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Divided Ashland council kills wastewater treatment plan

Plan likely would harm fish populations, opponents say

Ashland City Council tackled the ramifications Tuesday of moving forward with a feasibility analysis and planning study of the impact of conveying wastewater from Ashland to the Medford reclamation facility — and environmental stakeholders lined up to testify about why the proposal was a bad idea.

Participation in the Medford reclamation facility planning study, estimated to cost $230,100, would also identify capital improvement needs at the Medford facility necessary to accommodate projected streamflows from Ashland sources, according to Ashland Public Works Director Scott Fleury. A $200,000 feasibility analysis would formally answer fiscal and environmental impact questions over a 12-18 month period, he said.

A divided council voted down the proposal, allowing planned improvements to the Ashland wastewater treatment plant to proceed on schedule.

According to the Wildfire Safety Commission, the proposal “unintentionally amounts to the biggest vital resource giveaway in Ashland’s history.”

John Scarborough, vice chair, delivered a statement approved by the commission about the “significant water resources implications” associated with the proposed plan, “which will affect Ashland’s resiliency against wildfire,” he said.

Roughly a billion gallons of annual output from the wastewater treatment plant is “already remarkably clean,” and if retained, could be partially diverted to help keep trees and landscaping sufficiently irrigated to be fire resilient, or used as a backup firefighting water source, Scarborough said. Some U.S. communities have undergone projects to make their wastewater clean enough to drink, another possibility, he added.

“For perspective, consider the cost of trucking in water to replace what the plan in question would be giving away,” he said.

“We want to emphasize that keeping Ashland’s trees and landscaping fully irrigated during fire season significantly raises our fire resistance by reducing their tendency to spread fire,” Scarborough said. “The Almeda fire also demonstrated how during a major fire event, fire hydrants can run dry due to infrastructure damage from fire.”

The proposed sewage conveyance plan would decrease flows in Bear Creek and damage wildlife habitat, particularly for fish, said Bryan Sohl, member of the Conservation and Climate Outreach Commission and board member of WaterWatch of Oregon.

Fish surveys show salmon and steelhead counts recovering in Bear Creek, and during the summer streamflows sufficient for fish survival depend upon treated wastewater discharged from the Ashland plant, Sohl said.

Downstream, certain entities have water rights senior to the city’s, which may require supplementation with Reeder Reservoir stores to satisfy, he said, potentially leading to an increase in water pumped uphill through the Talent-Ashland-Phoenix intertie.

Treating sewage in Medford would require falling back on a 59% coal-11% natural gas-generated power source, instead of Ashland’s 82% hydroelectric power, Sohl said.

“This all goes against Climate and Energy Action Plan goals,” he said. “Coho salmon use Bear Creek. We could be at risk for fines or lawsuits related to Endangered Species Act violations, should our decision endanger federally protected coho salmon.”

The existing functional plant is on track to reduce its energy consumption with upgrades to the ultraviolet system and potential solar power generation — in contrast, Medford’s plant has been sued over water quality discharge issues, Sohl said.

A water quality trading project underway focuses on riparian restoration to offset the sun’s impact along Bear Creek, Ashland Creek and other small tributaries, as part of a water temperature compliance strategy for the Ashland wastewater treatment plant’s updated permit, Fleury said. A second project in the final design phase focuses on creating a cool water mixing zone with outfall relocation.

Under the regional connection proposal, Ashland would lose the ability to set rates and policies regarding its own sewage treatment, Sohl said.

A federal judge recently ruled that output from Medford’s treatment plant into the Rogue River violated the city’s Clean Water Act permit, that the city is liable for phosphorus and nitrogen levels in excess of Oregon Department of Environmental Quality standards, and that pollution is flowing downriver from the plant off Kirtland Road, the Mail Tribune reported Oct. 8.

“Increasing drought conditions are contributing to already low flows and rising water temperatures, so removing the wastewater release from Bear Creek watershed would be detrimental to already threatened aquatic species,” said Emily Bowes, conservation director for Rogue Riverkeeper.

In August, the Ashland plant’s output was the primary flow source for upper Bear Creek, Bowes said.

“There is already plenty of data that shows the removal of this flow from the Ashland facility would cause Bear Creek to be completely dry during peak heat in the summer near Ashland, and intermittently dry elsewhere in the watershed,” Bowes said.

Based on the recent drought year, diverting wastewater to Medford would worsen conditions for fish trying to cross Ashland barriers during drought periods, impede migration attempts of juvenile salmon and steelhead in early summer and adult chinook salmon in the late summer, and the low, hot, leftover flow would likely kill fish in this reach of Bear Creek, said fish biologist Dan Van Dyke with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Without the plant’s output, flow augmentation to support fish would have to come from Reeder Reservoir down Ashland Creek, Fleury said. The idea of purchasing Talent Irrigation District water rights to support that flow was explored in the 1990s — the first time discussions about regional connection versus local facility upgrade occurred — but the past summer showed TID can be inconsistent with no guaranteed volume, he said.

Based on snowpack and stream volume, to successfully cover the 2.3 million gallon average daily flow into Bear Creek from the plant, the community could expect to see stage 3 or 4 water curtailment in July, Fleury said. Stage 4 curtailment prohibits the use of city water for any outdoor irrigation.

“The use of Reeder Reservoir would be a highly negative impact to the community as the sole raw water source for treated water, considering what we’ve seen this year with drought conditions and the limitations of the TID system in the upper reservoirs,” Fleury said.

Councilor Shaun Moran supported funding both the planning and feasibility study to gather information about the proposed connection — a “catalyst” he said “could be very important for the future of our town.”

“We heard from Medford, when they came in, they talked about revamping, resizing their present plant. To me, I think that gives the citizens of Ashland an incredible opportunity to look to regionalize our service,” Moran said.

Councilors Stephen Jensen and Paula Hyatt made points of order as Moran expounded upon a self-compiled estimate of 20-year operational costs associated with the Ashland wastewater treatment plant, to the dismay of councilors who objected to the lengthy exposition of opinion before a motion had been made and rhetorical question directed at Milliman and Fleury:

“Is it fair to the citizens of Ashland to ask them to pay in 20 years up to $220 million in additional funds to fund our wastewater treatment plant when the options of understanding what we’d have to pay would be crystal clear if we proceeded to do these two studies, which would be up to $450,000?” Moran posed. “I would support doing that, I think it’s the right thing to do and I’d like to make a motion that that’s what we proceed to do.”

Councilor Tonya Graham said the question was inappropriate and unfair to direct at staff, who do not set policy.

Moran posed whether the Ashland treatment plant, if decommissioned to save operational costs, could morph into a water storage area to supplement water deficiencies in the summer months, using rainwater gathered in wetter months.

Answering questions about retaining peak streamflows and water storage space would require going through with the feasibility study — pausing two capital improvement maintenance projects scheduled for the wastewater treatment plant and reappropriating those funds for the studies in the process, Fleury said. At the end of the studies, if the council chose not to connect to the regional system, a rate increase would offset costs associated with the unplanned studies and halted projects.

Moran made a motion, seconded by DuQuenne, to approve $230,100 to participate in the Medford reclamation facility planning study — the first of three motions composing the proposed project.

“Ashlanders expect councilors to conduct all the due diligence that’s necessary and make decisions based on facts,” Moran said. “These facts we don’t know now, and will only get once we do and commit to these studies.”

“Having this motion passed is a wonderful opportunity to get us moving in the right direction,” DuQuenne said. “We need to see all the options.”

Graham, echoing testimony from stakeholders earlier in the meeting, said impacts to native fish, permanent relinquishing of control over a precious resource, wildfire risk, extra energy consumption and increased cost to ratepayers together made the proposal a poor investment for the major piece of infrastructure at hand.

“If it looked like a good idea, I wouldn’t have a problem investing this amount of money in it,” Graham said. “But we are being asked to spend at least $430,000 to confirm that what looks like a really bad idea actually is.”

Hyatt said she preferred to pursue options that work toward financial stability without impacting water supply for residents.

“We look at our resources, we look at our funding, but we also have to look at water and other elements that are truly considered resources too,” Hyatt said. “I’m not willing to put that water supply at risk.”

After Moran’s motion failed 2-4, Jensen made a motion to take no further action on the matter, table consideration or discussion of connecting to Rogue Valley Sewer Services and terminate dedication of staff time to the concept.

“I would support Councilor Jensen’s idea but when he’s not reelected to the City Council, maybe we can reestablish it after that,” Moran said.

Hyatt called for the mayor to rule on the personal attack, to which Mayor Julie Akins responded, “What would be wonderful is if we could all just be grownups and speak to the motions that are on the floor.”

“I don’t need combat pay for this, it should just be a basic facilitation and a genuine inquiry into how we’re going to run the city,” Akins said.

Graham proposed an amendment to the motion stating the issue will not be taken up outside of a water master planning process, which passed with the original motion 4-2, with DuQuenne and Moran casting nay votes.

No immediate recourse was called for during the meeting, however, Moran’s statement may be subject to sanctions per the council’s code of conduct, which requires councilors “practice respect, professionalism and decorum during discussion and debate,” “refrain from impugning motives or professional competency of any meeting participant,” “avoid derogatory statements and negative personal comments,” and “speak in opposition without personal rancor.”

Supporting sections from Ashland Municipal Code require the mayor and council to "disagree agreeably and professionally with respect“ using appropriate language, tone, and nonverbal communication.