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Big Butte Springs spurs water war

Small cities are sparring with the Medford Water Commission over control of the region's most precious resource: the pristine Big Butte Springs.

The dispute arises as the cities face the daunting prospect of securing more water rights if they are to continue to grow in a region where demand could outpace supply by 2030.

The Medford Water Commission maintains it has exclusive rights to Big Butte Springs, Jackson County's primary source for drinking water. It owns the main pipelines, pumping station and treatment plants. For years, the commission, which had the foresight to tap into the springs in the 1920s, has sold its surplus water to surrounding cities.

Jacksonville, Central Point, Eagle Point, Phoenix and Talent are pushing for more of a partnership with the commission, rather than remaining the stepchildren in the regional water-supply family. They want acknowledgement they have some claim to the springs through a 1955 permit and representation on the commission.

"I'm upset about this, and they certainly haven't treated us as partners," said Central Point Mayor Hank Williams.

Central Point and Eagle Point officials have refused to sign a new agreement with the Medford Water Commission that forces them to acknowledge they don't have any rights to Big Butte Springs or supplemental water drawn by the commission from the Rogue River. Contracts between the commission and cities are renewed every five years.

The new language was added by the water commission to make sure the cities understand who has ownership of the water rights, commission officials said.

"This is a disturbing clause to add to the contracts between the cities and MWC, especially without prior discussion," Williams wrote in a Nov. 1 letter to the commission.

Because of the two cities' refusal to sign the new contract, the commission last week forced Eagle Point to pump water from the commission's White City station rather than the cheaper alternative of tapping into one of the Big Butte water lines that runs through Eagle Point. In previous years, the commission routinely has permitted Eagle Point to use the closer line in winter months.

"It's the feeling of the commission that until they sign it, we won't do it," said Leigh Johnson, commission chairman.

Don Skundrick, a member of the water commission and Jackson County commissioner-elect, agreed with Johnson. "Sign it, and I say, 'yes.' "

Mayor Williams sent the commission the letter on behalf of the Cities Water Coalition detailing grievances over the current water agreements.

In the letter, Williams cited a 1955 permit that allows Medford to send water to surrounding communities. This permit, Williams wrote, shows the long history behind Medford's supplying water to Central Point and other communities.

If the cities could work out a better arrangement with the commission over existing water rights, it could save the cities a lot of expense and time in securing new rights, Williams said.

Previous agreements with the commission required cities to secure additional water rights. Some of the cities have obtained rights to water in Lost Creek Lake, while others have purchased irrigation-ditch rights.

The complicated system of credits from these sources allows the Medford treatment plant to draw additional flows out of the Rogue River during peak summer months.

Because growth has slowed during the recession, the cities believe they have enough water rights to meet expected peak demand by 2030.

In the future, the cities want the commission to join with them in seeking additional water rights on a regional basis, rather than city by city.

Williams hopes the relationship with the water commission improves without resorting to legal action.

"I don't want it to get to court," he said. "I want them to do the right thing."

The water commission argues it is doing the right thing, said its manager, Larry Rains.

He said the city of Medford has exclusive rights to Big Butte Springs water, which it transports to taps some 33 miles away.

Rains said the city, which installed the first of two pipes in the 1920s, has clear legal rights to the water.

For years, the commission has stressed to surrounding communities that it is selling them surplus water from its Big Butte Springs allotment of 26.4 million gallons a day.

"It has always been a privilege extended to them," Rains said.

Additional water is drawn out of the Rogue River in the summer months, but within 10 years Rogue River water will be used on a year-round basis to meet expected demands.

The commission has been pushing cities for at least 10 years to secure additional water rights to match growth projections.

The water commission proposes increasing its rates over the next several years to save money for another treatment plant. The average current base monthly fee the commission charges to deliver residential water in Medford is $6.21, and the proposed fee next year is $7.55.

The new plant, which would purify Rogue River water, would cost $70 million in 2008 dollars, but could be about $140 million by the time it's built in 2024. The commission proposes raising the rate charged for every 1,000 gallons of water by 5 cents during five summer months to bring in about $95 million by 2024, with the rest of the money raised through revenue bonds.

Increasing the fees came about after the cities balked at the idea of development-charge hikes two years ago because it would further damage the already hard-hit construction industry, Rains said.

But Williams' letter questions whether it is fair to charge current customers more to pay for increased demand caused by new development.

On the surface, the cities appear to pay roughly the same as Medford. The current rate for Medford users in addition to the base rate is 57 cents for each 1,000 gallons, compared to 55 cents for outside cities in winter and 60 cents in summer.

Medford residents' rates include all costs associated with delivering water to their tap. The rate for the five cities, however, is the wholesale price. Cities charge additional fees to their customers to pay for pipes, meters and other costs associated with maintaining a water system.

Williams wants the water commission to provide a detailed analysis to show it is not making a profit off what it charges the cities.

The commission has agreed to study the requests in the cities' letter.

Rains said he's confident everything can be worked out. Even though Eagle Point and Central Point haven't signed the agreements, it doesn't mean they won't receive water.

"It is never the intent of the commission to turn the spigot off," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or e-mail dmann@mailtribune.com.

Big Butte Springs spurs water war