Should 150 miles of irrigation ditches be enclosed in pipelines?

A local water conservation agency is conducting a $3 million environmental review to determine the feasibility of enclosing 150 miles of irrigation ditch in pipelines — a move that would prevent the current sizeable leakage of water and cost more than $100 million.

Progress and goals of the project will be discussed at 7 p.m. Thursday at Ashland Community Center, 59 Winburn Way. Officials also will discuss the city of Ashland's proposal to use ditch water for irrigation in town by building a secondary pipe system.

The project in the Bear Creek and Butte Creek watersheds has spent $1 million of a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency studying drought protection of the system and its feeder lakes east of Medford. Project organizers are seeking another $2 million to finish the study, said Steve Mason, project coordinator of Water for Irrigation, Streams and Economy.

Researchers try to resolve environmental issues raised by enclosing the present earth-and-canal system in large pipes that would occupy the same footprint as the present canal system and its lateral ditches, which amount to about 150 miles, said Mason.

Much of the system's water is being lost through seepage into the ground, with a smaller portion lost to evaporation. The study anticipates the impacts of global warming, which are expected to release snowpack earlier in the year, meaning stored water must be increasingly conserved, said Mason.

Raising money for the proposal, which Mason put at "nine digits" (more than $100 million), "has to be worked out but would be a combination of federal and local money" and would have to demonstrate benefits for the environment, economy, agriculture, tourism, recreation and other sectors, he said.

The present study will determine whether the project pays back its costs, Mason said. The study should take another year, with design and funding after that, he added.

"It potentially represents a fantastic opportunity for the area for long-term management of water that can meet the projected population growth and demand for water," Mason said.

During Thursday's forum, Mike Faught, Ashland public works director, will talk about a "right water, right use" policy in which the city's goal is to have another source of water other than Ashland Creek to meet growth and conservation needs.

Options being considered, Faught said, include creation of another water distribution system using Talent Irrigation District water to meet the needs of summer irrigation, including park and residential watering.

Demand for water in summer is high — 7 million gallons a day — compared with 2 million gallons in winter. Compounding the issue is that Ashland must dump a certain volume of treated effluent into Ashland Creek from its treatment plant, but has struggled to keep it at a cool enough temperature that it won't harm fish, said Faught.

One possible option to address that problem, he added, is to divert treatment plant effluent to city parklands and replace it with water rights owned by its Imperatrice property — 846 acres of undeveloped slope across the freeway.

The forum, sponsored by the Ashland League of Women Voters and moderated by Susan Rust, will include a question-and-answer segment. It will address concerns over how people who live on the ditch can access ditch water, said league spokeswoman Eleanore Perkins, and cover such issues as whether Ashland has enough drinking water to meet present and future demand and whether the quality of drinking water is being adequately protected.

On the Web: www.wiseproject.org.