Dennis Burg reads the water levels in an overflow guage at Big Butte Springs near Butte Falls. 2/28/08 Denise Baratta

Water World

While Butte Falls native Dennis Burg was swimming and fishing in the region's lakes and rivers as a child, the thought of living and working at the heart of the region's water supply never really crossed his mind.

If anything, he figured he'd have to find a job away from his hometown.

Nearly three decades after entering the workforce, Burg now holds one of the most important jobs in Jackson County: operator of Big Butte Springs, the source of Medford's water.

Burg says his job is far from 9 to 5 but one he enjoys.

"I'm here to make sure that equipment functions the way it's supposed to and keep track of everything, from who's supposed to be coming and going when we're doing projects to keeping things running," said Burg, who lives with his family on the site.

Officially the third person to hold the job, Burg was chosen to take over after a father-son team spent a combined 57 years living and working on the site. Buck Rowden put in 43 years; his father, George, spent 14 years patrolling the waterline by horseback.

Burg admits his job often takes place from sunup to sundown — and sometimes in the wee hours — but time spent outdoors in the shadow of a snowcapped volcano is trade-off enough.

The region's water supply is derived from Big Butte Springs, seven underground springs that are supplied from snowmelt off the slopes of Mount McLoughlin and other precipitation.

Burg is charged with everything from rancher-type duties such as inspecting more than 3,000 acres owned by the Medford Water Commission and mending fences to finding and repairing leaks in the pipelines and monitoring water quality.

His gig with the Medford Water Commission began after 20 years seasonal and part-time work for the commission, which he tended in conjunction with a 22-year stint at a lumber mill in White City.

"Living and growing up in the Butte Falls area kind of gave me a lot of knowledge about the watershed and springs, and I love being outdoors, so when the job came available I put my name in for it and got picked to do it," he said.

A typical day finds Burg up with the first signs of daylight checking in at an on-site office, taking water readings to test for flow, quality and chlorine levels and tackling a list of details that keep the facility in tiptop shape.

Captured at a cool 43 degrees Fahrenheit, water is a crisp 50 degrees when it arrives on tap in the valley below. The main spring produces 15 million gallons a day and is collected in a concrete box on a hillside five miles from Butte Falls, built 72 years ago when Medford voters spent $1 million for the capping of the main spring and the laying of Bethlehem steel pipe over 25 summits and 30 miles.

Snowstorms and other issues that arise ensure Burg is thinking about the region's water far more than any other customer.

"You are literally on call all the time. It's unlike any other job that most people have," he said.

"Most people, when they go home at night, they know that they're done for the day. I'm always on call. When the power goes out, I have to make sure all our backup power is functioning the way it's supposed to so everyone has water."

Just "part of the job," Burg and his family plan their lives around his need to keep an eye on the region's water.

While he takes a lot of pride in what he does, most days he spends more time taking in the scenery and doing his job than dwelling on its impact.

"I have a lot of pride in what I do in keeping track of what's going on in the watershed, but I can't really say I think about it every second," he said.

"I just enjoy what I'm doing."

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