By Julie Akins
Mayor About Town
Sitting by my window on a recent morning, I smelled smoke thick in the air and saw the morning light as an otherworldly orange, filtered by the haze of two fires burning near our town, one in Grants Pass, the other in Weed.
I tried to intellectually navigate the effects of climate crisis near us while also reading a story in the Washington Post about Jackson, Mississippi. The 150,000 residents of Jackson have virtually no drinkable water. Years of failing to upgrade systems and adapt to the threats of rising seas, stronger hurricanes and heavier rain have left residents in an unthinkable situation–water everywhere and not a drop to drink. It’s said by 2050, annual losses from floods will be approximately $40 billion in the South.
And I saw a connection: climate crisis and a failure to adapt and create resilience within the infrastructure of America’s cities and towns from Jackson, Mississippi to Jackson County, Oregon will devastate city’s which are not prepared.
We are likely to have continuing increases in “mega fires” which burn so rapidly and hot they create their own weather systems. Fire tornadoes happen now, including a major Category F-3 tornado that the Carr fire in California spawned in 2018.
In 2020, the Almeda fire which started in Ashland, traveled at speeds of 35 miles per hour and destroyed more than 2,600 structures including so many homes our communities are still struggling to recover.
And if that wasn’t enough, we face water shortages too. In February this year, researchers declared that the western U.S. was drier than it had been for over a thousand years.
Climate crisis is here. All of our best efforts to curb it, however noble, are not likely to have the impacts we may hope for.
The reality is that we must invest in adaptation and resilience if we are to survive what’s coming. That doesn’t suggest we shouldn’t continue to do our part, but until our nation and the world join us, we’re tasked with figuring out how to survive climate crisis.
I think that means taking a regional view. If we are all chipping in on the cost with other municipalities on the processing of wastewater and freshwater, for example, we’re more likely to create fail safe systems which are lasting. Saving that money allows us to spend on resilience and adaptation.
As a small town growing at a snail’s pace we can never expect to financially keep up on our own. Our tax base needs to expand, but for now, it’s too small. We have to face that.
Rather than doubling down on proprietary systems for water and waste, I suggest we create a reclaimed water system so that we can water our lawns and landscaping with secondary treated wastewater instead of clean drinking water. Landscapes that are cared for tend to be better at resisting fire, we should continue to invest there.
And saving our fresh water for drinking helps us to survive drought by storing it rather than wasting it.
Reclaimed water will also save us money. The Talent Irrigation District, charges its customers for water, when it has it to give. We could do that at a better price point for consumers and not charge ourselves at all as a city.
To those who think this is “pie in the sky” check out the huge list of cities and entities using this technology that’s been around for four decades or more. It’s clean, odorless and effective.
And instead of spending millions on a new water treatment plant, up for vote soon, why not get serious about better water storage and reclaimed water? We have twenty good years left on our water plant. We don’t have twenty good years to prepare for fire and drought, now is the time to get reclaimed water on the list as well as water storage.
And there’s a backup plan for fresh water thanks to a recent agreement to increase our regional water consumption from Lost Creek, a good idea that we might consider investing in even more.
With storage, conservation, soil regeneration, permaculture and reclaimed water–it might be smarter to wait on that water plant and invest instead in these other ways. I know that’s controversial, but every move we make has to be thought out carefully under the consideration of a tight budget and resiliency while moving more and more to regional systems because no city can afford to do this alone and no rate payer can afford increased fees on their utilities every year.
We’re facing enormous change. It doesn’t need to stall us, it just needs us to respond in thoughtful ways, pulling in the same direction.
Julie Akins is the Mayor of Ashland