The city of Ashland is paying an Idaho-based consulting firm $303,400 for a new sewage system master plan, after spending $83,195 on a sewage study by a Portland-based consulting firm eight months ago.

The city of Ashland is paying an Idaho-based consulting firm $303,400 for a new sewage system master plan, after spending $83,195 on a sewage study by a Portland-based consulting firm eight months ago.

A City Council majority voted on June 15 to approve the funding, but even members in favor complained about the city's spending on plans and studies.

The decision has sparked criticism from some residents, who said the new master plan will rehash ground covered in a study released in November 2009.

Ashland Public Works Director Mike Faught said the new plan will cover issues that weren't addressed in the more limited study, which examined options for meeting an Oregon Department of Environmental Quality requirement to stop emptying warm sewage effluent into Ashland Creek. The treated effluent is important to the creek because it makes up more than 40 percent of flows in the summer, but warm water can be harmful to fish.

Keller Associates — which recently opened a Salem branch — will not only analyze options for cooling the effluent, but look at long-term needs of the entire sewage system and determine costs and funding options as well.

"If we don't have a plan to replace pipes, we would have major spikes in rates to replace failed pipes," Faught said. "The master plan looks into the future and also looks at regulatory changes."

City Administrator Martha Bennett said while the cost of the sewage master plan can be hard to stomach, especially in financially lean times, such work is necessary.

"We have a system that is worth tens of millions of dollars," she said. "We can't let it fail.

"I agree with Mike that we need to look comprehensively at its parts and prioritize spending to make sure we address critical needs."

For the original study, Portland-based Carollo Engineers looked at four options for meeting the DEQ requirement that included cooling towers, emptying effluent into a Talent Irrigation District canal, using the effluent inside Ashland for irrigation and discharging the effluent into the ground so that it would be cooled by the earth.

Carollo Engineers recommended the city begin testing the ground cooling option this summer. Effluent should be put in wetland ponds by the city's sewage plant, where it would percolate into the ground near Ashland Creek, the firm recommended.

Faught said either this summer or next, city staff will test whether the wetlands can work as a cooling option. DEQ will have to approve the testing, which makes the timeline uncertain, he said.

Faught said while the wetlands may cool the effluent, he thinks much of it would drain down to the aquifer, and not travel toward the creek to supplement stream flows.

He and TID representatives have been discussing the possibility of emptying treated effluent into an irrigation canal, Faught said. Cold water could be released from Emigrant Lake to supplement stream flows.

Keller Associates will look at new heat exchange technology that could capture and reuse the heat from the effluent, Faught said.

The firm also will take a fresh look at an idea that was fiercely criticized and scrapped a decade ago.

The council ultimately rejected a plan to spray sewage effluent on the city-owned 846-acre Imperatrice Ranch land across Interstate 5 from Ashland. Rural neighbors feared the spray would harm their health, and council members were concerned that spraying the effluent would cause dramatic drops in Ashland Creek's flows.

Spraying the effluent on the hillside would have brought the city into compliance with a DEQ rule to stop releasing effluent with phosphorus into the creek. It would also have solved the problem of warm effluent in the creek.

In its proposal, Keller Associates said the spray plan is worth another look.

That option was not analyzed anew by Carollo Engineers in the study that was finished last fall.

After noting the past public opposition, Keller Associates said if the spray option is chosen "either a new public outreach program must be enacted to win over the public or a new site found and purchased..."

A decade ago, rural residents did not believe assurances from city officials that the effluent spray would be safe.

The City Council eventually shifted course — choosing to treat the effluent to a higher level and use membranes at the sewage treatment plant in town to remove phosphorus so that the effluent could still empty into the creek. That solved the phosphorus issue, but not the temperature problem.

At the time the spray plan was being debated, Faught said the effluent was only suitable for irrigation on hay, alfalfa, poplar trees or other crops not intended for human consumption. Now it's treated to such a high level it can be used on crops for human consumption and at golf courses, schools and parks.

"That is the magnitude of the improvement," he said.

Faught said city officials won't lose sight of the fact that people could be alarmed at the thought of irrigating with treated effluent — whether the effluent is sent to an irrigation canal, used inside the city or sprayed on the Imperatrice land.

As for Keller Associates' suggestion that the city could buy new land and spray effluent there, it's doubtful that the city would have enough money to do so, or be able to find a site more isolated than the Imperatrice land.

The city paid $950,287 for the land in 1996, but the Jackson County Assessor's Office has estimated its current market value at $7.6 million.

"We're not going to buy more land," Faught said.

Three weeks ago, DEQ informed the city it must be in compliance with effluent temperature regulations by 2014, he said. Keller Associates will expedite that portion of the master plan and deliver a report in six months, Faught said.

The rest of the master plan likely will be finished near the end of 2011.

The plan also will look at whether the solid material left over from sewage treatment could be used on farmland. The city pays $170,000 per year to have the solids dumped in a landfill, according to city documents.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.