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Ashland water came close to hitting bottom this year

Following a devastating shortage of water access during the Almeda fire in early September, Ashland officials turned to short-term mandatory water curtailment and improvements to long-term planning to better manage water sources in the valley.

During a meeting of the Conservation and Climate Outreach Commission Wednesday, city water conservation staff member Julie Smitherman reflected on how domestic water consumption influenced access during a critical moment in the year.

Ashland’s water is funneled via the east and west forks of Ashland Creek into Reeder Reservoir, which holds about 280 million gallons of water. But to maintain water quality and retain reserves in case of fire, drawdown can drop only to a low of 35%, Smitherman explained.

In a typical year, flow into the reservoir hovered around 15 million to 18 million gallons per day. The 2020 summer brought less than one-fifth of that amount, which is insufficient to sustain the community through the season. In the lowest recent years, only about 2 million gallons flowed in, largely depending on snowpack — just enough to cover wintertime domestic consumption.

“This might be the new norm that we’re looking at,” Smitherman said, based on multiyear trends of reduced flows into the reservoir.

Also complicating annual water management in recent years, summer consumption has nearly breached water treatment plant capacity at 7 million gallons, spurring a call for community-wide usage reduction.

Ashland’s secondary water source, the Talent Irrigation District, provides up to 2 million gallons per day through a drinking water plant, but is available only from May through mid-September. A tertiary water source, Talent-Ashland-Phoenix intertie, brings in another 2 million gallons daily, but with limited reservoir capacity to hold it.

“There are some system drawbacks that are keeping us, right now, from pumping that entire amount of water,” Smitherman said. “We’re still pulling from the reservoir as we’re pumping TAP water.”

The year began with thin snowpack and a quick spring melt, prompting community outreach about the need for irrigation evaluations and other water conservation efforts. Expecting a low water year, the city began pumping from multiple sources in July, supplementing to keep the reservoir as full as possible for September and October use, when TID shuts off, Smitherman said.

On the peak community demand day of the summer, July 31, Ashlanders consumed about 5.5 million gallons — just shy of what was used Sept. 8 to fight the Almeda fire and cover domestic use. Peak days are shifting annually toward later in the summer, Smitherman noted.

TID drawdown ceased Sept. 4, as staff started seeing poor water quality from test results. They had intended to begin pumping TAP Sept. 8, before the fire episode occurred and compromised the line.

“So now we have no TID, we have no TAP, and our reservoir has drawn down to 50%, which still sounds like a lot ... we can only draw it down safely to about 35% — that doesn’t give us much room,” Smitherman said.

With no substantial rain in the forecast and higher than normal water use, the city implemented mandatory stage one water curtailment Sept. 14. TAP came back online Oct. 1 at partial capacity. By Oct. 8, the reservoir had dropped to 36% of capacity.

Today, Reeder Reservoir continues to gradually refill — at nearly 40% as of Wednesday, when staff intended to officially end curtailment.

Interim Public Works Director Scott Fleury previously reported curtailment effectively reined in the public’s water usage, though more slowly than expected.

The city lifted mandatory stage one curtailment Oct. 29, with requests to continue voluntary water use reduction strategies whenever possible.

Conservation strategies are part of a longterm plan for reducing water use community-wide, such as irrigation smart controllers, indoor water use evaluations, gray water system usage and rain catchment, she said. The strategies have effectively helped to surpass Ashland’s goals established in the last master plan in 2012: Reduce demand on the water system 5% by 2020 and 15% by 2030. The city has already met a 15% reduction goal and reset a new objective to reduce by another 15% over the next decade.

Even with more people staying at home, consuming water both indoors and outdoors due to COVID-19, Smitherman expects to see more than 3 million gallons in water savings by the end of the year.

“Just because we said it last year doesn’t mean we’re done. We have to say it again this year — that’s how this field works,” Smitherman said. “We have to continue to remind people how they’re using their water and the best ways to reduce and use it efficiently.”

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497 and follow her on Twitter @AllayanaD.

Ashland's historic City Hall. Daily Tidings/ Denise Baratta