Ashland TID users to get bills in spring
ASHLAND — After severe drought conditions shortened the irrigation season this summer, city officials are preparing for the likelihood that a troublesome trend has only begun.
“I feel like climate change is here, and we need to do something to think out of the box for next year because this is going to happen again and again and again,” said Ashland City Council member Gina DuQuenne.
Ashland City Council approved Tuesday a change in the billing schedule for Talent Irrigation District users in the city, so that fees are due in the spring instead of at the end of a potentially short and dry season.
In all, about 190 private property customers in Ashland receive irrigation water from TID, according to interim City Manager Gary Milliman. In fiscal year 2021, TID billed the city $57,205 for the city’s water right and operations and maintenance costs associated with water delivery.
The city typically fronts the TID fee prior to the start of the irrigation season and bills Ashland TID users in September at a flat rate of $241 per acre annually.
“It’s not a situation where the city is buying water, it’s a situation where the city is buying access to the irrigation system,” Milliman said.
According to interim Finance Director Alison Chan, the city pays TID the $57,000 in irrigation fees and passes through $45,000 to Ashland irrigation water users, because the city water system also holds a right to pull water from the TID canal.
“[The water] was not used for domestic purposes this year,” said Public Works Director Scott Fleury. “As part of my drought update in May, one of the things that was specified was to keep as much irrigation water in the canal because we knew there would be water impacts from the upper reservoirs, and then supplement the city’s water resource with Talent-Ashland-Phoenix intertie and not TID water this year.”
Annual fees pay for a right to available water and maintenance of the TID canal system, but do not promise any amount of water, and they don’t change depending on how much water is delivered or used throughout the season, Milliman said. Maintenance on the canal continues regardless of whether water is flowing.
Compared to the typical May-start, September-stop cycle of TID, this year the irrigation season opened May 26 and closed July 19.
The city and TID received numerous complaints and appeals from TID water users after the early shutoff, seeking a reduction in their annual fee, Milliman said.
“Those customers who have contacted the city concerning a rate reduction indicate that had they known that the season could be short, they may have elected to discontinue their TID connection this year rather than pay the flat fee,” according to city documents.
Milliman reviewed the appeals and brought the issue to City Council, which sets the fee amount by resolution, though the council does not have authority over TID’s rates, he said.
“Unless the City Council decides that you want to relieve a portion of that cost to the TID water users, we don’t have the ability to adjust those fees,” Milliman said. “If you do authorize us to reduce the fees, then other water customers will be making up the difference — customers who never use irrigation water, who are part of the city water system.”
According to the city, no irrigation water use agencies are offering rate reductions this year, and reductions would decrease revenue to the city’s water enterprise fund. Money for water department expenditures is generated by citizen water users, Milliman said.
“This is part of the cost of being an irrigation system customer and user: You are able to access water when it’s available and you can’t access the water when it’s not, but the system still needs to be maintained so it’s available to convey water the next year,” Milliman said.
Aligning with Milliman’s recommendation, the council voted unanimously to confirm the existing rate structure and proceed with an earlier billing schedule for Ashland TID users.
“I think part of the sting is people were cut off and then the next month, they’re getting their irrigation bill,” Chan said.
Speaking from her experience as a former farmer, Chan said issuing bills in the early spring offers users the chance to consider and decide whether they want irrigation water from a certain source for the season.
Chan said she worked with city staff to change billing issuance to April. The city receives TID’s bill in January.
Users who submitted a fee appeal will be notified of the council’s discussion and decision by mail, and information will be posted on the city website, she said.