Water rates may double in 10 years

City officials have a difficult pill for Ashland residents to swallow.

Beginning with rate increases this spring, water rates could double over the next 10 years if the Ashland City Council adopts the Ashland Water Advisory Committee's recommendations for improvements to the town's water system.

Ashland Public Works Director Mike Faught said it's hard to tell people their water rates could double to pay for $30.5 million in possible water system upgrades.

"It's a tough message to take to folks," Faught said.

During a public forum on Wednesday, residents can learn about Ashland's water system needs, proposed solutions and costs if the City Council adopts the water committee's recommendations. The committee of citizen volunteers met for two years to research Ashland's water issues and propose solutions.

Informative sign boards will be on display beginning at 6:30 p.m. in the Stevenson Union Building Rogue River Room on the Southern Oregon University campus.

A panel discussion with questions and answers will begin at 7 p.m.

The City Council is scheduled to take on the issue in April. Water rates could begin ratcheting up starting in May.

A two-person household would see its typical August 2011 water bill of $46 rise to $87 in 2021, according to a study on rate impacts.

A four-person household that paid $65 in August 2011 would pay $123 in 2021.

A large hotel that washes its own bed linens and towels would see its August bill rise from $748 to $1,414 during that time frame.

The August bill for a medium restaurant would go from $178 to $337.

But without changes, Ashland could be without potable water for weeks or even up to three months if a flood, mud slide or wildfire took out the city's water treatment plant, which is located in a vulnerable spot high above Lithia Park in an Ashland Creek canyon.

Water and a mudslide from a 1997 flood disabled the plant. Ashland was without potable water for two weeks and residents also could not flush their toilets. People relied on bottled water and portable toilets until services were restored.

Compounding the vulnerability problem, the existing water treatment plant will fail to process enough water to meet Ashland's needs by 2018, studies predict.

Studies predict Ashland won't need a new, regular supply of untreated water until 2038. However, every several years Ashland institutes water curtailment measures in the summer due to drought and inadequate flows from Ashland Creek.

During a 2009 water curtailment period, Ashland supplemented the regular water supply with water from the Talent Irrigation District.

Another problem with Ashland's existing water system is that firefighters don't have enough water pressure from hydrants to adequately fight fires that could threaten homes, especially those built on Ashland's hillsides, said city of Ashland Senior Engineer Pieter Smeenk.

Fighting fires depletes a large quantity of water in a short time, and the existing water treatment plant can't make enough new treated water to maintain water pressure, he said.

The water committee has unanimously recommended multi-pronged solutions to Ashland's water woes that would cost a combined total of $30.5 million, including:

  • Build a new water treatment plant in a safer location high on a ridge above Ashland Creek at a cost of $12 million. The plant could treat 2.5 million gallons per day, supplementing the output of Ashland's existing water plant. If the current plant were damaged and off-line, the second plant could meet Ashland's indoor water needs by itself.
  • Build a new water holding tank, which would be called the Crowson II reservoir, to store treated water and boost water pressure. The cost would be $8.7 million.
  • Pipe the Talent Irrigation District canal that runs through town, reducing leakage and evaporation while also limiting bacterial contamination, for $1.1 million. Especially during drought years, treated TID water can be used to supplement Ashland's regular water supply from Ashland Creek that is stored in Reeder Reservoir.
  • Maintain and replace aging pipes in the water distribution system throughout town at a cost of $6.6 million.
  • Build an emergency water line to connect Ashland to Talent's water supply and have a pump on hand to provide emergency water within 24 hours if needed. The cost for the "mini" or "emergency" Talent-Ashland-Phoenix (TAP) water connection would be $2.1 million. A line already stretches from Medford to Talent, bringing water to the south end of the valley.

The city would not build the full TAP project as envisioned in earlier years. Full TAP costs would have been $12 million. It would have provided only supplemental water for Ashland and was never meant to fully replace the Ashland water system.

Former Ashland City Councilor Pat Acklin, a water committee member, said she came into the process as a supporter of the full TAP project, but with an open mind about new solutions.

"What we put together, we think, maximizes all of the competing goals as well as considers costs," Acklin said.

Still, she said she can understand why people may be upset over proposed water bill increases.

"My fear is that the sticker shock on the long-term price tag will freak people out," Acklin said. "We need to start planning. It's not going to get better if we don't get moving on it."

Some residents who don't want Ashland to lose its small-town charm are afraid that boosting the town's water supply could encourage growth.

Acklin said state law does not allow cities to limit growth by not providing adequate public facilities. Cities can declare a moratorium on growth because of a lack of water, but they must take immediate steps to begin finding additional water, she said.

Some also think extra water for Ashland could discourage conservation.

However, the water committee recommendations also call for people to conserve water. For example, residents and businesses need to trim their summer water use by 7 percent, Smeenk said.

Still other residents have called on Ashland to stop dawdling and build the full TAP project. Those residents may not be won over by the water committee's more complicated solutions to Ashland's water needs.

The committee's recommendations also don't provide a long-term solution for the problem that Ashland will need more untreated water sources on a sustained basis by 2038.

That issue would be left for the future, although Ashland could pursue minor sources of additional water such as wells, buying more Ashland Creek and TID water rights and seeing if forest management changes could boost the Ashland Watershed's ability to naturally store water, Smeenk said.

Faught said many of the projects need to be carried out no matter what.

For example, water distribution system pipes still need $6.6 million worth of work and Ashland needs the $8.7 million Crowson II water holding tank to store water and boost water pressure, he said.

The big question is whether Ashland wants to pay to have a back-up plan in case the existing water treatment plant is damaged and can't function, he said.

The emergency TAP line and the second water treatment plant address that issue.

"Are we willing to run the risk of not having potable water? Do we roll the dice?" Faught asked.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.

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