Mirror Pond: To Dredge or Not to Dredge?
Aug 16, 2017
The Source Weekly
THE SCENE IS SET
It's late 2013 and scores of concerned community members, environmental groups, city and parks officials, nonprofits and the like meet at Broken Top Bottle Shop for another round of discussions on "What to do with Mirror Pond?"
The options include dredging, removing the dam or restoring that portion of the Deschutes River to its natural flow. There are talks about Pacific Corp — the owners of the 100+ year old dam on Mirror Pond, first put in place in 1909 — selling the dam to Bend Park and Recreation District for a small cost.
The sale falls through. Friction mounts. And the entire project stalls.
In April 2015, Mirror Pond Solutions LLC, a newly formed business owned by longtime business owners, Bill Smith and Todd Taylor, acquire- the land from 96 year-old Della M. Tennant, a descendent of original Bend settlers, the McKay family.
The sale price for over 25 acres of Mirror Pond land? $0.
Noted as a "Type 6" sale by Deschutes County public records and sold off into 5 parcels, the cost-free transaction is marked, "Grantee is related/friends or business associates." That document also assesses the land's tax value at $20,000 for all five parcels, totaling 25 acres. Three of the plots, have a "real market value" of $0 and two are listed at $10,000, according to Deschutes County.
The new owners include Bill Smith, owner of William Smith Properties, a property developer that restored 14,000 feet of river area in the Old Mill, making it the vibrant shopping district is it today. The other owner is Todd Taylor of Taylor Northwest, owner of two mining pits east of Bend and a large construction and excavating business.
"Mirror Pond is an icon of the City of Bend, contributing identify, tranquility and aesthetic beauty," representatives from Mirror Pond Solutions wrote in a "Mirror Pond Dredging Means and Methods Report," obtained by the Source Weekly. "Along with being a hallmark of the community and an important feature of the environmental and recreational landscape of the City...the Pond also serves as a settling basin for silt flowing down the Deschutes River...and requires maintenance dredging every 20-30 years to maintain the pond in its historic form."
The last dredging took place in 1984, removing approximately 60,000 cubic feet of material, achieving roughly five feet of depth, according to City of Bend records. Taxpayers footed the $312,000 price tag. The current proposed project, currently under permitting review by the Oregon Department of State Lands and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is expected to cost a minimum of $6 million and remove 75,000 cubic yards of material. In its application, Mirror Ponds Solutions estimates project's the lasting impact will be 25 years.
"Eric King, (City manager) city staff and two city councilors, (Mayor Casey Roats and Mayor Pro-tem Sally Russell) met with the Mirror Pond group in late June," says City of Bend Communications Director Anne Aurand. "They (Mirror Pond Solutions) indicated that they were looking for contributions from the City, the Park and Recreation District and Pacific Power." According to Aurand, Mirror Pond Solutions is asking for $1.1 million from the City to assist in the project, though no commitments were made during the meeting.
As for BPRD, "Yes, they have asked to schedule a meeting," says BPRD Executive Director Don Horton, "but we have not scheduled one at this time." Asked if BPRD was supportive of the dredging, Horton said yes, and referred to a 2016 approved "Memorandum of Understanding" with Mirror Pond Solutions. In the obtained Means and Methods Report, this is described as "a partnership for the acquisition and care of Mirror Pond, and authorized the Executive Director to issue a request for proposals for preliminary engineering services."
Horton says the partnership has solely been to further BPRD's Mirror Pond Project — early estimates are at $5 million — aimed at reestablishing riparian or wetland habitat around the pond, re-aligning its banks, constructing a boardwalk and furthering new sections of the Deschutes River Trail. The Means and Methods Report indicates that the $6.6 million funds "will be issued to BPRD Foundation and all funds will be distributed from the foundation."
Horton is quick to point out there are no agreements to address sediment or removal of the dam, but acknowledges the group's request for a meeting. Asked if he thinks the BPRD board would support funding, Horton replied, "We would have to weigh up all the options, but historically, the District has not funded private ownership projects." Aware of the political hot potato, Horton said: "This (issue) has been batted around for a long time...our leadership lands in restoring the areas around the river."
In nothing happens, the pond will eventually become a narrower river. Horton says this wouldn't affect the proposed Mirror Pond plans and that the boardwalk would still function quite well. It may, however, affect the $10 million Whitewater Park. According to Brian Hudspeth, the District's development manager and project manager on the Mirror Pond Project: "It may affect the last drop of the whitewater park," since the backflows attributed to the sediment of the pond would cease. "It may make what was a beginners' drop, a more advanced and technical area," added Horton.
SHALLOW WATERS YIELD LOUD VOICES
"I've always been singing the same note: no public money for the pond," says Bend City Councilor Barb Campbell. "There is no obligation for the city and its taxpayers to remove silt put there by Pacific Corp. If a private, for-profit, corporation wants to dredge, let them pay for it." Campbell and fellow Councilor Nathan Boddie are staunch opponents of putting money into what they deem is a temporary solution. Both favor a "no action approach," allowing for the river to restore itself.
Boddie, in a letter to the State of Oregon, wrote, "Allowing the process to continue without dredging would lead to improved fisheries and develop enhanced wetland habitat." Campbell notes, "That dam has outlived its usefulness," referring to the fact that at last check, the dam supplied power to just .002 percent of Bend's population. (Editor's note: We also contacted Councilors Bill Moseley and Mayor Casey Roats for comment, but neither responded to our requests by press time.)
Mirror Pond, present day
No state or federal agencies were willing to speculate on the life expectancy of the Mirror Pond Dam, now a 108-year-old structure, but a 2012 report by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology noted dams have a projected lifespan of 50 to 100 years and that "after 50 years, the maintenance costs and chances of failure start to rise dramatically."
The Association of State Dam Safety Officials estimates total repairs for U.S. dams to cost $36.2 billion. By 2020, 85 percent of U.S. dams will be more than 50 years old and need repairing, with the American Society of Civil Engineers deeming 3,300 of these to be unsafe.
Still, officials note that money would be put into the dam if it were required to have a fish passage. With the opening of the fish ladder at North Unit Dam, just downstream from Mirror Pond, the dam is currently the only one in the chain of the Upper Deschutes to not have fish passage, effectively dividing fish populations on the upper and lower portions of the river.
"There is a mandate on a dam to require fish passage" says Brett Hodgson, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife fish biologist. "And this has to do with any major modification or structural change, of 30 percent of more to a dam." Hodgson says because of its age, the Mirror Pond dam is exempt from normal fish passage statutes, but that if Pacific Corp were to make a major change, it would trigger the requirement of a fish ladder.
"They have made intermittent repairs throughout the years that have not hit 30 percent," says Hodgson. Asked if the 30 percent only applies to one repair or could be spread out over multiple reapirs, Hodgson replied that it's a "grey area."
"It's a log crib dam," continues Hodgson, "anything out of wood will eventually deteriorate or rot, and judging they've had to made repairs on a regular basis, it indicates it's starting to reach the end of its lifespan, whether that's five years or 20 years down the road."
According to its Means and Methods Report, Mirror Pond Solutions has requested $2.9 million from Pacific Power for dredging. Pacific Corp's Regional Business Manager, Matthew Chancellor, said in an email to the Source Weekly: "Our focus remains on serving our customers and the community with safe, reliable and affordable energy...we have made no commitments towards dredging to date."
"If they want to crack open their own checkbooks, OK," says Campbell, "But are you, the public, willing to spend millions on Mirror Pond?"
WHAT HAPPENS IF NOTHING HAPPENS?
And why no talks on removal of the dam? "They (Pacific Corp) don't want to sell it because they don't have any liabilities until they do," posits Craig Lacy, former chairman of the Coalition for the Deschutes, avid fly fisher and, coincidentally, a landowner who lives on Mirror Pond. Calling in from a boat in Alaska, the energetic outdoorsman lambasted both Pacific Corp for trying to get out of its responsibilities with the dam and landowners Bill Smith and Todd Taylor who are "trying to get public to assume their liabilities as private landowners.
"I don't care what they do, dredge, don't dredge, but the public shouldn't pay for it. Let Mr. Smith and Mr. Taylor and their friends take care of it."
If permitting stalls and public funding doesn't happen, Mirror Pond, which already features a narrow channel and is surrounded by deep mud flats created from the sediment, will increasingly narrow, the banks will become larger, and wetlands will emerge from the sediment deposition, river experts say. The Oregon Department of State Lands received six substantive comments on the applied permit from Mirror Pond Solutions, including from Councilor Nathan Boddie, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council.
The last was a six-page letter from UDWC Executive Director Ryan Houston, who questions the applicants' use of science to back up Mirror Pond Solutions LLC claim regarding "Possible negative effects to fish, wildlife and water quality,"—something Houston vehemently denies.
He writes, "While it is accurate that Mirror Pond generally provides poor habitat and the presence of the pond ("reservoir") likely contributes to poor water quality, the proposed dredging would not likely improve these conditions. More likely, the dredging would reduce habitat and water quality because of the increased capacity of the reservoir and, as a result, the increased residence time and warming of the Deschutes River."
Houston says a no-action approach means that "as the channel narrows and velocity increases, this would reduce the total water surface area exposed to solar heating and reduce the residence time of the water impounded in the Mirror Pond reservoir. Reducing the residence time and solar heating would likely benefit water temperature in the Deschutes River. Reductions in temperature would also likely benefit dissolved oxygen because low dissolved oxygen conditions are often tied to increased water temperature."
Before the Mirror Pond Dam
Houston also notes the wildlife favorability for riparian and wetland areas, noting "They would contribute to fish and wildlife habitat, including areas for breeding, foraging and other functions depending on the species. Wetlands would also increase the natural uptake of nutrients that may come from run-off in surrounding areas."
"The dredging would eliminate the channel nature has now created," says Kolleen Miller, education director for the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council. "It would make the pond less favorable to fish. It would reduce water habitat and increase water temperatures because there would be additional residence time behind the dam."
The environmental group says eventually Mirror Pond would become similar to riparian conditions found around Colorado Avenue, an old logging area. Houston also notes, "This future condition would also be largely maintenance-free as repeated dredging would not be required."
Houston also mentions the possibility of the Oregon Spotted Frog, listed as an endangered species, being in the area, since it's present upstream near Colorado Avenue. He writes, "There is a reasonable possibility that spotted frogs are present in Mirror Pond." Still, Bridget Moran of the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, notes that in a two-year conducted story, "No Spotted Frogs were found."
In his statement, Houston also wrote that Mirror Pond Solutions' statement that "sediment from the project site could be beneficial downstream," is inconsistent. Houston proposed that the "potential for sediment mobilization should be quantified more specifically." Coincidently, if the Mirror Pond Dam fails and is removed, sediment could then form at the North Unit Dam, operated by the irrigation districts.
COMPETING VALUES, COMPETING LANDSCAPES
When it comes to the complicated issue of Mirror Pond, people tend to fall on one of two sides. Some favor the old school nostalgia of an idyllic pond, featured on beer bottles and touted as an "icon." Meanwhile, others favor restoring the river to a "natural" state that would mean the banks would widen and the river would be narrow, as was the case before 1909—showcased in old photos featuring rich wetlands and small islands.
These two elements are pitted against something unfortunately greater: money.
By maintaining Mirror Pond as a pond, it will undisputedly cost money to maintain—and none of these options fix the sediment issue caused by the dam... millions of dollars, ostensibly spent every 20 to 25 years. The "no action" approach also means money spent—so it really comes down to values.
Does Bend value a healthy river or a heartwarming pond?
In a 2015 City of Bend benchmark survey, with 402 respondents, 60 percent said ensuring the aesthetic and iconic pond views were of high or extreme value, with 20 percent saying they were neutral and 18 percent saying the issue was not at all concerning. It remains to be seen what the results of a survey of that type would elicit in 2017.
So what about the current requests for taxpayer money to dredge?
"Any City involvement in this project would need to be made by the full Council at a public meeting, with community input," says Anne Aurand of the City of Bend. "No meetings are currently scheduled." Bend Parks' five-member board of directors, meanwhile, would decide on their requested $2.5 million contribution.
Should the public pay for something owned by a private interest? You decide.
Have your voice heard! Take our survey on Mirror Pond at bendsource.com. Attend public meetings and/or write to the City of Bend and Bend Park and Recreation District to voice your questions and concerns.