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Wary eye on dwindling water reserves

Recent rains have not diminished drought concerns in Ashland and throughout the state.

"The majority of Oregon is in dire shape," Travis Kelly, Jackson County watermaster, said at a Drought Summit on Tuesday in Ashland. "The Owyhee Reservoir, the biggest one in the state, is empty. Most of our reservoirs will be drawn very low by the end of the water year (which runs to October)."

The city of Ashland, Katalyst, Inc. and the Ashland Chamber of Commerce hosted the summit in Southern Oregon University's Stevenson Union.

Kelly concluded his presentation by reminding residents that the rest of the summer is set to be very hot and very dry. 

"Water is our most precious resource," said Robert Coffan, a hydrologist for Katalyst. "When it gets scarce, it becomes a little controversial. "We want people ... to come together and share their knowledge and experience."

The Stevenson Union's Rogue River Room contained several informative displays so local groups — such as the Chamber of Commerce, SOU and Ashland Fire & Rescue — could interact with Ashland residents and discuss how they are reacting to the drought. A panel of experts delivered presentations about the drought situation, including what residents need to know to get through the summer and how they can conserve water.

City Administrator Dave Kanner commended Ashland residents on their conservative use of water this summer.

"It's been one of the most remarkable responses to action I've seen in my 25 years of city administration," he said. "Thank you, Ashland."

Kanner reminded residents that, although residents have done well with their water use and Reeder Reservoir has been near full all summer, it's important to maintain a dialogue about drought, because things could change. 

"There are still two hot months left," he said. "The creek has slowed to a trickle. There will probably be next to nothing flowing in by the end of the summer."

The city is keeping a close eye on the reservoir levels, Kanner says. Curtailment is still a possibility if reservoir levels drop below the necessary capacity needed to get through the summer. The reservoir is usually drawn down to 80 percent capacity by August.

If the city curtails water use, it would implement what is known as "stage three curtailment," in which water use over 1,800 cubic feet would be billed at four times the normal rate. That amount is approximately twice the average water customer's winter use.

"It's not something we take lightly," Kanner said. "Curtailment would need a very thoughtful approach." 

Kanner believes that curtailment would take approximately one week to be implemented if declared.

SOU Facilities Supervisor Mike Oxendine was on hand to discuss the university's conservation efforts as a large-entity water user. 

"We've made around $100,000 worth of irrigation upgrades," Oxendine said. "We're committed to reducing our irrigation use by 30 percent this year."

The university has invested in a Baseline Irrigation Solutions project that is designed to evaluate how much and where water is used and can automatically adjust watering times according to soil requirements and environmental conditions. 

While many of these programs were set prior to the drought, Oxendine said that this summer created more pressure to get the projects completed. 

"This summer was definitely a kick in the pants," he said. "We shut down irrigation points that we wouldn't have in previous years."

"The drought really helped us take a critical eye to the projects," added facilities employee Roxane Beigel Coryell.

"Conservation preserves the environment and can help save you money," said Julie Smitherman, a water conservation specialist for the city who discussed the water conservation programs available to residents. "But the most logical reason to conserve is because it's the right thing to do. It's our most precious resource and we shouldn't take it for granted."

Along with general habit changes such as taking shorter showers and lessening irrigation use, Smitherman discussed more permanent changes, such as the city's lawn-replacement program and rebate programs for installing more efficient toilets and washers.

Ashland water customers also can pick up low-flow showerheads, ground moisture meters and other free items to fine-tune their water use at the Community Development Building, 51 Winburn Way.

For more information about current drought conditions and water conservation programs, see www.ashland.or.us/drought2014 or www.ashlandsaveswater.org.

Email reporter Ian Hand at ihand@dailytidings.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/IanHand_DT.