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Behind the curve?

The Medford Water Commission is deciding whether to switch from the ductile iron pipe it has used for decades to steel pipe that could save a great deal of money on a nearly two-mile water line project. The commission may have good reason not to make the switch for this job. But the question water customers should be asking is why the commission didn't begin studying this option long ago.

The Medford water system, which serves customers in Medford, Central Point, Eagle Point, Jacksonville, Phoenix and Talent, is planning the new line to increase the output of water from the Duff treatment plant on the Rogue River. The contractor for the project has proposed using steel pipe instead of ductile iron pipe at a savings of $525,000.

That's not pocket change. But with the exception of the board chairman, water commission officials seem reluctant to change the way they've always done things.

Ductile iron pipe has been the Medford Water Commission's standard since at least the 1980s. Now, the contractor for the latest project says it can save the commission more than half a million dollars by using steel pipe instead.

The contractor, Moore Excavation, has submitted documentation showing steel pipe has the same specifications as ductile iron.

What's more, the steel pipe would be supplied by a Portland company, keeping the money — and the jobs — in Oregon. The iron pipe would come from out of state.

Adding urgency to the decision is a Jackson County road project scheduled for next June. County officials want the water line finished first, to avoid the expense of tearing up the new road surface later — a cost the water commission would have to cover.

Water Commission Manager Larry Rains says it may be too late to analyze the differences in the pipe and then place an order in time to finish the job by the county's deadline.

Again, the question is why the commission hasn't already done the analysis. Northwest Pipe, the Portland company that would provide the steel pipe, presented a proposal to the commission in August.

Cities across the country are using steel pipe now. What do they know that the Medford Water Commission doesn't?

Commission member Leigh Johnson says the commission has kept water rates low over the years through good management. How much lower might rates be if the commission had explored cost savings like these a long time ago?

Johnson says board members will review the commission's specifications next year — too late for this major project — noting the iron-vs.-steel debate is "an interesting conversation to have."

What are they waiting for?