A Watershed Center in Boise
Columbia River Basin
Columbia River Basin
Education Coordinator, Boise Watershed Education Center
Barbara Briggs Folger
NWNL Advisor & Snake River Expedition Member
All images © Alison M. Jones, unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.
Located at the West Boise Water Renewal Facility, the Boise Watershed Educational Center offers the Snake River community an introduction to water protection and conservation through interactive exhibits; river, farm and forest field trips; and the largest concentration of public art in Idaho. This multi-agency partnership presents community lessons and programs to many sectors of the Boise on their environment and need for sustainability. This is a great model for other communities of the power of joint partnerships.
NWNL Cindy, how did the Boise Watershed Education Center come about?
CINDY BUSCHE We need to thank Donna-Marie Hayes, our very involved Public Works Commissioner who was an employee of Boise City Public Works about 15 to 20 years ago. She watched this model of water education unfold around the country and around the world. A couple of centers have sprung up in the Pacific Northwest. So, she convinced a couple of our local environmental managers to visit some of the other water centers. They were moved on seeing how those centers engaged kids and the next generation in conserving and protecting our resources. Based on what they saw, their interest grew.
At the same time, our wastewater plant was going to tear down it’s administration building and build a new one. So, the opportunity to construct a building and an education center presented itself. We found it was more cost effective to build new rather than redesign the current building. In 2005, Donna-Marie retired from the city and started Boise Watershed Exhibits, Inc., as a 501c3 a non-profit. Its mission was to raise money from the community to fund interpretive elements of the education center.
The city’s responsibility was to build a green building as a teaching tool and fund its maintenance and operation. Tthey raised $1 million from the community just for the hands-on exhibits; and the city invested $2 million in a Gold LEED-certified building. Plus, we have an art ordinance in Boise that requires 1% of every capital improvement project to go toward funding art. That 1% has grown and grown over the years, as Public Works expanded our sewer system. Knowing that this education center was going to be built, Boise pooled all of that art money together over the years and thus funded about $250,000 toward the art in this facility.
This Boise Watershed Education Center is an amazing opportunity to teach kids of all ages. We get everyone in here from pre-school through adult. It’s a great way to teach them about understanding where their water comes from, how it’s treated at the wastewater treatment plant, where it goes, who it effects, and how one’s personal involvement can really make a different in protecting and conserving our water.
NWNL You said the Center was originally geared to grades 4 to 6, because that’s when the kids study water. How did it expand to such a wide range of age groups today, and how did you change your exhibits to meet that new visitor profile?
CINDY BUSCHE We started with the 4th– to 6th-grade model, having looked at the curriculum, science standards, and when students study water in the curriculum. But having modeled the Center after the New Water Center in Singapore, their team worked together with us to develop the new exhibits. They copied content for us; and we just made it look cool as we inserted the Boise sewer system in place of Singapore’s system. When we opened, we had a curriculum for 3rd to 8th grade. That curriculum included lessons and tours in partnership with Treasure Valley, Idaho.
Then high school teachers called because wastewater is in their environmental science curriculum. Colleges called for wastewater tours, and they were curious about the Education Center. Pre-schools called interested in a free field trip for young learners. So, as the development of the curriculum continued to expand, we quickly addressed those needs.
NWNL To build such a significant facility, you must have also had outside support.
CINDY BUSCHE Luckily, I work with Boise State graduate students in a National Science Foundation K-12 grant, so they partnered with us and helped develop more than half of our lessons. They piloted them, changed them, added their input, and brainstormed good science. It’s been a wonderful partnership. So, our curriculum expanded and now our online lessons and tours cover preschoolers through adults.
However, the exhibits have not changed, and we’re addressing that now in Phase Two. We’re adding an entire exterior element that will also be for all ages, but probably with a bit more adult appeal. We’ll also change some of the messaging of some of our inside exhibits.
NWNL When you showed me your Phase Two. I thought, “Wow, every city needs to understand drainage swales and all of the other things on exhibit here.”
CINDY BUSCHE Right. College students have also been coming regularly. Job Corps students (ages 18-21) come and spend time on career tracks in their local areas. Job Corps students from Nampa, Idaho, come here for their green and conservation track. They’ve been involved with some of this landscaping and putting in either native plants or taking out our invasive plants. These groups have been very involved and understand the big picture.
There are also other groups; and since we don’t have a project for everyone, they just get whatever messaging the teacher chooses. Often the subject is water-quality testing on the river, which explains the impacts of water quality, the process of science and the need for taking precise measurements. Because they do sampling above and below our effluent outfall, they also understand the impacts that wastewater makes in a river system. Many teachers request tours of the wastewater plant so students understand that process and its importance. Those students then walk away understanding what a watershed is. You’d be surprised how many people don’t know even that.
NWNL Sadly, I am not surprised. I am constantly defining the word “watershed.” Moving on, where do your native plants come from? Do you have your own native nursery?
CINDY BUSCHE There is one at Lucky Peak and the US Forest Service. But we have a partnership with Edwards Nursery because a woman on the Board of Directors for Boise Watershed Exhibits is the owner of Edward’s Nursery. But we have also gotten some from two other nurseries.
NWNL If money were no object, what is the one exhibit you’d like to build first?
CINDY BUSCHE I would love to see a young learners’ section for 3 to 6-year-olds as an entire wing added to our watershed building. I feel the computer kiosks address our readers and older audiences, while many families here look for younger activities. We addressed that temporarily with a small kids’ area in the play area for the library and office area. It has a couple of books and puzzles, but it’s not really a comprehensive space. It was never designed to be that. I recently visited the San Jose Children’s Museum‘s water exhibit for young learners. It’s very interactive, with low water-tables that get kids excited about water. They can do many different experiments. I would love to see that here.
NWNL Are there other dreams for expansion?
CINDY BUSCHE Of course a river campus, which is in Phase Two, is my #1 preference. But that’s going to happen whether I get a donation or not.
There’s a similar initiative on which we are partnering, being done by Boise State University, University of Idaho, and Idaho State University in Pocatello. They share a 5-year National Science Foundation grant called “The Ed Score.” This is the end of its first year of the grant to stimulate competitive research in Idaho; and we are already implementing some of the education and outreach initiatives for Boise State University. These three universities are studying the impacts of urbanization and climate change on their watersheds.
Pocatello and Coeur D’Alene have more of a focus on water quality, but Boise is looking at water quantity because that’s more of an issue here. Eric Linquist, a Boise State professor in the School of Public Policy, is in charge of their external engagement piece. He has a very long list of Boise watershed stakeholders whom they’ll interview and survey. He will factor social science viewpoints, attitudes and behaviors into a computer model that also factors in climate change – our annual precipitation, our flows and things like that. They’re synthesizing all that data into a computer model to show a scenario ten years out, according to policy choices we make in our cities and government. And, at the same time, it will show those scenarios up to 50 years out. This gives decision-makers a strong tool for implementing changes in the watershed. It is very exciting.
NWNL Let’s hope that science overtakes politics.
CINDY BUSCHE Yeah, that’s the hope. Social scientists are very interested in this as well. It’s a unique partnership that teaches how science and social policy interact and interface. The EPSCORE [idahoepscore.org] website for this project further stimulates competitive research.
NWNL How do you assess its impact?
CINDY BUSCHE It’s exciting. This $20 million grant runs across the state for five years. It funds faculty, graduate students, undergrads to be part of this process. It funds the Boise Watershed to implement a teacher workshop and adventure learning.
NWNL You’ll need an army. How big is this plan for your building project?
CINDY BUSCHE It covers about two acres.
NWNL Do you work with other groups in Boise?
CINDY BUSCHE We are partnering with the town’s Master Naturalists to build a park. Another year-old group in town called the Boise River Enhancement Network/BREN has an EPA Water Smart grant. They are a diverse group representing all watershed stakeholders and highlighting enhancements to the Boise watershed – including habitat restoration, daylighting trout streams, agriculture, implementing water conservation and things like that.
NWNL Who’s their funder?
CINDY BUSCHE I think it’s the EPA Water Smart Grant. It doesn’t fund positions, but it gives a bit of seed money as an initiative to get a plan in place. There have been a couple of brown bag lunches, a couple of large networking group meetings and a well-designed website.
NWNL Are you a part of this?
CINDY BUSCHE Yes, we’re part of its outreach, and so we hired more staff.
NWNL You have the ability to do that?
CINDY BUSCHE We do. We’re very lucky because we’re under Public Works, so funding comes from the Sewer Fund. Right now, that fund does quite well since it’s fed by people’s sewer bills, which have been raised due to current phosphorus limitations. So, it’s been somewhat positive for us as we’re able to get additional funding.
NWNL Do you think that you’ll ever have a brown water system?
CINDY BUSCHE Boise is talking about water reuse using the Lander’s Street Facility, our older wastewater treatment plant. But we can’t expand on that property since it’s limited by property around it. There may come a time where we change that into a water reuse facility and supply water probably to the nearest local parks. But we can’t do that unless it is cost effective. Yet, if the price of water increases, we probably would look more thoroughly into that option. Right now, it’s just sitting out there as an option. Meridian, Idaho, is already doing water reuse from their wastewater pipes. Their waste effluent is used on parks that are closest to the wastewater plant. They’ve been more progressive. But they’re a newer community, so they can input the infrastructure.
NWNL They’re reusing wastewater then that’s been treated, rather than having a separate plumbing system for house wastewater?
CINDY BUSCHE No. I think that we’re a long way off before we see that.
NWNL Yes, it’s a lot of infrastructure.
CINDY BUSCHE It is; and plumbing codes must change and a lot of buy-in is needed. There are many hurdles, so I don’t think that it’s going to happen in the next 20 years.
NWNL Stanford University has its own water. A couple of civil engineers, a climatologist, a climate-rights lawyer and a civil engineer explained to me how Stanford got all of the water rights, both ground water and surface water when he acquired the property. So, the university now has their own little deal there. Some of the newer faculty housing has put in two pump systems. It’s very impressive.
CINDY BUSCHE Yes, that would be a good model to expand upon. I think people have a hard time even thinking about going from grey water to drinking water right now. Southern California, maybe Kansas City, and another community that I just heard of, are injecting their wastewater into the aquifer from which they drink.
NWNL Are you concerned about aquifer depletion?
CINDY BUSCHE Yup. I think people need to be more aware of conservation methods, where their water comes from, and why. The “why” piece is really important.
NWNL Yes, otherwise Idaho’s Snake River Basin could turn into California’s Central Valley. Everyone here says, ‘Oh, we’ve got tons of water. There’s tons of water.’ I say, ‘You’re looking at this in the wrong way.’
CINDY BUSCHE Yes, the irrigators want more storage, so we’re seeing raising of the 1915 Arrowrock Dam on the Boise River. It is on the US National Register of Historic Places and was built to provide water for agriculture. From 1935 to 1937, it was raised 5 feet.
NWNL Cindy, I wish we had time to discuss the pluses and minuses of dams, but our time is up. Thank you so much for your insights into how a community can raise greater awareness of its freshwater resources.
All images © Alison M. Jones, unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.