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'A mountain spring in every home'

In the second half of the Roaring ’20s, city expansion hit Medford.

Between 1925 and 1929, 14 new additions to town were platted, although none had occurred in the preceding five years. The population increased 91 percent in the decade to 11,007.

Medford Water Commission, created by voters in 1922 to address water quality issues, was in line to meet the increases as it started delivery of water from the newly developed Big Butte Springs in 1927.

The 2020s won’t likely see that kind of growth, according to projections. What the public will see is work to replace aging infrastructure, fewer meter readers, expansion of treatment plant capacity on the Rogue River and likely requests to voters to finance upgrades after several decades without bond measures, says Brad Taylor, Medford Water Commission general manager.

About 136,000 customers get water from MWC. Most are Medford residents, but the district also supplies Central Point, Jacksonville, Phoenix, Talent, two water districts and the White City area. Ashland can be served on an emergency basis.

“With the challenges that we are anticipating in the next 10 years and beyond, we do anticipate that bonding will become part of the strategy in order to soften the impact on our rate payers,” said Taylor. The commission is currently debt free and has been on a pay-as-you go basis. Expansion of the Robert A. Duff Treatment Plant on the Rogue River to 45 million gallons per day capacity was completed in 2000 without bonding.

Initial work to expand the Duff plant to 65 million gallons per day, started in 2017, has been completed. But several more phases of the work are ahead before the plant can go to the new capacity, projected for 2028. Growth of Medford and other cities doesn’t mean a straight-line increase in water consumption.

“We are seeing the per capita water use coming down. Even when the population grows, it does not necessarily mean more (system) growth,” said Taylor. Plumbing codes have required greater efficiency, and cultural awareness of potential droughts have people using less water, he said.

MWC follows Portland State University growth projections, currently a little over one percent per year for Medford, for planning purposes. Medford Planning Director Matt Brinkley says right now growth is exceeding that projection. His department works with MWC to keep it informed on upcoming developments as land is added to the city.

Water inflow into Big Butte Spring from rain and snowpack has been on the decline with climate change. That’s part of what is driving the expansion at Duff.

Plans for a second, standalone plant at Duff won’t be pursued, but future expansions of the plant are likely. New intakes for the plant will be constructed to replace the aging ones currently in use, but the permitting process puts that toward the end of the decade, Taylor said.

Unhappy with water quality from a dam at Fish Lake, Medford residents in November 1922 approved formation of MWC. Water rights to Big Butte Springs were secured in 1925, and in the same year voters approved sale of $975,000 in bonds — to develop the springs and build pipelines to town — by nearly a 3-to-1 margin. Thirty miles of steel pipeline were installed, and water started flowing through the system in 1927.

A plaque at Big Butte Springs lists the names of the original water commissioners, who promised “a mountain spring in every home.”

Water sales to outside towns was approved by voters in 1930. After some water shortages in immediate post World War II years, the commission constructed a second water intake at Big Butte Springs that doubled capacity to 26 million gallons per day. Voters approved a $2.8 million bond measure for the work in 1950.

In 1966, voters approved a $2.6 million bond to create the Duff treatment plant to provide additional water for the city and its customers. The plant, intakes and mains were completed in 1968 and are in use from April into fall to add to the Big Butte supply.

Water main replacement, changes to meter reading and reservoir tank replacement will also happen over the next decade.

“The good news for us is we are just 100 years old,” said Taylor, noting that a lot of utilities on the East Coast are dealing with much older infrastructure.

Currently in Medford about 1,700 meters are read by data transmission towers, but another 17,000 send data to vehicles driven through neighborhoods, while 12,000 meters are still read manually. Within six years the entire system should be transmitting data, said Taylor.

“We do anticipate replacing a number of existing tanks and possibly two new reservoirs,” Taylor said of water storage sites. “We are really in the initial planning phase at this point.”

Other initiatives the commission is pursuing include upgrading emergency preparedness of both facilities and staff and making the public aware of potential impacts, water quality improvements and partnerships with others.

“As we move into the next 100 years, we all have to come together to tackle resource restraints and to tackle water management wisely,” said Taylor.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

Dennis Burg reads the water levels in February 2008 at Big Butte Springs, the source of Medford city water. Mail Tribune / file photo