Pipeline plan not there yet

A proposal to create a pipeline that could deliver water from Medford to Ashland in an emergency received a lukewarm reception from the Medford Water Commission Wednesday.

"I see some legal questions that need to be talked over," said Leigh Johnson, one of five water commissioners.

Representatives from Ashland made a pitch for an emergency pipeline to Ashland, saying it could benefit the entire region in case of a natural disaster such as flooding or an earthquake. Ashland officials propose to build the emergency line rather than complete a more expensive main water pipeline to that city, which now gets its drinking water from Reeder Reservoir.

They said the emergency pipeline could transport water from Ashland to other communities if Medford's water sources were knocked out of action.

"We're trying to show the benefits in both directions," said Mike Faught, Ashland's public works director.

But the water commissioners said Ashland's proposal runs counter to their understanding that a permanent pipeline would be installed by 2016. Ashland was scheduled to pay about $3.7 million in charges to offset improvements to pipes and stations in the Medford area as part of the pipeline deal.

Talent, Ashland and Phoenix already have spent millions to build the permanent TAP pipeline from Medford that ends at the southern end of Talent.

Ashland has to date paid more than $2 million for its share of the line.

Faught said water conservation in Ashland has resulted in a 5 percent drop in use.

The drop in water needs and other efforts have pushed off the city's need to tap into the main pipeline until 2038, he said.

He said that if the city could achieve another 15 percent reduction in water use, it would be able to push the need for the pipeline to beyond the middle of the century.

However, if Ashland has a disruption in service such as the 1997 flood that swamped the water treatment plant, it would need an emergency water source, Fought said.

To address that possibility, Ashland wants a pipeline that is 8,000 feet shorter and $10 million cheaper than the proposed permanent line.

Faught said Ashland has a 2007 agreement with Talent to purchase water that could be pumped through the pipeline during emergencies.

But Larry Rains, manager of the Water Commission, said the commission would need to approve any agreement in which Talent sells water outside its urban growth boundary.

Rains said it would be difficult for water to flow from Ashland and into the Medford system in an emergency. He said backflow valves and other systems would effectively block the flow, though these devices could potentially be circumvented.

"I'm not thinking there's a big benefit to Medford if such a connection did exist," he said.

The Water Commission sought legal guidance from City Attorney John Huttl on water rights and agreed to study Ashland's proposal in more detail over a series of meetings.

Faught told the commissioners that Ashland would make a better effort to involve the Water Commission in ongoing discussions about the emergency pipeline. He said Ashland neglected to invite a representative from Medford to the various meetings in his community.

"We should have engaged you guys early on," he said.

Ashland's proposal did prompt some discussion about providing water in case of a natural disaster.

Joe Strahl, who operates a public works management firm that consults with local cities, said a major quake could damage Big Butte Springs, which provides most of the water to Medford and surrounding communities.

"Any of these things could make us wish we could have another source of water," he said.

Water Commissioner Johnson concurred.

"I'm really concerned what a big earthquake would do to Big Butte Springs," he said. "Suddenly, we've got one huge water problem for 100,000 people or maybe more."

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or email dmann@mailtribune.com.

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