December 13, 2010 - Bend Bulletin - Water diversion plan is off course

December 15, 2010
December 13, 2010 - Bend Bulletin - Water diversion plan is off course

Water diversion plan is off course

Published: December 13. 2010 4:00AM PST

The WaterWatch torture has officially begun.

The city of Bend is determined — and we mean determined — to plow ahead with an enormously expensive project that will allow the continued diversion of water that otherwise would end up in Tumalo Creek and, eventually, the Deschutes River.

A number of prominent Bend residents have urged the city to leave the creek alone and drill more wells to make up the difference. But most city officials, elected and otherwise, simply aren’t interested.

They point to the cost of pumping well water, which the city currently avoids by piping surface water. They argue that two water sources provide greater security than one, though the aquifer that supplies Bend’s groundwater is massive. Meanwhile, as legacy projects go, drilling more wells simply doesn’t have the cachet of building pipelines, diversions, filtration plants and whatnot.

So City Council has decided, in essence, to ignore the critics and forge ahead, presumably hoping that the controversy will fizzle as the surface water project gains momentum.

WaterWatch, a Portland-based environmental group focused on restoring surface water flows, isn’t so easily discouraged.

On Wednesday, the group blew the whistle on the city’s existing surface water system. The letter noted that Bend currently diverts more water from Bridge Creek than it actually uses, returning the excess to Tumalo Creek several miles downstream. Though the city has a right to take the water, the law requires it to use what it takes. The law doesn’t allow the city to give a portion of Bridge Creek a joyride in its pipeline, as is now the case, without doing anything useful with it.

WaterWatch’s letter urges the state to shut down Bend’s surface water diversion until the city finds a way to divert only what it needs. This shouldn’t cause any significant problems, WaterWatch argues, because the city “has ample groundwater rights to serve its existing needs.” A footnote points out that the city’s existing groundwater capacity substantially exceeds its peak one-day demand in 2010. Moreover, the city holds groundwater permits that exceed its ample groundwater capacity by more than 40 percent.

We doubt the state will take the draconian step WaterWatch proposes, but Bend’s leaders should be plenty nervous anyway. WaterWatch has served notice not only that it intends to follow Bend’s project very closely, but also that it won’t hesitate to intervene. Though we’ve had our differences with WaterWatch over the years, we share the group’s concerns in this case.

Last month, WaterWatch policy analyst Kimberley Priestly urged City Council “to take a harder look at moving to groundwater.” The city, she argued, “is in a unique position of holding surface water rights that it could transfer or lease instream, providing the city with a virtually no-cost mitigation obligation.” In other words, it would be both environmentally beneficial and bureaucratically feasible for the city to swap its surface water for groundwater.

Moreover, doing as WaterWatch and others recommend would be consistent with a long-standing regional push to increase surface water flows, a push that has consumed millions of public dollars already. To pass up such an opportunity, as Bend is determined to do, is strange, to say the least.

As long as Bend officials stick with their current course, they should expect to hear quite a bit more from WaterWatch in the coming years. They should expect to hear more from their constituents, too, as the city’s legal bills mount. This is one controversy that isn’t about to go away.

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

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