Without question, water is a lifeline utility, without which we cannot survive. Recognizing that, the City of Ashland must be smart about how we plan for and secure our water supply, both for the near term and for decades to come.
What are we currently doing in Ashland to secure that lifeline? Plans are in place to build a new $23 million dollar water treatment plant that is forecast to produce 7.5 million gallons of drinkable water per day. The plan begs two questions: Where will we get the 7.5 million gallons of water to treat each day? And where will we find the money to pay for it?
Especially in years with low levels of winter snow pack, Ashland faces a finite supply of water. During the 2015 drought, we learned that Ashlanders can effectively conserve and curtail their water usage. In response to that drought, Ashland constructed the TAP water pipeline extending from Medford to Ashland at a cost to the city of $10-12 million dollars. TAP guarantees delivery of up to 2.1 million gallons of treated water per day for four to five months each year. During years of low winter snow pack, low reservoir water, and little or no T.I.D. (Talent Irrigation Ditch) water available, Ashland should still be able to meet its needs with TAP, albeit with severe restrictions in place, until fall rains begin.
But the questions remain: What good does a state-of-the-art water treatment plant do if there is little water to treat? And, is a $23 million dollar expenditure for a 7.5 MGD plant a wise expenditure, especially given no guarantee from Mother Nature that there will be a reliably adequate snow pack? It seems to us the project fails to address the more salient issue, that of water shortage during drought years. For answers, we believe the City must think outside the box and explore alternatives to the water supply issue, especially taking into account the impact of climate change. Additionally, the City Council should begin development of a true Water Policy, one that addresses both near- and long-term needs.
How much are the citizens of Ashland willing and able to pay for potable water? One look at our skyrocketing utility bills, one must ask, what is the tipping point as the cost of living in Ashland explodes? Water rates alone have increased 92% in the nine years from 2008 to 2017. And our current rates do not include money for the proposed $23 million dollar water treatment plant.
The Mayor and City Council report that the 92% increase in water rates over the past nine years has been to pay for infrastructure and that those who use the water utility must bear all of its costs. They tell us that the time has now come for new infrastructure construction and that rate payers must once again bear the cost.
Every citizen, whether homeowner or renter, expects to pay their fair share of the cost for infrastructure and operation of our water utility. But is a $23 million plant actually going to secure our water supply? Might there be other more cost-effective options? Might there also be cost saving measures that might be taken within the water department itself? Before moving ahead, we believe the City must take a closer, more detailed and creative look at our water security and then develop a Water Plan that fully explores alternatives.