February 5, 2011 - Bend Bulletin - Bend’s little water project has big costs for ratepayers, fish

Feb 09, 2011

February 5, 2011 - Bend Bulletin - Bend’s little water project has big costs for ratepayers, fish

Bend’s little water project has big costs for ratepayers, fish

By Bill Buchanan / Bulletin guest columnist
Published: February 05. 2011 4:00AM PST

Bend’s $58 million surface water project is actually quite small. Providing just 7.6 million gallons per day (mgd) of reliable capacity, the project will hardly dent Bend’s long-term demands, which will be supplied almost entirely by wells in any event. By comparison, Portland’s Bull Run treatment project will provide reliable peak capacity of over 200 mgd at 1/15th of the cost per gallon of Bend’s little project.

The only thing big about Bend’s surface water proposal is the problem it creates for ratepayers and for the river. Bend can fix that problem by mothballing the project and increasing its use of our unique aquifer. There are at least five good reasons to do so.

First, our regional aquifer provides water that is clean, cold and far more reliable than stream flows. The aquifer recharges at more than 2 billion gallons each day, and its flows are less vulnerable to drought and seasonal variations. Bend’s current water master plan explains “it is expected that the aquifer could reliably provide needed supply during the most extreme anticipated emergency scenario.” By contrast, stream flows spike during snowmelt then plummet in the summer when demand is highest. Bend’s surface water rights are regulated (shut down) due to low stream flows every summer, while its groundwater rights have been consistently reliable.

Second, the $58 million price is too big for such a small project. According to the city’s current master plan, the cost of substituting wells for stream water would be just $9 million, which means wells would save ratepayers $49 million up front. The interest on that debt would be $2.7 million each year, nearly five times the cost of electricity for substitute wells. The city could save even more by deferring construction of the wells until they are needed. After all, the city’s existing well capacity exceeds its 2010 peak use by over 30 percent. According to Bend’s own master plan, greater reliance on wells will also save ratepayers on transmission and distribution lines because wells can be placed nearer to where water will be used. That same long-range plan explains how millions in reservoir costs can also be saved by utilizing the aquifer for a portion of the city’s storage needs. Wells will save ratepayers tens of millions over the long run even before considering the positive impact that enhanced stream flows will have on our economy.

Third, increased streamflows would provide incredible value to Tumalo Creek and the Middle Deschutes. According to materials recently presented by the state’s hydrologist, switching to wells would more than triple the flows in Tumalo Creek as it approaches the Deschutes in August. Tripled flows would improve fish habitat and water quality in the Middle Deschutes, which fails to meet water quality standards. River health also impacts habitat for humans and contributes to our economy by attracting tourism and intellectual capital. Recognizing this fact, all major water users in the basin except the city have worked to decrease stream diversions. Our city stands alone, with its engineers projecting that its annual stream diversions will eventually increase from the current level of 2 billion gallons to 4.6 billion gallons.

Fourth, expanding surface water use comes with legal risk. Like it or not, the city’s plan to increase stream diversions has placed its surface water rights and diversion permits under a microscope. There is a serious risk that legal challenges would halt the water project after millions are spent. One conservation group, WaterWatch, has already asserted claims that could jeopardize the city’s rights to divert and use surface water. Yet that same group has already gone on record as supporting Bend’s use of wells to substitute for stream water. With additional permits still needed to construct the water project, there will be plenty of opportunities for such groups to put their foot in the aisle. Now would be a good time for Bend to negotiate a deal while it still has some leverage.

Finally, Bend has several other big dollar projects on its plate. In August, Bend’s finance director warned that the water project will jeopardize our bond rating, which could lead to higher interest rates on this and other projects. Rather than risk its credit rating, Bend should mothball its water project and temporarily place its surface rights instream in exchange for credits toward using more groundwater. Doing so would allow the city to protect its water rights and preserve it options while enhancing wild, and human, habitat.

Bill Buchanan lives in Bend.

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