Conserving in a Land of Plenty

There’s no shortage of water around Medford, Ore., but the prospect of a costly water plant expansion now motivates customers to conserve.

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In a corner of Oregon where water supplies are bountiful, the Medford Water Commission faced a challenge in promoting conservation. With a mountain spring as the primary source of up to 26 mgd and the Rogue River as a secondary source, the commission maintained ample supplies and very low rates.

Several years ago, Laura Hodnett, public information/conservation director, gave a presentation, “Lessons Learned: Selling Water Conservation Without a Crisis,” at the 2010 North Texas Water Conservation Symposium. What finally got the public’s attention was not a water shortage but the potential expense of expanding the Robert A. Duff Water Treatment Plant.

Substantial cost

A 2009 report prepared by CH2M HILL helped add weight to the commission’s conservation message. Citing an expanding population base, the consultants projected that within 20 years the utility would face expanding the treatment plant at an estimated price of $79 million. The plant has a capacity of 45 mgd, and the commission has rights to take up to 65 mgd from the Rogue River.

Water from Buffalo Springs, which needs only disinfection, serves the commission’s needs for almost nine months per year, but summer irrigation makes it necessary to add river water to the mix. In recent years, that need has been arriving earlier.

“So now we really do have a mission of deferring the cost of building another treatment plant,” Hodnett says. Rather than borrow to build the added treatment capacity, the commission placed a surcharge on water bills to build a fund to use to finance the new facility. “How aggressive we need to be with our surcharge is determined by how much we can delay the need for more water,” Hodnett says.

The city of Medford owns the water commission, but it is a separate entity established in the 1920s. It serves Medford, six cities and three independent water districts — a total of 90,000 direct service customers.

Although Oregon is known for heavily forested river valleys draining toward the Pacific Coast, the Medford area is semiarid, receiving about 20 inches of rainfall annually. Hodnett joined the commission 12 years ago as a conservation specialist. She teams with conservation specialist Dave Searcy, who brings a wealth of experience in irrigation systems and excellent people skills.

Connecting with customers

Hodnett learned through other water conservation specialists that free sprinkler/irrigation audits are effective in building public interest in conservation. She calls her initiative the Sprinkler Survey Program because “audit” can evoke negative reactions. “The program has conservation benefits, but it also gives us a chance to connect with our community,” she says.

Searcy uses survey visits as opportunities to discuss water usage and conservation tactics with customers. He also advises them on how to best operate their systems and tells them the best watering times. While many utilities forbid employees to touch homeowners’ sprinkler systems, he is allowed to make adjustments and demonstrate the controls.

“Often, we have widows who call us after their husbands die and they have no idea how their systems operate,” he says. In such cases, Searcy often downloads the controller manual from the Web and goes over it with the owner. He also leaves tips on how to operate the equipment.

“Those simple things are really huge for the customer and good PR for the commission,” Searcy says. On one call, Searcy discovered a leak and recommended that the woman call an irrigation contractor right away. “She thought she had a spring on her property and we determined that she had a leak on the mainline. Now she can call someone to get it fixed.” On another call, the team helped the owners save more than 100,000 gallons per month, on a system irrigating less than a third of an acre.

Using outside ideas

Hodnett has never been afraid to learn from other operations or to use proven vendor programs. Betsy Martin, the commission’s administrative coordinator, is often on the lookout for other utilities’ programs.

The commission’s Web tool allows customers to track their water usage for the past 13 months and compare it to average usage in the neighborhood and across the entire system. That idea was borrowed, with permission, from the Community Water Company in Green Valley, Ariz., and the Water CASA of the University of Arizona Water Resources Research Center.

Hodnett also contracted in 2012 with GardenSoft of Thousand Oaks, Calif., to develop a WaterWise online site showing Medford area gardens that demonstrate principles of appropriate horticulture to reduce water use.

Hodnett sees broad interest in gardening and horticulture in the Medford area, and she hopes the WaterWise site (www.medford.water can serve as one more tool in the box to help spread the word about the need to conserve water.

Hodnett and Searcy use both the Web and the phone lines for one more service. Customers can call 541/774-2460 or go to for up-to-date information on recent rainfall and the need for lawn irrigation.

Conservation in verse

And if all of that isn’t enough, Hodnett uses one more tactic: She offers water-saving tips as short poems on monthly bills. She wrote her first poem in 2000, and they remain popular. Here is an example:

With warmer temps and clear blue skies
Our gardens lure us and our spirits rise
But don’t be tempted to start sprinklers yet
Ample spring showers are still a good bet.


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