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County permanently closes Emigrant Lake water slide

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Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneJackson County Parks Manager Andy Austill points out patch work over the years to the water slides at Emigrant Lake.
Facility hurt by wildfire smoke, persistent drought

The Emigrant Lake water slide has been done in by age, drought and summer wildfire smoke.

Adults and kids have been sliding down the twin plumes and splashing into a pool near the lake east of Ashland for decades.

But at 38 years old, the water slide would need a major restoration costing $500,000 to $750,000 to keep it running safely, said Jackson County Parks and Roads Director Steve Lambert.

“We’re not just talking a fresh coat of paint to get the facility up to snuff. We’re talking a significant amount of investment,” he said.

Instead of paying for a major restoration, the county plans to demolish the water slide.

“The water slide has become a beloved feature of Jackson County over the past 38 years that it’s been around. Some folks will be very disappointed moving forward,” Lambert said.

The slide hasn’t operated for the past two summers because of COVID-19 and a drought that shrank Emigrant Lake to historically low levels. The county would have to buy water from somewhere else for the slides and pool, which constantly lose water due to evaporation, leaks and people splashing during hot summer months, Lambert said.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneJackson County Parks Manager Andy Austill shows where there's cracking problems to the water slides at Emigrant Lake.

Drought could plague Southern Oregon again this summer. Following an extremely warm January and dry February, Emigrant Lake is only 8% full this week, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

The water slide facility has pump, corrosion and wiring problems. The columns that support the slides are cracked, and the surface of the slides need continual repair work to keep them smooth, parks workers said.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneJackson County Parks Manager Andy Austill shows where towers have cracked to the waterslides at Emigrant Lake.

During summers when the Rogue Valley has been engulfed by wildfire smoke, few people want to use the outdoor slides. The parks department has had trouble finding enough workers to staff the facility, which led to shortened hours, Lambert said.

Meanwhile, the city of Medford has plans to build an indoor aquatic center with pools and two slides that could open in 2023.

Lambert said the aquatic center can run 12 months of the year, versus the three summer months the Emigrant Lake water slide can operate. The Medford center won’t have to deal with wildfire smoke.

Once the Medford aquatic center opens, people would be much less interested in the Emigrant Lake water slide, even if the county spent money to renovate the outdoor facility and keep it open, Lambert said.

Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan said the Emigrant Lake water slide would lose money and require ongoing financial subsidies from the county.

“We do feel with Medford opening their facility, it’s not worth the investment it will continue to soak up,” Jordan said.

The county parks department is run like a business, with the parks system expected to support itself through user fees and grants rather than taxpayer money.

Jackson County commissioners got a briefing this week on the decision to shutter the Emigrant Lake water slide forever. Closing the facility didn’t require a vote from the commissioners, but the parks department told commissioners to keep them informed and because commissioners might hear complaints from the public.

“I know people will miss it. I know families will miss it,” Commissioner Rick Dyer said.

Dyer said it’s sad to see the closure of the Emigrant Lake water slide, but the comprehensive assessment of the challenges facing the facility shows closing it was necessary.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneJackson County Parks Manager Andy Austill points out patch work over the years to the water slides at Emigrant Lake.

“Between the staffing and the drought and the condition of the structure, it’s a problematic thing,” said Commissioner Colleen Roberts.

She asked what the cost will be to tear down the facility. Lambert said the parks department will be researching the cost, but wanted to brief commissioners first.

The parks department will keep the concession building at the site, Lambert said.

Jordan said the Jackson County Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee will work with parks staff on ideas for using the area. With good access to Emigrant Lake, the site could be used for paddleboard and kayak rentals, for example.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.