Mount McLoughlin provides more than a majestic view for Rogue Valley residents.
The 9,500-foot landmark is the water source for 125,000 people in Medford, Central Point, Eagle Point, Jacksonville, Phoenix, Talent, White City and four rural water districts served by the Medford Water Commission. Melting snow filters through the porous lava on the mountain and surfaces at Big Butte Springs near the town of Butte Falls.
Credit for today's bountiful supply of pure water goes to the members of the original Medford Water Commission, which was created to develop a water supply for the Bear Creek Valley's growing population.
The five-member commission was established in a city charter amendment approved by voters on Nov. 8, 1922. In 1925, the Oregon Legislature gave Medford the rights to all unappropriated waters from Big Butte Creek and its tributaries.
With a source of water assured, Medford voters approved a $975,000 bond measure to build a pipeline to move the water 31 miles from Big Butte Springs to Medford.
"That was a heavy price tag that the citizens agreed to pay for," said Laura Hodnett, Medford Water Commission public information coordinator. "It was clear not having a safe and reliable water supply was important for those who came before us."
The water system is a far cry from Medford's original water sources. The city's first residents drew their water from wells, but by 1888, the wells were inadequate, and the city dug a ditch to divert water from Bear Creek. A storage tower was built near the site where the Carnegie Library would be built almost two decades later.
The system was updated in 1902 with a pumping station on the west side of Bear Creek, but the Bear Creek water wasn't clean enough for domestic use.
In 1910, a 22-mile, gravity-fed water system was completed from Fish Lake at a cost of $254,000, with a capacity of4 million gallons per day.
Medford's continuing growth overloaded the Fish Lake system, and the Fish Lake water carried contaminates, which required chlorination, especially in the summer months.
The Medford Water Commission was organized to find a solution. After voters approved the bonds, a contract to build the 31-mile pipeline was awarded to Swartley Brothers of Corvallis on March 9, 1926.
The steel for the pipe was forged at the Bethlehem Steel mill in Coatsville, Pa., under close supervision by Medford representatives. Then the Beal Pipe and Tank Corporation of Portland meticulously manufactured 30-foot sections of pipe under rigid specifications. Each piece was covered inside and outside with an ultra-thin layer of a hot asphalt to prevent rust.
The trench for the 24-inch diameter pipeline had to be dug over dozens of hills and ridges to connect to Medford's existing water system, but the Big Butte Springs pipeline started carrying water to the city on July 1, 1927.
The system had a daily capacity of 13.2 million gallons that was so pure it needed no additional treatment. The water temperature was 43 degrees at the springs and 52 degrees at the city fountain, near West Main and Front streets.
The slogan "A mountain spring in every home" was coined to note the purity of Medford's water.
"You can't help but be impressed that they did such a good job of building the pipeline," says Hodnett. "It's an impressive project. They went for a source that was not only high in quality but could flow to town through gravity. Those things still save on cost today. That's why our rates are among some of the lowest in the nation."
In 1952, a second pipeline from Big Butte Springs was added. When trace amounts of bacteria were found in the water in 1962, chlorine was added for the first time.
Both of the original pipelines are still carrying water, and the water commission keeps a sharp eye on them to keep them flowing.
"Nothing lasts forever," says Larry Rains, Medford Water Commissioner. "We make a great effort and spend a lot of money to protect the pipeline every year. We are always looking at the condition. We've gone in and repaired small sections."
Medford received water rights from the Rogue River in 1954 to supplement the water from Big Butte Springs during the summer when demand is greatest. The Robert A. Duff Water Treatment Plant started purifying river water in 1968.
Today the system averages 24 million gallons per day through the pipeline from the springs. Daily usage of Rogue River water during the summer peak is 34 million gallons, or about 75 percent of the treatment plant's maximum daily capacity of 45 million gallons.
On average, each person uses about 145 gallons of water per day, although the actual amount fluctuates dramatically during the seasons. Summer usage can be as much as four times winter volume, Hodnett says.
"Right now we use the river water from April to September to augment the spring source," says Rains. "Eventually we'll use it year round as the area grows."
The water distribution system also includes 33 reservoirs with a combined total storage capacity of about 53 million gallons.
"The spring source is ideal," says Rains. "The Medford area would not be what we know it as today without such a good water source. We are very fortunate."