September 9, 2010 - Bend Bulletin - Bend water project could threaten Tumalo Creek, middle Deschutes

Sep 09, 2010

September 9, 2010 - Bend Bulletin - Bend water project could threaten Tumalo Creek, middle Deschutes

Bend water project could threaten Tumalo Creek, middle Deschutes

By Erik Kancler / Bulletin guest columnist

Published: September 09. 2010 4:00AM PST

As cities plan to provide infrastructure for growing populations, they usually take a variety of factors into account. Not only do they strive to meet projected demands for services, they most always strive to provide cost-effective solutions, improve underlying conditions for economic development, and protect the surrounding landscape from unnecessary harm.

As the city of Bend pursues the upgrade and potential expansion of its surface water facilities along Bridge Creek, it’s not clear that any of these basic criteria has been satisfied, or in some cases, even considered.

From a fiscal perspective, the big question isn’t whether the costs of the proposed expansion are justified, but whether the Bridge Creek facility is the most cost-effective means of meeting the city’s demands going forward. Some at the city seem to have predetermined that an expansion of the facility is the preferred alternative despite not having demonstrated a clear understanding of where the money for even basic ongoing maintenance and necessary upgrades is likely to come from or adequately reached out to the public for input on what could amount to one of the single most expensive infrastructure projects the city has ever considered.

While city officials have held at least some public debate on the fiscal elements of certain options, they have completely sidestepped other important issues. Among those is a failure to fully and openly examine the impacts of the Bridge Creek facility and its proposed expansion on Tumalo Creek — of which Bridge Creek is a tributary — and on Tumalo Falls.
Most people are probably unaware that much of the water the city diverts from Bridge Creek is first diverted out of Tumalo Creek, several miles upstream from Tumalo Falls. Within the overall Tumalo watershed, the city possesses 36 cubic feet per second of surface water rights. In recent years, the city has diverted up to 15.5 cfs during summer months, reducing flows in Tumalo Creek by as much as 20 percent.

That leaves 20.5 cubic feet of water per second and the possibility that the city could in theory more than double the amount of water it takes out of Tumalo Creek over time. Should the city increase its diversion by anywhere near such an amount, it would further decrease Tumalo Creek’s flow, warming the creek, degrading close to 20 miles of native fish habitat, and potentially nullifying the benefits of more than $7 million in recent conservation investments.

Tumalo Creek, with Tumalo Falls at its heart, is one of the most significant “natural amenities” the region offers. It spans from Tumalo State Park to Shevlin Park and up to the Tumalo Falls Interpretive Site and beyond with miles of recreational trails and numerous access points in between. A degraded Tumalo Creek and Tumalo Falls would diminish Central Oregon’s collective tourism, recreational and economic potential.

Admittedly, several things would need to happen for the city to divert more water via its Bridge Creek facility. Primarily it would need to replace its current pipe with a larger-diameter pipe capable of carrying more water. In order to gain approval, the city would need to demonstrate compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act, given that much of its facility is on federal lands.

The city would also have to wait for Tumalo Irrigation District (which holds senior water rights in the Tumalo basin) to free up excess water rights, which will happen over time as it pipes its canals.

The city’s leaders may claim no interest in utilizing the city’s full water rights. However, should the city succeed in obtaining the approvals necessary to proceed with expanding its facilities without also guaranteeing permanent protection for Tumalo Creek’s natural flows, there would be no way to prevent future leaders from authorizing the full use of the city’s water rights and irreparably harming Tumalo Creek and Tumalo Falls in the process.
What’s more, conservationists have long hoped that as Tumalo Irrigation District reduces its diversion from Tumalo Creek, the “excess” water could be left in-stream to improve fish habitat. The return of this cold water would dramatically improve the health of lower Tumalo Creek as well as more than 30 miles of the middle Deschutes. Should the city ultimately utilize its full water rights, it would almost certainly prevent this future conservation success story from ever happening.

If concerned citizens want a say in the outcome of this process and its impacts to Tumalo Creek, Tumalo Falls, and the future restoration of the middle Deschutes, it appears they’re going to have demand it themselves and that they’re going to have to do it soon.

Erik Kancler is executive director of Central Oregon Landwatch.

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

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