Do we have enough water to support more housing in Ashland?

I heard this question a lot while knocking on doors to introduce myself to Ashland voters in the dry heat of late August. Ashland currently has good water resources. But do we have enough to handle additional population growth? It seems like a real conundrum and it worries me too. So I thought I’d dig in deeper to learn more. Here are my thoughts–and my position–on water and development, laid out in brief as well as in more detail for those who appreciate a deeper dive.

In short, I say YES to a strategy of modest managed growth coupled with strategic water conservation and ongoing long-term planning.

The Current Situation

  • Our changing climate means hotter and drier summers with less winter snowpack. In recent years, we’re experiencing the worst drought period in Oregon’s recorded history. Adapting to our changing climate is a top priority for Ashland. What can we do?
    1. Install household water-saving devices. The City offers giveaways, like low-flow shower heads and faucet attachments, and partial rebates for higher ticket items like low-flush toilets and WaterSense appliances.
    2. Use less water for irrigation by taking advantage of City incentives to install smart controllers and replace lawns with drought-tolerant plants. The City’s Water Wise Landscaping resources will help you make the transition.
    3. Expand use of non-potable water sources for irrigation, like residential greywater systems. More complex, but an important option to retain for the future, would be a separate piping system to irrigate certain parts of the city with treated wastewater.
    4. Certify our full allocation of water rights in Lost Creek Lake piped through the Talent-Ashland-Phoenix Intertie (TAP). We’ve already certified about half the water rights.
    5. Improve efficiency of TID (Talent Irrigation District) water resources, drawing from new state and federal funding sources. While this last one is not really in the City’s control as TID is a separate entity with its own governance, the waste of water makes me crazy.
  • Together, these strategies provide a buffer for modest growth, which would enhance our tax base and help sustain the quality of City services we all rely on.
  • The City updated its Water Master Plan two years ago. On May 22, Public Works Director Scott Fleury provided info about the next update of our Water Management and Conservation Plan.

The Deeper Dive

Ashland is fortunate to have good water resources that can handle a some growth of our city…if we’re smart about it.

I love the City’s dashboard that tracks our water use from three sources:

Our main source is Reeder Reservoir, which collects the flow off of Mt Ashland in the east and west forks of Ashland Creek. Reeder can store as much as 280 million gallons, and the City operates the reservoir dynamically so that we’re mostly using only the stream flow until the end of May, when we begin to draw down the storage to meet higher summer demand. This year, our Public Works Department was able to keep the reservoir full until early July!

Our secondary source used to be the separate TID (Talent Irrigation District), which channels catchment from Howard Prairie and Hyatt Lake. BTW, nearby Emigrant Lake doesn’t feed Ashland’s ditch spur of the TID; it connects to the TID farther down the valley below Ashland. There are a few Ashlanders with historic water rights to draw water directly from Bear Creek. The City decided not to treat any TID water for our potable network these last two years because it’s been in such short supply. Better management of that water resource is an issue that needs to be addressed by the TID board, which in my view has not invested enough in efficiency and so continues to waste way too much water that should be available for irrigation to help our growers and our landscapes. I’m hopeful these last few years may have been a wake-up call, and fortunately there’s state and federal assistance to begin working on it. It’s important to note that even though the City didn’t treat any TID water for our potable water system these last two years, raw TID water was available for several weeks for urban irrigation for households and other accounts that are connected. That’s important because it means we used less of our potable water (from Reeder Reservoir) than we would if TID were not available at all.

Our third (now secondary) source is TAP (Talent-Ashland-Phoenix Intertie)which is what we use to get access to the 1,000 acre feet of Lost Creek Lake water storage rights that Ashland owns. FYI, 1,000 acre feet is about 325 million gallons. It’s treated by the Medford Water Commission and piped to Ashland for distribution through our potable water network. 

Ashland generally uses about 1 billion gallons of potable water each year; about 80 percent of it comes from Reeder Reservoir. We use about 1.5 – 2 million gallons per day between about the end of October and May when we’re not irrigating, and between 3 and 6 million from mid-May through October when we use a lot of our treated water for irrigation. BTW, the difference between winter and summer is the reason wastewater treatment shows up on our utility bill as a flat monthly charge rather than a charge per cubic meter like our water rate. The flat monthly charge is based on average winter usage on the theory it’s the portion of our water use that goes to the sewage treatment plant rather than into our gardens.

Ashland has done reasonably well conserving water by providing low-flow shower heads and faucet attachments, and incentives for replacing lawns with other landscaping options that use far less water. [Links at the top]

But we could do more.

Last I heard, Ashland’s average household consumption of potable water is about 180 gallons per household equivalent per day (about 125 gallons per person). The good news is that because this is really quite a lot, there’s still substantial room for savings and redirection to higher priority uses. See the links below for how other cities have done it.

And that’s the point. Although we currently have enough water to meet our current needs and projected future growth, we should not be complacent about it. We should do what we can to conserve water given the changing climate with hotter and drier summers and less winter snowpack. And we should be looking towards future opportunities to replace some of the potable water we use for irrigation with treated wastewater or on-site greywater systems. That would give us more of a buffer for modest population growth that would improve the City’s tax base so we can sustain the quality of City services we all rely on.

For Further Reading

With our climate changing, we can learn from other cities and regions that have been living with drought. Here are some interesting articles for further reading: