January 19, 2011 - Bend Bulletin - Bend water issues to be debated, explained at forums

Jan 19, 2011

January 19, 2011 - Bend Bulletin - Bend water issues to be debated, explained at forums

Bend water issues to be debated, explained at forums

By Nick Grube / The Bulletin
Published: January 19. 2011 4:00AM PST

A $58 million to $73 million reconstruction of Bend's Bridge Creek water system will undergo some additional scrutiny over the next week as opponents of the project, city officials and various experts dissect and analyze the merits of the overhaul during two upcoming public forums.

The first forum, being put on by City Club of Central Oregon, takes place at St. Charles Bend on Thursday, and will be a debate between one of the project's most vocal opponents, local attorney Bill Buchanan, and City Engineer Tom Hickmann, who has been spearheading the upgrade initiative.

Organizers said this debate will serve as the precursor to a second event planned for Monday at the Oregon State University-Cascades Campus, which aims to clarify the arguments on both sides of the issue while also trying to clear up any factual misrepresentations that have been made about the overhaul or its alternatives.

State officials
Some of the panelists for that moderated discussion include representatives from the state Water Resources Department, Department of Environmental Quality, Upper Deschutes Watershed Council and OSU-Cascades' Natural Resources program. Buchanan and Hickmann will also take part, along with Bend City Councilors Mark Capell — who is a proponent of the upgrade — and Jim Clinton, who was the only dissenting vote on the council.

“The reason we chose to do this is that it felt as though the conversation had simply become so polarized that no one in the community had a chance to put the two sides together,” City Club Executive Director Robert Killen said. “The hope is that we're helping to create a little more civil and constructive dialogue.”

“I know that in this process there have been discussions of merit, but from a citizen's point of view I think that the citizens of the community felt it was an argument,” Killen said.

Bend's Bridge Creek project, which includes replacing a 10-mile pipeline, building a treatment facility and the possibility of adding a hydropower plant, has been called one of the largest single infrastructure undertakings in the city's history, and has the potential to increase water rates by upward of 45 percent over the next five years.

It has generated a fair amount of controversy over the coming months for being too expensive for ratepayers and potentially detrimental to stream flows in Tumalo Creek, which runs through Shevlin Park and dumps into the middle Deschutes River.

Bridge Creek is a tributary of Tumalo Creek, and it provides about half of Bend's water supply. The rest comes from groundwater and is pumped by wells.

There are also concerns about how the city has proceeded with the project, and the financial assumptions it used to justify moving forward on the project.

Last fall, the overall project increased by $2 million and the revenue projections for the hydropower component were found by be off by more than $1 million a year, going down from $1.7 million to $700,000. The city decided to perform another analysis to revise its original 50-year cost projections that showed the difference between reinvesting in surface water and switching to all groundwater alternative was about $250 million.

This new analysis, however, was performed by the city's consulting firm, HDR Engineering Inc., which was hired to do the preliminary design work on the overhaul and stood to gain millions of dollars if it was retained through the project.

When HDR released its report on the costs, it found — despite the higher costs of the project and lower revenue estimates — the cost difference between surface water and groundwater was more than $400 million.

Buchanan has been leading the charge to get the city to take a step back from the Bridge Creek overhaul, and consider reevaluating other alternatives, in particular a switch to all groundwater that he says will save the city millions of dollars in upfront costs.

Despite his pleas to slow down, he has been largely unsuccessful. The Bend City Council already voted to move ahead with the pipeline and treatment portion of the project, and is expected to make a decision on the $13 million hydropower option in February or March.

Because of this, City Manager Eric King said he found the timing of the forums to be somewhat curious considering decisions had already been made. King said he was also surprised to learn about the OSU-Cascades event since no one from the college had contacted him about it before it was scheduled.

He added that as long as the forums aren't intended to “influence decisions” that he supports anything that helps educate the public.

“The timing of them is a little bit awkward,” King said. “(But) I think that they're a good thing, and I would say we're happy to participate in them.”

Matt Shinderman, a senior natural resources instructor at OSU-Cascades who is facilitating Monday's discussion, said the main focus of the forums is to clarify some of the debate that has been swirling around the city's surface water project in a way that makes it easier for the public to understand.

“Clearly there is a renewed interest in this and people are getting information from all sorts of sources and not all of that information is accurate,” Shinderman said. “We want to explore some of the concerns that have been expressed in a little more depth and have a more exploratory type of discussion.”

The discussion is intended to openly and objectively examine the pros and cons of the city's surface water project, he said, while also comparing it to the groundwater alternative that Buchanan and others have recently put forth.

He added that he thinks there should have been more dialogue before the city moved ahead on this project considering the size and cost it will have to people and the environment around Bend.

“As an OSU representative, what I hope happens is for people leave the forum better educated about the issues and either lend their support or express their concern to their elected officials,” Shinderman said. “Our objective is to really open this up to a broader community dialogue.”

If You Go
What: City Club of Central Oregon “Un-Muddying the Waters” forum
When: 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thursday
Where: St. Charles Center for Health and Learning, 2600 N.E. Neff Rd, Bend
Cost: $15 for City Club members, $30 for non-members, includes lunch

If You Go
What: OSU-Cascades water forum
When: 7 p.m. Monday
Where: Cascades Hall, OSU-Cascades, 2600 N.W. College Way, Bend

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

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