The Ashland City Council voted unanimously on Tuesday night to authorize city staff to visit 1,036 water customers to see if they need devices to keep untreated Talent Irrigation District water from contaminating the city's treated water supply.

The City Council voted unanimously on Tuesday night to authorize city staff to visit 1,036 water customers to see if they need devices to keep untreated Talent Irrigation District water from contaminating the city's treated water supply.

Some customers may need to have water backflow prevention devices installed at a cost of $500 to $1,100.

"The dollar amount could be significant," Public Works Director Mike Faught told councilors.

At this point, it's impossible to tell just how many customers will need the devices, city officials said.

People who could be affected receive both TID water and potable city water.

Mayor John Stromberg raised concerns that some people may say they cannot afford the devices.

Faught said the city of Ashland doesn't have sufficient funds to cover the costs of backflow devices for people, but perhaps the city could pay for devices for low-income residents and then work out a payment plan.

Customers who do need to have backflow devices installed will have about 60 days to do so before the city turns off their potable water supply. There will be an appeals process, city officials said.

City staff will only be able to inspect about 300 sites each year, so reaching all the people who receive both sources of water and have no confirmed method of preventing contamination could take three and a half years, city officials said.

Customers with contamination problems will have to remedy the situation with either an air gap — a space between water and pipes — or a backflow prevention device.

The city is currently using TID water in the city water supply because of a shortage of water from the Ashland Watershed flowing into Reeder Reservoir. However, that TID water is treated at the water treatment plant before going to customers, Faught said.

Untreated TID water from irrigation pipes and canals could be contaminating the city water supply from residents' property.

The state government requires that cities have rules to prevent the contamination of potable water. The Ashland City Council voted to bring city rules in line with state law back in October 2008, before this summer's water shortage occurred.

Mandates to prevent cross contamination of treated and untreated water are common across the nation, but backflow prevention devices have proven controversial, mainly because of the cost.

In 2001, controversy erupted in Talent when the owner of a backflow service company contracted with the city of Talent to evaluate whether residents there needed backflow prevention devices. The owner wanted to require anyone who had access to both potable water and irrigation water to have a device.

City of Ashland Building Official Mike Broomfield, who was contracting with Talent as a plumbing inspector, refused to issue plumbing permits for the installation of more than 100 of the costly devices.

Broomfield said the devices should only be required if there is a potential hazard that irrigation water could contaminate potable water.

The city of Ashland is not requiring all 1,036 customers who have city water and TID irrigation water to have backflow devices. Instead, city staff will do inspections to see if cross connections exist that could lead to contamination.

Rick Hackstock, a city of Ashland plumbing inspector and cross connection specialist, said it's better for customers to have city staff inspect their property to see if backflow devices are needed, rather than a person from a private company.

"We gain no benefit other than protecting our water system," Hackstock said.

For ethics reasons, city staff are not even allowed to recommend plumbing contractors if they find that a customer needs a backflow prevention device, he said.

Since the cost of plumbing work can vary widely, Hackstock recommended that customers get bids from at least three people and also check at hardware stores to see who store workers would recommend.

For more information about possible cross contamination of city water with TID water, call the Ashland Water Department at 488-5353.

Reach Vickie Aldous at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.