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Drought hits Medford water source

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Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneJulie Smitherman and Cody Scoggins of the Medford Water Commission test levels of water flow on the lawn of the Scoggins residence Friday afternoon.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneThe Medford Water Commission uses a water level cup placed on a lawn of a local residence Friday afternoon.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneJulie Smitherman and Cody Scoggins of the Medford Water Commission test levels of water flow on the lawn of the Scoggins residence Friday afternoon.

Big Butte Springs has powered Jackson County’s growth for almost a century with an abundant source of pure water, but reduced flows over the past three years have been a wake-up call.

“What we’re seeing now is nothing like what we’ve seen in the last 20-year period,” said Brad Taylor, general manager of the Medford Water Commission. “We’re experiencing unprecedented drought impacts in our region.”

Typically the Water Commission draws 26.4 million gallons a day from the springs in summer, but recently that amount dropped to 19 million.

After resolving an issue with a particular group of springs, the water commission was able to get flows up to 23 million.

Taylor said similar reduced flows have been experienced over the past few years during a time of low rainfall and less snow in the mountains.

The two pipes that supply water to the region from the springs were designed to operate at 26.4 million gallons a day, so with less water flowing through one of the pipes it has resulted in increased air in the system, producing cloudier water.

“There isn’t enough spring flow to fill two pipes,” Taylor said.

The cloudy water is safe to drink, according to the commission.

Despite these issues, Taylor said the Water Commission remains confident that it will have enough water for the community, though it is asking residents to voluntarily use less water when possible. The commission recently asked residents for voluntary reductions because of chlorine supply issues.

Lower flows at the springs complex some 50 miles from Medford near Butte Falls have been experienced in the past, but the last time they dropped to current levels was in the 1990s.

The springs are the primary source for water but they aren’t the only source.

During the summer months, the water commission draws up to 45 million gallons a day from the Rogue River at the Duff Water Treatment Plant, which treats the water before it’s put into the pipeline. Duff went online April 1 because of demand after a dry winter and a warm spring. Last year, Duff went online April 8.

“This year was the earliest start date for the Duff Water Treatment Plant,” Taylor said.

Another wrinkle this summer is that the supplier of chlorine used to disinfect water has had production issues.

As a result, the Water Commission is hoping to keep the amount of water used in a day to 47 million gallons or less through voluntary conservation efforts. This will extend the commission’s stockpile of chlorine until supply chain issues are resolved.

Located in the Cascade range, the springs, at an elevation of 2,700 feet, are fed by rain and snow melt percolating through volcanic rock.

Many locals say the water tastes better during the winter when it is coming only from the springs.

While there have been various studies of the hydrology of the springs, there is much that isn’t known about them, particularly the effects of long-term droughts.

Taylor said the springs have continued to provide water during previous droughts, and he said there doesn’t appear to be any reason why they won’t continue to produce in this drought.

Southern Oregon has been hit by a so-called megadrought that has brought less rain and higher temperatures to nine states in the West for the past 20 years.

Climate change appears to have made the drought worse, and the West has experienced unprecedented wildfires as well. The worst fire in Jackson County’s history, the Almeda fire last Sept. 8, destroyed 2,500 residences in Ashland, Talent, Phoenix and Medford.

At this point, the Medford Water Commission has provided various suggestions to voluntarily limit water usage and to consider more effective ways to water gardens and cut back on indoor water consumption.

“We are not asking people to stop watering,” said Julie Smitherman, water resources coordinator with the Water Commission. “We’re asking people to use water wisely.”

Some of the conservation methods include running sprinkler systems a couple of minutes less, taking shorter showers and turning off the tap while brushing your teeth or shaving.

Reduce vehicle washing and use facilities that recycle water. Exterior surfaces should be swept rather than hosed off. Minimize filling pools, hot tubs and other water features.

Any watering should be done between 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. to minimize evaporation.

Hold off on any new plantings, and adjust sprinkler systems to allow the least amount of flow and to prevent overspray.

Catch any excess water and use it on your landscaping.

Wash only full loads in the washing machine or dishwasher.

The commission is asking residents in Medford, Central Point, Eagle Point, Phoenix, Talent, Jacksonville and White City to reduce all nonessential water use and eliminate leaks in homes and businesses.

For more information on reducing water consumption, go to www.medfordwater.org/SIB/files/Voluntary%20Customer%20Actions%206-2021.pdf, or call 541-774-2435 or 541-774-2436.

In your yard, Smitherman suggests prioritizing areas that may need more watering at the expense of other areas that may need less.

The Water Commission pulls 45 million gallons a day from the Rogue River, representing about 70 cubic feet of water a second. This is a fraction of the 2,500 cubic feet a second that flows in the river at this time of year.

During the summer, water usage can peak at 62 million gallons a day, with water coming from both the Rogue River and the springs.

Ashland, which usually has sufficient water from its own water source, typically taps into the Water Commission supply only during droughts. In July, Ashland is expected to start accessing its allotment of 2.13 million gallons a day of water from the commission.

Ashland peaks at 5.5 million gallons a day in the summer but anticipates its own water source will not be able to meet demands as it begins to draw down Reeder Reservoir.

Smitherman said there should be enough water available this summer to avoid the next step in reducing water consumption, which would be mandatory restrictions.

“The story is we do have sufficient supply,” she said.

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