City Administrator Martha Bennett said recent voluntary cutbacks were successful, but not enough to slow the declining water level at Reeder Reservoir, Ashland's primary water supply.

City Councilors approved a plan to combat water shortages due to below-average rainfall.

The council voted unanimously Tuesday to implement conservation measures in Ashland, hours after the city's initial water curtailment phase went into effect. Households are required to keep monthly water usage below 3,600 cubic feet under the plan, equivalent to roughly 900 gallons per day.

City Administrator Martha Bennett said recent voluntary cutbacks were successful, but not enough to slow the declining water level at Reeder Reservoir, Ashland's primary water supply.

"I don't think we're in a situation where we want to panic," Bennett said, adding that more severe shortages in the past had been addressed using similar curtailment measures.

Reeder Reservoir typically peaks in the spring, and starts to empty out in the summer. The rain returns around October, before the water level falls too low. Public Works Director Mike Faught said the reservoir typically retains at least 60 percent of its capacity during the summer.

But the water level is currently at 58 percent of capacity, losing around 1 percent each additional day.

"We've had .18 inches of rain since June 30," Faught told the council. "Generally we see thunderstorms come through and replenish the water system. But this is an unusual year because we've seen none at all." He said water supply to the city has gone down from 4 million gallons per day to 3 million in just two weeks.

Purity tests on Talent Irrigation District water returned Tuesday showed the water to be clean enough for city use on an interim basis, Faught said. He said the city was prepared to begin a two-week process that would synchronize the TID water with the existing supply from Reeder Reservoir. But he is worried about what could happen before they are able to tap into that supply.

"Our concern is that we're going to drop in the interim down to two million gallons per day," he said.

To cut down on usage, the city has reduced water treatment to Lithia Park lawns by 80 percent, hospital and school lawns by 60 percent and cemetery lawns by 30 percent. The wastewater department is cleaning storm drains and sewer lines with recycled water — a common procedure that is approved by the Department of Environmental Quality.

Had the TID water not been clean enough for use, the city would have had to consider several options. Alternatives discussed included a stricter mandate, or paying to extend the existing Talent-Ashland-Phoenix water pipeline. The line feeds water from Medford to the Phoenix and Talent areas. Currently it does not extend to Ashland. Officials estimate extending the line would take until 2013, were it started today.

Jim Moore was one of a handful of Ashland residents attending the meeting. He said the city should have extended that pipeline years ago.

"We could have avoided the current crisis if we had taken advantage of the TAP water earlier." Moore also expressed doubt as to whether most community members know how much water they use. "I have a concern regarding the ability of citizens to read their water usage bills. I know the average person isn't going to be able to figure it out."

Several council members agreed. "You have no idea what 3,600 cubic feet is and how that changes from what you normally do," councilor David Chapman said. "It's really difficult for them to get any feedback."

Faught urged residents to view a full breakdown of the Stage One water curtailment measurements online, at www.Ashland.or.us/water. He said the city would supplement its supply with TID water through Oct. 15, but added he would like to see the date extended to Oct. 30, in case the fall rains are slow to pick up.

"We're trying to predict the weather," he said.