BOISE, Idaho — A century’s worth of using the Boise River to churn up riches or transport waste has given way to a generation-long campaign to return it to pristine condition.
And that effort seems right on track with Idahoans’ priorities, according to the results of new survey released Wednesday by Boise State Public Radio, Idaho Public Television and other public media stations in the Northwest
The survey, conducted by Davis, Hibbitts & Midghall, asked what concerned people the most out of ten categories. The open-ended question, “what environmental issue concerns you the most?” was posed to 400 Idaho respondents. Twenty-two percent said water quality protection. Except for air quality protection (17 percent), all other reponses — from climate change to recycling to wildlife habitat protection — were named by fewer than 10 percent as top concerns.
Liz Paul of Idaho Rivers United says for decades, the Boise River was thought of as a place to get rid of garbage. People and several meat packing plants in the area would dump waste and sewage into the river to be washed away.
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.
Paul says miners would use large earth-moving machines that would turn the river upside down. That would disrupt the ecology of the river just so miners could get their hands on the buried precious metals.
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 its 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 1972 Clean Water Act was instrumental in forcing people to re-evaluate how they treated the river. The authors of the act knew the average person would have a hard time understanding the science. So they included language in the act like fish-able and swim-able which was the real goal of the Clean Water Act. To make the water in the rivers clean enough to swim and fish.
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.
*Fish and Game stock the river with rainbow trout. Easy access.
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. The bottles are filled with dark, murky water that stinks when opened.
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 waste-water 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 waste-water 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.
Congrats to David James for his winning submission, 'Annabella smelling the Balsam.'
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