

So the lawyers for Pioneer, Caldwell and every other irrigation district, city, highway district and county have to unravel the legal tangle that the engineers first resolved a century ago and continue to face every time a new road is built, a new subdivision developed or a new industrial area built. And the taxpayers for both sides of these disputes are forced to pick up the tab.

Often, attorneys for the cities and highway districts argue, the irrigation districts demand add-ons that are unnecessary and add thousands to the costs of projects like new roads and bridges. They can because by law the irrigation districts have more say in the dispute although if it gets to court they have to prove their case.

Irrigation districts worry that without the improvements, such as canal liners the developments increase the risk their patrons may face unforeseen problems down the road, like leaks.

And in the irrigation community there is an underlying doctrine: It pays to be paranoid about water.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West