Bridge Creek project spurs political passions

October 3, 2012
Bridge Creek project spurs political passions

By Hillary Borrud

As construction workers prepare to install a new pipeline to bring drinking water to Bend, much is uncertain about the future of the project.

It faces challenges from opponents who filed appeals in federal court and with the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals. The project could also stall or change significantly if voters elect people who oppose the project to the City Council in November. Four of the seven council seats are up for election.

In three of those races, at least one candidate has promised to stop the water project. Other candidates, including two-term incumbent Jim Clinton, say they want to re-evaluate or scale back other portions of the project.

“I would say the way the project has unfolded has been disappointing to me, but we have seven councilors and if one is not onboard, it goes right ahead,” Clinton said. “It may be with different people on the council, they may choose to take a hard look at how it could be corrected, redefined.”

Clinton is one of the two incumbents seeking re-election to the City Council this fall.

Councilor Kathie Eckman, a staunch supporter of the water project, has been elected seven times since the late 1970s and is running for an eighth term. Eckman said she realizes the issue has galvanized opponents of the water project to run for election.

A contractor for the city is preparing to begin construction on a $20.1 million upgrade of the city system to capture and deliver water from Bridge Creek on Oct. 10.

This work, which includes a new water intake facility at Bridge Creek and a 10-mile-long pipeline to Bend, is part of a larger city surface water project that could ultimately cost $68.2 million. Other elements of the project include a hydropower plant and a water treatment facility, where the city currently plans to use a membrane filtration system.

Council seat 1

Candidate Wade Fagen said if he were elected to the City Council, he would support stopping the water project and instead focus on improving the city sewer system, which is near capacity. Fagen said the city can rely on groundwater wells for drinking water if pipelines from Bridge Creek fail. “I think we should consider stopping it because we don't have backups for our sewers,” Fagen said of the surface water project. “We don't have money for sewers and we don't have money for schools and we don't have money for parks and rec.”

Candidate Barb Campbell agreed with Fagen that the city should stop the water project. Campbell also questioned the timing of the water project because of other high-priority projects and tax measures. The city faces costly sewer work and is already doing street work with money from a $30 million bond measure voters approved in May 2011. This fall, the Bend Park & Recreation District is asking voters to approve a $29 million bond measure.

The city currently has enough groundwater to meet demand and “at least one of the existing pipes should logically have 30 or more years of useful life left,” Campbell added in an email.

Candidate Victor Chudowsky said he wants to look for ways to reduce the cost of the surface water project, but the city should proceed with the pipeline. For example, the city might be able to save money by using ultraviolet light to kill harmful microorganisms at its water treatment facility instead of the membrane filtration system it plans to install, Chudowsky said. Unlike the membrane, ultraviolet light would not catch debris from a forest fire in the Bridge Creek watershed. But the city's existing groundwater wells would provide a backup in this situation, Chudowsky said.

“Where I kind of draw the line is I'm not in favor of moving to an all groundwater system like some of the candidates,” Chudowsky said. This option carries risks, Chudowsky said. For example, a state law limits the amount of groundwater that can be pumped.

Council seat 2

Candidate Doug Knight wants to stop the water project and shut down the existing system that diverts water from Bridge Creek and Tumalo Creek to improve ecology in the streams.

“I think a surface water system is largely a luxury we can no longer afford,” Knight said. The amount of water coming from Bridge Creek is “such a small percentage of the overall demand and it comes at such a high price.”

According to the city, approximately half of Bend's drinking water comes from Bridge Creek. Opponents have argued that when water demand peaks in the summer, the city gets most of its water from wells. “We'll have great tasting water that continues to win awards regardless of whether we get it out of the ground or Bridge Creek,” Knight said. As a member of the Bend Planning Commission, Knight said he voted against the city water public facilities plan, which he described as giving retroactive support to the surface water project.

Candidate Ed McCoy said he needs to research the city water project more before he takes a stand. For example, McCoy said he heard conflicting information about how much of the city's water comes from Bridge Creek and how much comes from groundwater wells.

Candidate Ed Barbeau said he spent the past two years learning about the water project by attending city meetings on the subject. Barbeau met with opponents of the project and said he played matchmaker between environmentalists opposed to the project and local Republicans and members of the tea party, who questioned the cost. “It's interesting that the tea party, the Republicans and the environmentalists, with minor differences, are all on the same page with the water system,” Barbeau said.

“We've got to replace the aging pipes,” Barbeau said. The city should keep the dual-source water system but aggressively seek an exemption from a federal water treatment requirement. Barbeau also wants the city to indefinitely postpone the hydropower facility unless it is proven to make fiscal sense.

Candidate Charles Baer said he supports the water project because it is important for Bend to invest in infrastructure.

“The City Council has already decided that it's going to go forward, so I think that being against it at this stage in the game doesn't make much sense,” Baer said.

Council seat 3

Incumbent City Councilor Kathie Eckman supported the water project in the past and stands behind her decision.

“The reason I voted for it is because I feel that having a dual source of water — both surface water and groundwater — is imperative to our future,” Eckman said. It's more cost-effective to install the pipeline now because sections of it will run underneath Skyliners Road and the city has a unique opportunity to avoid the cost of rebuilding the road, Eckman said. Deschutes County plans to begin a road-rebuilding project in spring 2013. If the city waits to install the pipeline until after the county finishes a new road, the city will bear the cost to repave the road.

Challenger Sally Russell is another candidate who would bring the water project to a halt. Russell called the project “unnecessary” and said if the pipelines installed in the 1920s and 1950s fail, the city can rely on its groundwater wells. “Doing the water project today is not a responsible decision and doesn't honor the wallets of the people who live in our community,” Russell said.

Challenger Ron “Rondo” Boozell declined an interview for this story. He submitted comments by email, but his position on whether the city should proceed with the project was unclear. “I am absolutely always committed to seeking sustainable and affordable sources of water,” Boozell wrote. “However, the present surface water project does not have my support. The project that replaces the 80-year-old pipe is necessary and the time is yesterday.”

Council seat 4

Incumbent City Councilor Jim Clinton has criticized the way the city handled the water project and voted against it. Clinton wants to maintain both surface and groundwater sources in the city drinking water system.

“However, the cost and urgency with which (the project) was being portrayed were stumbling blocks for me,” Clinton said. “I didn't feel the same sense of urgency as far as the schedule was concerned, and I felt the city was rushing into a project where all the options had not been carefully evaluated.”

Clinton is not calling for the city to halt the pipeline portion of the project. That would be expensive at this point, Clinton said, because the city already signed contracts and is moving ahead with construction.

The city needs to re-evaluate whether less expensive water treatment options could work and explore whether the hydropower facility would be a money maker that could help lower the project cost for citizens, or a “money sink,” Clinton said.

Challenger Mike Roberts' position is similar. Since the city is already moving ahead with the pipeline portion of the project, it would not be fiscally responsible for newly elected city councilors to halt the project now, Roberts said. Plus, the old pipelines need to be replaced, Roberts said.

Then, city councilors should re-examine other elements of the project such as the type of water treatment, Roberts said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7829,

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