Climate change could be affecting Ashland's water

The warming climate could be contributing to algae growth in the reservoir that supplies Ashland's drinking water, according to an expert on municipal water supplies.

"That algae is becoming more prevalent throughout lakes in Southern Oregon &

probably because the area is warming," Bob Willis said.

A Portland-based engineer with the firm Brown and Caldwell, Willis recently briefed Ashland city councilors on the results of a study he conducted for the city about Reeder Reservoir and the water supply.

His experience includes management of Portland's Bull Run Reservoir and work as chief engineer for the Portland Water Bureau.

Algae blooms created a bad taste and smell in Ashland's drinking water in the summer and fall of 2007, prompting numerous complaints to the city.

In February, the City Council awarded a $73,000 contract for work by Brown and Caldwell and agreed to pay another $92,000 to buy two solar-powered water circulators if they prove effective. The devices will be installed late this month.

Willis said using solar power is cheaper than running electricity to the circulators, which have a track record of success.

Located above Lithia Park, Reeder Reservoir's still water provides an ideal environment for algae that float on the warm surface. Cold, still water at the bottom of the reservoir promotes the growth of anaerobic bacteria which, in turn, produces nutrients to spur algae blooms. Additionally, the nutrient phosphorus is a natural component of Ashland Watershed soil that is eroding into the reservoir, Willis said.

The vast majority of that eroded soil is washed into the reservoir during large storms, like the one that triggered the 1997 New Year's Flood and knocked out Ashland's water supply for two weeks, he said.

Circulating the water will disrupt the algae's life cycle and nutrients produced by the anaerobic bacteria, Willis said.

Medford water connection

In addition to causing more algae blooms, global warming will likely lead to less snow and more rain in the winter for Oregon &

meaning lighter snowpacks, Willis said.

For the future, the city of Ashland should consider developing more storage capacity for its own water supply that is fed by Ashland Creek. It should also connect to the city of Medford's water supply, he said.

More cities are adding storage capacity and lining up backup water supplies in response to global warming, Willis said.

"It's going on all over the western United States right now," he told city councilors.

In a separate interview with the Tidings, Willis said Reeder Reservoir is located in a canyon where it is highly susceptible to storms that can knock out the water supply. He said connecting to Medford's water through the Talent-Ashland-Phoenix water pipeline would provide a backup supply. The pipeline already extends from Medford to Talent.

In January, a City Council majority voted to approve buying land and creating designs for the pipeline project, but stopped short of approving construction that would have started in 2010. Former Ashland Public Works Director Paula Brown had recommended beginning construction then so that emergency water would be available in case of another flood, an Ashland Watershed wildfire or successive years of drought.

A consulting firm previously estimated that in 2016 Ashland's population will be large enough for the city to need Medford water.

The issue of Ashland connecting to Medford's water supply has proven controversial because some City Councilors and residents believe the pipeline would lessen the incentive to conserve water here and also promote development.

In addition to connecting to Medford water, Willis said the city should keep Reeder Reservoir and the Ashland Water Treatment Plant operating as a safeguard against pipeline disruptions. Ashland Creek also provides high quality water.

He said many cities in Oregon &

including Medford, Eugene, Salem and Portland &

have more than one water supply in the form of reservoirs in watersheds, wells, springs and interconnections with other cities' water supplies.

The city of Ashland could add a few feet to the dam that holds back Reeder Reservoir to add storage capacity, although that could cost up to $1 million, Willis said.

He is not recommending that as a step the city should take now.

For the short-term, Willis is also not recommending that the city remove sediment that has accumulated in Reeder Reservoir. In the past, the city opened sluice gates to let water out and then hauled muck out in dump trucks. Sluicing the reservoir will likely never happen again because of environmental regulations, he said.

The sediment is taking up less than 10 percent of the capacity of the reservoir and would take more than $1 million to remove, he estimated.

Future steps

Willis instead recommended the city invest $501,000 from this year through 2013 for water quality monitoring, a feasibility study on removing Reeder Reservoir sediment and improvements so that the city could use creek water before it enters the reservoir when water quality there is bad.

Although the algae blooms have not been toxic, a type of algae that is toxic could grow, Willis said.

"Some subspecies can produce a poisonous toxin. You should monitor for that because you could lose the water supply until it leaves," he told City Councilors.

Willis said he doesn't know enough about the proposed Mt. Ashland Ski Snowboard Resort expansion at the top of the Ashland Watershed to say whether an expansion would cause more erosion of sediment into the reservoir.

That expansion is on hold because of a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the U.S. Forest Service didn't properly analyze potential environmental impacts.

Staff writer can be reached at 479-8199 or To post a comment, visit .

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