Controlling the tap

Water law is a complex, arcane system that sometimes defies common sense — and often defies simple explanations. That being said, it's hard to see where a coalition of Rogue Valley cities has much of a legal boat to float in a dispute with the Medford Water Commission.

The group, called the Cities Water Coalition, consists of Central Point, Eagle Point, Phoenix, Talent and Jacksonville. They have banded together in part to challenge the previously unquestioned rights of the Water Commission to control water it pumps from Big Butte Springs in the Cascade Mountains and the Rogue River.

The group took offense when the Water Commission asked them to concede that they have no rights to the commission's water supply beyond whatever their wholesale contracts stipulate. They cite a 1955 permit which notes that the Water Commission has authority to provide water to Medford and surrounding areas.

The group also has questioned the commission's plans to build a second treatment facility, the basic fee charged to cities for water delivery and a "rate of return" charge intended to provide revenue based on the investment the commission has made in equipment.

It's certainly understandable that representatives of the various cities would fight for the best deal possible from the Water Commission and that they want to be treated fairly. But there is very little to suggest they've been taken advantage of financially.

And there's nothing we've seen to suggest that the five cities have any rights to the commission's water supply, which has been a source of pride for the commission and the city for nearly 90 years and remains a testament to the foresight of the city's leaders and citizens in its early days.

The Water Commission was created in 1922 and in 1925 Medford voters approved a $975,000 bond measure to finance construction of an underground pipeline that ran for more than 30 miles to the city from the mountains to the east. A second pipeline was built in 1951 and later in the '50s and '60s water rights were obtained from the Rogue River and a treatment facility was built. That investment has paid dividends to the city ever since, providing not only a reliable source of water — up to 60 million gallons a day in peak summer periods — but water of such quality that it has ranked among the nation's best in taste test competitions.

There is understandable nervousness on the part of the five cities, who have little control over such a critical piece of their services. They want some assurances that they are considered as more than just business clients who must operate at the whim of their supplier and that they will be treated fairly.

That is reasonable and the Water Commission should do its part to be even-handed in its approach. But in the end, the commission and the residents of Medford unquestionably have their collective hand on the spigot in controlling and protecting the valley's largest municipal water supply — thanks to the legacy created by their predecessors so many decades ago.

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