December 10, 2010 - Bend Bulletin - Bend’s water policy under fire

Dec 10, 2010

December 10, 2010 - Bend Bulletin - Bend’s water policy under fire

Bend’s water policy under fire

By Nick Grube / The Bulletin

Published: December 10. 2010 4:00AM PST

An environmental advocacy group that focuses on protecting stream flows in Oregon wants the state to shut down the city of Bend’s Bridge Creek water system, claiming it has been operating illegally.

WaterWatch of Oregon lodged a complaint with the state Water Resources Department on Wednesday stating that the city has been taking more water out of the Tumalo Creek tributary than it actually needs.

This, the nonprofit contends, is a violation of Oregon’s water rights law, because the city — or any other entity that holds a water right — should only be allowed to take what it puts to what is called a beneficial use.

“This biggest concern is that the city is unnecessarily damaging 10 miles of stream,” said Kimberley Priestley, the senior policy analyst for WaterWatch who wrote the complaint letter to the Water Resources Department. “It’s an illegal use and the city’s not above the law.”

Officials from the Oregon Water Resources Department were not available for comment Thursday.

Bend gets about half of its annual water supply from Bridge Creek, which is located about 10 to 12 miles outside of town.

The city diverts about 11 million gallons a day from the creek, and pipes it about 10 miles into a treatment facility two miles west of Bend on Skyliners Road before sending it into town.

If the demand for water in the city is less than 11 million gallons a day, then the excess water is dumped into a diversion channel that flows back into Tumalo Creek.

While demand can sometimes reach 11 million gallons a day in the summer when people are watering their lawns, it typically dips down to 5 or 6 million gallons a day during the winter.

Priestley said she doesn’t know of any other cities in Oregon that divert more surface water than they use and put the excess back.

City of Bend officials learned of WaterWatch’s complaint on Thursday, though Public Works Director Paul Rheault said they haven’t had enough time to digest what was written in that letter to the Water Resources Department.

“I’m sure our attorneys will take a look at the letter, and if there’s anything we need to modify or adjust in our operations we will,” Rheault said. “But until such time, we will continue operating in the same manner we always have.”

He said the city’s surface water system was first installed in the 1920s and essentially operates the same way it does today as it did then.

With the city about to embark on a $73 million overhaul of the system — something that will include replacing 10 miles of pipeline, adding a treatment facility and possibly a hydropower plant — Rheault added that he found the timing of WaterWatch’s complaint to be rather interesting.

Priestley discounts this correlation, however, and said the only reason WaterWatch decided to file a complaint with the state is because the group only recently discovered the excess diversion of water when it started investigating the city’s proposed infrastructure project.

“If we would have learned about this 10 years ago, we would have sent the letter 10 years ago,” she said. “Like it or not, the city’s decision to move ahead with increasing the amount of water they’re going to be taking from Bridge Creek has put the focus on what the city is doing.”

In WaterWatch’s letter to the Water Resources Department, it writes that the state agency has a “duty” to turn off the city’s surface water system until it has a mechanism that will limit the amount of water that is diverted from Bridge Creek to the actual demand.

The city’s proposed upgrade to its surface water system currently includes such a mechanism, but it wouldn’t be operational for years.

WaterWatch’s letter also notes that the city can handle shutting down its Bridge Creek infrastructure because it has enough groundwater well capacity to replace current demands.

“There’s no hardship whatsoever for the citizens of Bend,” Priestley said, “because the city has plenty of groundwater.”

Nick Grube can be reached at 541-633-2160 or at ngrube@bendbulletin.com.

Published Daily in Bend Oregon by Western Communications, Inc. © 2010

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