Medford's first water system was installed around 1888, diverting water from Bear Creek near Barnett Road, conveying it in an open ditch to a well, and from there pumped into redwood tanks. Unfortunately, the quality of the water was diminished by the livestock it passed, so the open ditch was later replaced with a pumping plant on the creek near Eighth Street. From there it was piped up the street to the existing tanks.
While the piped system proved superior to the open ditch, water from the creek still lacked the quality desired for drinking water and soon was insufficient in quantity as well. After considering a number of different options, the city entered into a contract with the Fish Lake Water Company in 1908 to supply the city with water from Little Butte Creek eleven miles below Fish Lake. From there the water was transported to town via a banded wood stave pipeline, 16 inches in diameter and 21.6 miles in length. The first of the Capital Hill Reservoirs were also constructed to provide storage for this water.
A few years after the completion of the Fish Lake supply system, an irrigation storage dam was constructed at Fish Lake. In doing so, the land in the reservoir was not cleared of brush and trees, and the quality of the water soon suffered. Not only did it begin to exhibit a pungent taste and odor, but also the pollywogs and other aquatic life that would occasionally emerge from faucets were less than popular with local citizens. Also, growth in the city surpassed expectations and resulted in severe water restrictions.
The universal demand for better water service led to an election in 1922, amending the city charter and creating the Medford Water Commission to take over the operation of the municipal water system. In 1923, the Commission took its first major step toward securing a high-quality and reliable water supply by filing for water rights on Big Butte Creek. Additional rights were obtained a few years later, as plans for the development of Big Butte Springs proceeded. In 1925, Medford citizens voted overwhelmingly to approve the sale of $975,000 in bonds to finance the construction of this project. With a population of only around 10,000 residents, such a debt represented a tremendous commitment.
The construction itself was also quite an undertaking, especially given the relatively remote location of the springs, the terrain to be crossed, and the construction methods then available. A large concrete collection gallery and 300-foot-long tunnel were constructed in conjunction with the Spring intakes. The pipeline to town was constructed of 30-foot sections of arc-welded steel, which averaged 24 inches in diameter. Underground for its entire 30.5-mile length, the pipeline crossed nearly 75 different mountain summits. With the pipeline's completion in 1927, Medford residents finally had a high-quality water supply in a quantity, which seemed would be adequate far into the future. Citizens achieved their dream of "a mountain spring in every home," which was the Commission's slogan for many years.
Development of additional springs and construction of a second pipeline was completed in 1951, doubling the capacity of the Big Butte Springs system. Willow Creek Dam was also constructed, forming Willow Lake. This impoundment supplies water to the Eagle Point Irrigation District, and thereby enables the Commission to more fully utilize the high-quality springs water.
By the mid-1950s, the Commission recognized that future water needs could not be met by the Springs alone. Therefore, in 1954, rights were filed for water from the Rogue River. The treatment plant was designed by CH2M. The supply intake and Robert A. Duff Water Treatment Plant (Duff WTP) were constructed in 1967-68. The initial capacity of the plant was 15 mgd with the subsequent construction projects at the plant increasing treatment capacity to its current 45 mgd.
The drinking water we now enjoy and often take for granted is a tribute to those former Medford residents who faced huge challenges to ensure that this community's citizens would continue to have a reliable and high quality water supply.