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Some Ashland High School students want to see the district and city use gray water to ease water woes

Ashland High School students, left, Gabriel Hernandez, Isadora Millay and Asriel Maycann propose using gray water for irrigation and other uses to conserve Ashland water. [Photo by Denise Baratta]

At a time when youth her age are learning to drive or own a bank account, Ashland High School student Isadora Millay is focusing on more pressing issues, like climate change and how it will affect her.

“I’m not even sure I’ll live to be 70 unless everyone starts working and makes a change to protect our environment,” Millay said in an interview from his home last weekend.

Millay, who heads the newly formed Ashland Mayor’s Youth Advisory Council, is doing her part. She and several other members of the group have proposed that the city and school district begin using recycled or gray water, which they believe are environmentally friendly approaches that could save water and lower operating costs.

“Drought is a really serious thing, and with climate change the way it is, it’s only going to get worse unless we make the change to start conserving water and taking care of our land,” Millay said. “Grey water is something that, when we were researching it, seemed like a very tangible way to address the drought, help our environment and address the effects of climate change.”

Millay and Youth Advisory Board members Gabe Hernandez and Asriel Maycann believe their proposal is feasible based on relevant state and federal funding sources and the fact that cities from Eugene to Naples, Fla., have implemented systems of recycled water.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality defines “grey water” as wastewater that comes from showers and bathtubs, bathroom sinks, kitchen sinks, and laundry machines. Gray water cannot come from certain sources that can produce contaminated water, including toilets, dishwashers or garbage disposals, or wastewater contaminated by soiled diapers.

“It’s basically second-hand water,” Millay said.

The DEQ, which oversees gray water systems, said this water can be “safely reused for toilets and urinals, as well as watering certain trees and plants.”

“Graywater reuse reduces demand on other water sources, such as drinking water, surface water and groundwater,” the agency states online.

Restrooms and landscape maintenance is exactly how Youth Council members envision the school district using gray water.

“For a more contained entity or building, it makes sense that a gray water system would be better because you’re recycling the water that’s made inside that building to use around it,” Millay said.

In a presentation to the Ashland school board earlier this month, students estimated that the district could save at least 2,520 gallons of water per day, or 919,800 gallons of water per year, if it implements a water system gray

And even if the district used gray water just for toilet flushing, it could save $8,320 a year, they said.

The students said that a greywater irrigation system could be realized using an outdoor sprinkler system or an underground drip system. But the type of system used depends on the amount of treatment the water would undergo before use, according to Millay.

Maycann believes a greywater irrigation system would be beneficial to the school grounds in a number of ways.

“Conserving water through this system, in general, could help replenish the dry area and help plants recover,” he said.

Hernandez, who is an athlete at Ashland High School, said the field he plays on hasn’t been logged for a while because the district is trying to conserve water during fire season.

“Right now, whenever we play the field, you can slip a lot, which usually doesn’t happen,” Hernandez said. “So having the gray water would maintain these facilities to be able to have good playing surfaces for sports and other activities.”

The students’ plan involves more than gray water. They also propose the use of treated wastewater in city buildings and as a source of irrigation for local parks. The youth plan to present their proposal to the Ashland City Council later this year.

Ashland Mayor Julie Akins said she recognized her city and surrounding areas are in a worsening water shortage, which can help the city plan now. But he believes further action is needed.

“Using recycled water for irrigation, landscaping and all non-potable water makes absolute sense,” Akins wrote in an email to the newspaper. “It must be done by people and by the city itself. I look forward to seeing the work of our Youth Advisory Council presented to the Ashland City Council. They know the long-term cost of not responding to this crisis and wholeheartedly support their mission. “

Before the students’ presentation to the Ashland school board on July 11, board president Victor Chang praised Millay, Maycann, Hernandez and the other members of the Youth Advisory Board.

“Obviously, we all live in these times, but it’s our youngest who live the longest during these times,” Chang said. “One of the perhaps limited things we can do is listen to them, if not do what they say.”

Chang emphasized that his statements were not an “early endorsement” of the students’ proposal.

In an interview after the meeting, Ashland School District Superintendent Samuel Bogdanove noted that the recent school board meeting marked the first time district officials had heard of the proposal and had not time to research yet.

“It’s definitely something to do some exploring, but we’re not at that stage yet,” he said.

With the district’s construction projects underway, it would not be possible to install a new water system at these facilities, Bogdanove noted. However, he said, if voters approve a future bond to fund new projects, it may be a good time to bring in a gray water system.

Bogdanove said the district and board are “consistently conservative,” while balancing the responsibility of being “wise stewards of the public fund.”

“That said, when we look long-term, water conservation is something of interest, as are electric buses and some of these other types of sustainable technologies,” Bogdanove said. “So I think it’s something that the board and the district will probably have an interest in. I’m grateful that the kids brought it up.”

Millay said part of the appeal behind proposing Graywater as a solution to help the district conserve water is that it doesn’t appear to be a divisive issue.

“Right now, our country is so politically charged. It’s not, and it shouldn’t be, a politically polarized issue where there are two sides fighting over it,” he said. “Everyone is affected by the lack of water and we should all work to change that. Everyone can get behind this problem to make the change that needs to be made.”

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.

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