A crowd of at least 150 people peppered city officials and consultants with questions during a Wednesday night forum on proposed infrastructure work that would contribute to a doubling of water and sewer bills over the next decade.
City officials told the crowd that an annual inflation rate of 3 percent and maintenance also will contribute to the rate increases, and sewer rates could slightly more than double as Ashland responds to state environmental regulations and the need for capacity upgrades.
Water distribution pipes are aging, the water treatment plant is located in an Ashland Creek canyon and could be wiped out by a flood or other disaster, the plant will fail to treat enough water to meet the town's needs by 2018 and firefighters lack sufficient water pressure to fight fires in some parts of town.
The city's Ashland Water Advisory Committee has proposed a multipronged strategy to deal with those problems. The total cost would be $30.5 million. AWAC recommended that the city:
- 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 would supplement the output of Ashland's existing water plant. If the current plant were damaged and offline, the second plant could meet Ashland's indoor water needs by itself.
- Build a new water holding tank 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 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.
While water rates could almost double, AWAC member John Williams said only a fraction of the increase comes from the AWAC recommendations that solve many of Ashland's water woes.
Inflation and simply maintaining the system would cause a typical family's water bill to rise from $36.02 to $57.70 over 10 years. That would not include normal replacement of aging pipes, Williams said.
Implementing the AWAC recommendations would bring that family's water bill to $65.52 in a decade. That amounts to about $8 extra per month compared to the bare minimum needed for the water system, Williams said.
Rate increases likely will be considered by the City Council in April and could start going into effect in May.
City officials plan to post a water and sewer Powerpoint presentation they delivered on Wednesday night to the city's website as early as today.
Residents at the forum were asked to submit their questions on cards. City officials, AWAC members and consultants then answered the questions.
City officials plan to put the question and answer information together and post it to the website as soon as they can. Visit www.ashland.or.us for postings.
The following is a sampling of some of the questions asked at the forum, with a brief summary of the answers.
Q: Why doesn't Ashland just build the full Talent-Ashland-Phoenix water line and get all its water from Medford?
A: The TAP line, which currently ends in Talent, was never intended to meet all of Ashland's water needs and is not big enough to do so. Also, Medford has said it does not have enough water to meet all of Ashland's needs, especially in the summer.
Q: Why don't the AWAC recommendations address the problem that Ashland will need a new supply of untreated water in 2038?
A: The city will address that need in the future by exploring options such as water wells and going after additional Ashland Creek and TID water rights.
Q: Will water rates come down after the upgrades are made in 10 years?
A: No. The city will have to keep replacing water distribution pipes and address the issue of finding more water for Ashland.
Q: Why should we conserve water when that causes the city to lose revenue and raise rates?
A: Conservation will help Ashland delay taking on the expensive task of finding additional water sources in the future.
Q: Why doesn't the city have people pay for water and sewer services through property taxes instead of rising utility rates, which hurt low- and middle-income households?
A: Having people pay directly for the amount they use is more fair and also encourages conservation. The city has a tiered system so that the heaviest water users pay the highest rates.
Q: Why doesn't Ashland send its sewage to Medford for treatment?
A: Ashland already must pay off the debt for past upgrades to its sewage treatment plant. It still would have to pay that debt, plus pay $30 million to send its sewage to Medford.
Q: Why are we using treated drinking water to irrigate lawns and gardens? Couldn't we use untreated water?
A: The cost for building an untreated water distribution system is prohibitive. However, many people and organizations already use TID water and water they have caught in rain barrels for irrigation. The City Council is working to reduce rain barrel restrictions in town.
Q: Why doesn't new development pay for water and sewage system upgrades?
A: Developers already pay system development charges for the strain new homes and buildings place on infrastructure — possibly a bit more than their fair share.
Vickie Aldous is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. She can be reached at 541-479-8199 or firstname.lastname@example.org.