Ashland Water Project – Money Going Down the Drain (ACES)

by the Ashland Citizens for Economic Sustainability Team (ACES)

This is a story about how the cost of providing Ashland with an adequate supply of fresh water grew by more than 500 percent during the administration of former Mayor John Stromberg.
Key figures in this account are highly-paid engineering firms pushing for larger, more expensive projects under the supervision of Stromberg appointed public works directors and overseen by a citizens advisory committee, hand picked by Stromberg.
Although less expensive options were proposed, the mayor and a compliant City Council rejected them.
The ever-growing tab for these projects has led to four percent annual increases in water rates over the past 10 years with projected rate increases for 30 years in the future, along with other hidden charges on new construction in the city.
Two projects, embedded in the city’s Water Master Plan, are underway with millions already spent on a series of consulting engineers:
            — Building a new water treatment plant with the same output as the current facility at a cost now estimated at $40.7 million, but also requiring new pumping, transmission lines and storage facilities costing an additional $15 million.  The original budgeted price was $12 million for a small auxiliary plant.
            — Updating the TAP (Talent, Ashland, Phoenix) water line connection to Medford’s water system at a cost approaching $20 million. The price tag for its original implementation was $12.5 million. 
Here’s the history of the new plant project.  In 2012, Corolla Engineers of Walnut Creek, CA. (consulting firm #1) proposed augmenting the city’s long-standing 7.5 million gallons a day (MGD) water treatment plant by building an auxiliary 2.5 MGD plant to operate on high-demand summer days.  
Several years later, Public Works Director Mike Faught brought in Keller and Associates, an Idaho engineering firm (consulting firm #2), to review the project. Keller recommended building an entirely new plant with the same capacity of the existing one and forgetting about the smaller auxiliary facility.
In 2017 Paula Brown returned as Public Works Director and questioned whether it wouldn’t be better to update the existing water treatment plant than to spend so much on a new plant. 
In the minutes of the Sept. 26, 2017 meeting of the Ashland Water Advisory Committee, Ms. Brown is quoted as saying she felt there was insufficient information “right now to move forward with a new plant … if it turns out that the existing plant will last 20 years then it may be a good deal to keep the old plant.”
And, she added, “one of the biggest things is we now have TAP” as a source of fresh water.  “If we are paying for it, maybe we should be using it more than we are.”
She said she would put together a study with a new consultant on “the costs of retrofitting the old plant versus building a new plant.  We owe it to the community to spend the money wisely.”
Five weeks later, however, without this study even being started, she went before the City Council at a Study Session and proposed suspension of the preliminary engineering contract on the 2.5 MGD plant in favor of building a new 7.5 MGD new facility at a location downstream from the current plant, as recommended by Keller.  
At the same time, she moved forward with a review of the cost of building a new plant compared to retrofitting the existing one.  RH2 Engineering, a Bothwell, WA firm (consulting firm #3), and Black and Veatch, of Overland Park, Kansas (consulting firm #4), were given the task.
In a report dated March 29, 2018, Black and Veatch, concluded that total cost of a new plant would be $22.6 million while repairs to the existing plant would cost $5.6 million.  In a one-paragraph cover letter Jeff Ballard of RH2 agreed that a retrofit would be less expensive and that “it is feasible to continue to operate the plant for the 20-year planning horizon.”
However, he said, ”risks (floods, landslides and earthquakes) associated with continuing to operate the plant in the existing location are not risks that can be reasonably mitigated.” So, he recommended building a new plant.  The three potential risks were not reviewed in detail, only mentioned in a few paragraphs tacked onto the final two pages of the 34-page detailed Black and Veatch report. 
Ignoring the then projected $17 million higher cost of building a new plant (now estimated at $35 million more) the Council voted in April 2018 to award a $1 million contract for preliminary design for a new 7.5 MGD plant to HDR of Omaha (consulting firm #5). 
Meanwhile, RH2 has been awarded contracts to revise the city’s water master plan, write an operations and maintenance plan for the city’s water distribution system and a revised master plan for TAP.  Cost to the city for this work, $368,000. 
An update on the water master plan presented to Council a year ago included one major new fact.  Water consumption in Ashland has gone down in the past decade due to successful water conservation programs.  In 2012, per capita consumption was estimated at 144 gallons per day, the 2019 update is 125 gallons per day.
Facing the City Council, in the near future, will be decisions on whether to proceed with construction of the new treatment plant and update the TAP line.   Here are some questions the new Council should ask before voting.
Is there ample justification for spending so much money on a new, same size water treatment plant when consumption is declining, rather than retrofitting the existing plant to save $35 million?   
Are risks of earthquakes, floods or landslides substantially greater today than they have been the past 76 years?
What is the environmental impact of building a new water treatment plant?
Why spend more money on the TAP line?
How are low income city residents to pay the seemingly never-ending large annual water rate increases which will make Ashland even more unaffordable for many people?
And, why didn’t Mayor Stromberg and the Council listen to Public Works engineer Pieter Smeenk when he raised a series of questions about the water plant project in February 2017.  Instead, he was fired and later his wife was removed as director of the city’s Senior Center.  Both filed wrongful firing lawsuits in federal court. A jury agreed with Smeenk and awarded him $668,000 in damages and court costs.  The city subsequently settled the suit with his wife for $538,000. 
However, take heart.  With Mayor Akins at the helm, the new interim City Manager Gary Milliman and 2 new city Councilors asking the right questions, a new day may be dawning.  Ashland might actually create a water plan that is affordable and right-sized…one that makes sense for its 20,000 citizens.