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Council Corner: The future of Ashland's water supply

I’m sitting at my kitchen table watching the rain hit the trees outside, then the windowpane. The weather is still way too warm, but after two years of drought, every raindrop is exceedingly welcome.

If we didn’t know it before, we certainly know it now: water is precious. It is also increasingly expensive. Maintaining a long-term water supply for our community will require investment, creativity and a significant dose of self-discipline.

We’ve already seen costs begin to escalate. Ashland water rates increased 10 percent this year, on top of a 10 percent raise last year and a 10 percent increase the year before. Those rate adjustments were recommended in our 2012 Water Master Plan. That citizen-guided plan laid out the strategies, infrastructure and funding necessary over the next 10 years to ensure that the community has an adequate supply of safe drinking water.

The city’s first challenge is geography. Fed by two forks of Ashland Creek, Reeder Reservoir sits in the mountains that form the city’s backdrop. Water from the reservoir travels to a treatment plant perched in a ravine next to the creek. Although this system has served us well since its construction nearly 90 years ago, it is highly vulnerable to earthquakes, floods or landslides. Many of us remember the epic 1997 storm, when flooding to the treatment plant disrupted the city water system for over a week.

And then there is the issue of the disappearing snowpack. The creeks that flow into the reservoir are largely sustained by melting snow, especially during the summer months. As our winters warm and the mountain snowpack diminishes, this water source is increasingly vulnerable.

Although the master plan anticipated climate change, it was completed before the drought made it real to all of us. During the first year of drought, the city accelerated one of the plan’s major projects: the TAP (Talent-Ashland-Phoenix) intertie with the Medford Water Commission system. With TAP in place, the city has the potential to use this water to complement our base supply during the heavy-use summer months. But TAP water is much more expensive than water from our own reservoir, and dependence on it makes us vulnerable to decision-making by an outside political entity — the Medford Water Commission.

Drought also forced the city to divert water from the Talent Irrigation District (TID), which flows out of Hyatt and Howard Prairie reservoirs, for use as drinking water. As a result, 86 local residents on the west side of town lost their irrigation water. In the future, it is possible that we will need to divert water from east side users as well. But climate change is an issue here, too, since the mountain lakes are also fed by melting snow.

Other master plan infrastructure projects will soon be underway. This biennium’s budget provides funding to convert the Ashland section of the TID canal to a piped system that will minimize evaporation and contamination. Also on the list of capital investment is construction of a second, smaller water treatment plant to augment the first, as well as additional storage for treated water.

But a 10-year master plan requires revision on a regular basis, especially when external conditions are changing so rapidly. Accordingly, this year the city will undertake our first major review of the plan, examining its assumptions and re-working its timelines. It is entirely possible that projects that were deemed too expensive a few years ago, such as irrigation use of treated wastewater, may earn a second look, given our new understanding of climate change.

And along with questions of technology and money, we also need to initiate a broad community conversation about our habits and our expectations. During the past two years we’ve done a stunning job of reducing water on an emergency basis. But how does that translate to ongoing behavior change? How much are we willing to pay to have water for non-critical uses — and how do we define those? How important is it for Ashland to control its own water system?

Stay tuned for a big discussion. Water is life, and it is quickly getting very complicated.

Pam Marsh is a member of the Ashland City Council.