About 62 million gallons of water, or 23 percent, is lost per irrigation season from the Ashland Canal due to evaporation and seepage. That’s enough water to supply the entire city of Ashland for about a month and a half during winter, or enough to supply an additional 800 properties irrigation, city Conservation Analyst Julie Smitherman said at a community meeting Thursday evening in a meeting room at Southern Oregon University.
City staff and partners have recommended the city pipe a two-mile stretch of the canal, from Starlite Place to Terrace Street. Before they give this recommendation to the City Council at a study session Monday, they gave an in-depth update to the public.
The Ashland Canal is a branch of the Talent Irrigation District system of canals serving Ashland. Most of the water delivered during irrigation season is stored in Emigrant and Howard Prairie lakes and Hyatt Reservoir.
The crowd of more than 100 Ashland residents couldn’t hold back their questions as city staff and project partners gave a detailed presentation of the preliminary engineering phase.
Mostly, homeowners seemed concerned with the potential for diminishing property values. If the canal is piped, construction for the staff’s recommendation would require the removal of approximately 285 trees and landscaping due to a variety of reasons, such as tree roots which have grown into the current cement liner that is in desperate need of repair or replacement.
“If we continue to maintain the canal the way we currently are we would have to remove trees anyway,” Smitherman said.
The other options for the project would require removal of fewer trees, around 260.
Various audience members piped up with concerns of loss of privacy once the trees are removed and fear of erosion.
Staff reassured attendees that a decision has not been made yet. The City Council is expected to decide on one of four options at its business meeting Tuesday, March 5. If the council decides to move the project forward, then the final engineering phase will begin, including an analysis of every home and trail easement backed up to the canal.
Public works has offered free backyard analyses to concerned homeowners to give them an idea of what may need to happen and to answer any questions. Property owners and others with questions can call public works at 541-488-5587 for more information.
“We are definitely listening and want to do what’s right by making sure property values aren’t affected,” Smitherman said.
Besides reducing water loss due to leakage and evaporation, another benefit to piping the canal is that it would significantly reduce the amount of E. coli bacteria in the water, which is used to supplement Ashland drinking water in years of low water supply, Smitherman said.
Most recently, TID water has been treated for use as drinking water in 2018, 2015 and 2014.
Robyn Janssen, a Rogue Riverkeeper clean water campaigner, said the nonprofit supports the piping because it emphasizes their core value, which is to improve water quality.
Rogue Riverkeeper performed an initial E. coli bacteria study in 2011 when they learned there was an unusual amount of the bacteria in the Ashland Creek. Because the creek is home to native salmon and steelhead, the organization got involved.
They found that the main source of the E. coli was coming in at the canal outfall.
E. coli lives in the intestines of warm-blooded animals and can be contracted through their feces, Janssen said. The open canal attracts animals to it as an easy water source.
The city of Ashland and the Rogue Valley Council of Governments conducted another study this past summer and found that although the amount of E. coli bacteria has reduced significantly, it’s still coming in at the source.
Many attendees were concerned with the efficiency of the canal since the city has no control over the un-piped sections that deliver water to the Ashland Canal portion of the system.
Smitherman said the bacteria grows under sunlight, so if the water is enclosed underground, the bacteria will decrease significantly.
One audience member, Lee Olsen, said this project is “like spitting in the wind” considering the potential impact of waste flowing from Uproots Meat Farm, a local hog farm uphill and upstream of the canal which recently applied for an upgraded commercial permit.
Another big concern is the aesthetics after the project is completed. Many residents walk the path beside the canal daily, often while walking dogs.
Attendee John Owens suggested the land be set aside as park land so that it may be protected.
Currently, about 57 percent of the canal is accessible to the public through easements, Smitherman said.
She said the plan is to work with parks and private property owners to gain possibly more easements and find an agreement for everyone.
Another big concern is cost. The city has a $1.3 million loan for the project currently. The option staff has recommended, piping the entire 10,700 feet of canal, would cost $3.1 million.
The second option is to replace only the open canal with a new pipe and rehab the existing large piped sections. That would cost $4 million.
Option three is to replace the existing concrete liner and rehab the piped sections. That would cost an estimated $2.5 million, but would increase upkeep costs and not protect against E. coli contamination.
These costs were calculated in 2018 and will rise with the rate of inflation by the completion of the project.
The fourth option is to do nothing.
Ongoing regular annual maintenance costs around $75,000 currently.
If the whole canal is piped, regular maintenance would cost around $12,000 a year, Brown said.
The preliminary engineering phase and evaluations have cost the city $238,047.
Senior Project Manager Kevin Caldwell said there are various grants the project should qualify for to help cushion the remaining cost.
Other concerns such as impact on wildlife, wildfire and vegetation were addressed and noted by staff to tell the council at the study session Monday.
If the project moves forward, construction would begin in the fall of 2020 and take two winter seasons to complete to avoid interfering with the irrigation season.
For more information, visit Ashland.or.us/ashlandcanal. Contact public works at 541-488-5587 to sign up for an email notification list to receive news on the canal project.
Monday’s study session starts at 5:30 p.m., in the Council Chambers at 1175 E. Main St. The meeting will be cablecast and webcast by Rogue Valley Community Television (RVTV, rvtv.sou.edu).