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Medford Water Commission studies emergency pipeline

An emergency pipeline that would transport water from Medford to Ashland received a lukewarm reception from the Medford Water Commission today.

"I see some legal questions that need to be talked over," said Leigh Johnson, one of five water commissioners.

Representatives from Ashland made a pitch that an emergency pipeline to Ashland could potentially benefit the entire region if a natural disaster such as flooding or an earthquake occurred.

The same pipeline could transport water from Ashland to other communities if Medford's water sources are knocked out of action.

"We're trying to show the benefits in both directions," said Mike Faught, Ashland's public works director.

Ashland's proposal runs counter to the water commission's understanding that a permanent pipeline would be installed by 2016. Ashland was scheduled to pay about $3.7 million in charges to offset improvements to pipes and stations in the Medford area as part of that pipeline deal.

Ashland, Phoenix and Talent also have spent millions of dollars to build the permanent pipeline from Medford that is stubbed out at the southern end of Talent.

Ashland has paid in excess of $2 million for its share of the line so far.

Faught said water conservation has resulted in a 5 percent drop in usage. The drop in water needs and other efforts have now pushed off the city's need to tap into the pipeline until 2038, he said.

He said that if the city can achieve another 15 percent reduction in water usage, it would be able to push the need for the pipeline to beyond the middle of the century.

However, if Ashland has a disruption in service such as the 1997 flood that swamped the water treatment plant, it would need an emergency water source, Fought said.

To address that possible emergency, Ashland wants a pipeline line that is 8,000 feet shorter and $10 million cheaper than the proposed permanent line.

Faught said Ashland has a 2007 agreement with Talent to purchase water that could be pumped through the pipeline during emergencies.

But Larry Rains, manager of the water commission, said the commission would need to approve of any agreement where Talent sells water outside its urban growth boundary.

Rains said it would be difficult for Ashland water to flow backwards into the Medford system in an emergency. He said backflow valves and other systems would effectively block the flow, though these devices could potentially be circumvented.

"I'm not thinking there's a big benefit to Medford if such a connection did exist," he said.

The water commission sought legal guidance from city attorney John Huttl on water rights and agreed to study Ashland's proposal in more detail over a series of meetings.

— Damian Mann

Read more in Thursday's paper.