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The $170 million water plan

Mail Tribune/file photo Medford City Council last Thursday unanimously approved allowing the Medford Water Commission to secure bonds for a series of projects to replace aging pipes and increase the Duff Water Treatment Plant’s ability to process 65 million gallons a day, up from the current 45 million gallons.
Water bills are set to start rising as the Medford Water Commission makes investments for the future

A 10-year plan to raise $170 million by the Medford Water Commission is designed to safeguard Jackson County’s drinking water against droughts, earthquakes and increased demand.

Medford City Council on Thursday night unanimously approved allowing the commission to secure bonds for a series of projects to replace aging pipes and increase the Duff Water Treatment Plant’s ability to process 65 million gallons a day, up from the current 45 million gallons.

“It’s about dealing with droughts, natural disasters and power outages,” said Brad Taylor, general manager of the Water Commission.

The Rogue Valley Water Supply Resiliency Project, as it’s called, marks the commission’s upcoming 100-year anniversary in 2022.

“This work is absolutely about preparing the system for the next 100 years,” Taylor said.

Water supplied by the commission serves 140,000 residents of Jackson County. The city of Medford is directly served by the commission, but wholesale customers include White City, Ashland, Central Point, Eagle Point, Jacksonville, Phoenix and Talent. When the commission formed 100 years ago, it installed 30 miles of pipes from Big Butte Springs using a $1 million bond.

The new upgrades are far more complicated and expensive, and water users can expect a series of rate increases ranging from 5% to 6% a month in the next few years. Currently Medford enjoys low rates compared to other cities in Oregon.

The single biggest expansion effort will be to increase the capacity of the water treatment plant in White City, where it draws water out of the Rogue River, at a cost of $75 million.

The 12 million gallon Capitol Hill reservoir in east Medford is going to be rebuilt to better withstand an earthquake at a cost of $27 million.

An estimated $30 million will be needed to potentially add additional reservoirs, pipes and road systems to handle the increased supply. Details on the number of new reservoirs are still being worked out. An $11 million system to automatically maintain the pH level of the water from both Duff and the springs will help prevent the leaching of metals from older pipes located in homes. The construction portion of this project is currently out for bid.

The Water Commission is working on plans to build a $26 million administrative complex that will combine a number of operations under one roof in an earthquake-resistant building. Currently the main office is located in the Lausmann Annex, next to Medford City Hall. The Water Commission is in the process of finding an up to 10-acre property in the city for the complex.

Each aspect of the Water Commission’s resiliency plan is designed to enable the system to better withstand an earthquake.

At this point, many of the projects are still being fleshed out, so the numbers are estimates in today’s dollars.

A low-interest loan from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Water Infrastructure Finance Innovation Act will cover 49% of the cost of the project.

“We do have some anticipated rate increase projections,” Taylor said.

Over the next three years, rate hikes of 6% a year are projected, tapering off to 5% from 2024 to 2027. After that, rate increases of 2% every year are anticipated to 2039, with the exception of a 5% hike in 2034.

Currently, a typical residential customer in Medford pays $19.57 a month in winter and $49.57 in summer.

Revenue bonds, based on these rate increases, as well as cash reserves are expected to pay for the project.

Taylor said another $50 million is expected to be spent over the next 10 years to upgrade computer systems and other equipment not related to the resiliency project.

Over time, the Water Commission anticipates a greater reliance on the Rogue River as the demand for water outpaces the area’s historical reliance on Big Butte Springs, near Mount McLoughlin.

At an elevation of 2,700 feet, the springs are fed by rain and snow melt percolating through volcanic rock.

This year marked a historic low for output from the springs, which provides about 20 million gallons a day. Low flows forced the Water Commission to begin drawing from the Rogue River April 1, the earliest startup date for Duff on record. The last three drought years have resulted in more dependence on treated river water at earlier dates.

The commission has the ability to draw more than 100 million gallons a day from the Rogue River, though it would have to make additional improvements to the Duff plant to do so.

Over time, the commission anticipates a greater reliance on treated river water to meet demand.

The commission has an ongoing voluntary conservation program, and Taylor said more conservation efforts might be considered in the future.

“We’re not accounting for climate change in our demand projections,” he said.

But the treatment equipment that will be installed at the Duff plant is designed to deal with increased algae and mineral content in the Rogue, which would be potential problems that could be a side effect of climate change.

He said the main thrust of this rebuilding effort is to create a more resilient water system as the part of the state of Oregon’s goal of making the state better able to withstand natural disasters.

Medford residents should be prepared to see ongoing construction over the next 10 years as the improvements are made.

“There will be some projects that tear up roads,” he said.

Councilor Kevin Stine said the council’s action Thursday gives the Water Commission the ability to secure bonds to build the various projects.

“Water is everything, so getting these forward-thinking infrastructure things done is necessary,” he said.

Reach freelance writer Damian Mann at dmannnews@gmail.com.