The Medford Water Commission’s Robert A. Duff Treatment Plant, which treats water from the Rogue River before sending it to customers, is seeing a capacity increase from 45 million gallons per day to 65 million. Mail Tribune/Jamie Lusch
The money will be used to strengthen earthquake facilities, build new reservoirs and improve water quality
A $96.8 million federal loan announced this week will help keep taps flowing for Medford Water Commission customers if the area is rocked by an earthquake.
The money will be used to improve water quality, build new water storage reservoirs in East Medford and upgrade the Robert A. Duff water treatment plant in White City so that it can continue to operate in the event of a disaster or power failure.
“The biggest concern is a Cascadia subduction earthquake,” said Brad Taylor, chief executive of the water commission, which serves 140,000 residents of the valley.
The subduction zone is found off the Oregon coast, where two tectonic plates rub against each other, producing devastating earthquakes every 200 to 900 years, according to historical accounts. The last one occurred in 1701. Volcanoes such as Mount St. Helens and Crater Lake are connected to this tectonic zone.
Two low-interest loans are part of a federal effort to help local communities withstand an earthquake and will save the water commission $12 million in interest over the repayment period 30 years old.
One loan is $27.4 million at 2.1% and the second is $69.4 million at 3.2%. The water commission was not far enough along in an environmental assessment of some of the projects to lump it all together in the 2.1% loan.
Another advantage of the loans is that no principal repayments have to be made during the first five years.
“Access to clean, reliable water and a resilient water infrastructure system is essential to the health and strength of every family,” said U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley, D-OR, who authored the bill that helped create the Water Infrastructure Finance and Infrastructure Act.
The federal loans are part of a 10-year plan to invest about $200 million in the Medford area water system, which serves most communities in the valley.
As part of the improvements, the program will help better adjust pH to reduce lead and copper leaching from household plumbing.
The Duff plant, which treats water from the Rogue River before sending it to customers, is seeing an increase in capacity from 45 million gallons per day to 65 million.
Part of the plant will be seismically hardened with backup generators so it can continue to produce 26 million gallons per day in the event of a disaster. This upgrade will be paid for by federal loans.
Taylor said the 26 million gallons would be enough to ensure customers have adequate drinking water in the event of a disaster.
Over the next 50 years, the water commission plans to convert the entire Duff plant into a hardened facility to help withstand a natural disaster.
There are currently three reservoirs atop Capital Hill in East Medford with a capacity of 12 million gallons.
“It’s really the heart of the system,” Taylor said.
The loans will be used to pay for two replacement tanks which will also hold 12 million gallons, but the new tanks and pipes will be designed to better withstand an earthquake.
Taylor said the commission is developing plans to continue to maintain the water supply as the reservoirs are replaced over the next few years.
Additionally, a new 8 million gallon reservoir will be built somewhere near Foothill Road in east Medford, although the water commission is still working on securing a property for this project.
In 10 years or more, the water commission plans to build another 8 million gallon reservoir in South Medford to serve this rapidly growing area, although that project is still on the drawing board.
The earthquake-resistant reconstruction project also includes the improvement of water pipes and pumps.
Rates are expected to rise by 6% to 8% over the next few years to help defray some of the costs of the rebuilding effort, then reverting to more normal increases based on inflation.
In 2024 or 2025, the water commission expects to seek a revenue bond of approximately $22-25 million.
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 pipe from Big Butte Springs using a $1 million bond.
The springs have historically provided most of the water for area residents, but population growth has required additional water from the Rogue River.
An ongoing drought, which has seen some relief with spring rains this year, has resulted in lower spring flows, causing earlier than expected draws from the Rogue River.
The commission is authorized to extract up to 100 million gallons per day from the Rogue River, although it must make additional improvements to the Duff plant to do so.
Contact freelance writer Damian Mann at [email protected]