Editorial: Dammed Thinking

February 14, 2013
Editorial: Dammed Thinking

Frustrated citizens take control of Deschutes River question

by James Williams

While sitting inside a Bend Park & Recreation District meeting room last Wednesday, I was immediately thankful that I didn't have Jim Figurski's job.

Figurski is the Mirror Pond project manager, hired by the Mirror Pond Steering Committee, the project's ultimate decision-making arm. It's his responsibility to reach out to the community and both explain the problem and offer solutions for a pond that's filling with silt.

For an hour and a half, Figurski patiently answered the questions of the 28 residents in attendance that night. He explained that although the visioning process is in its early stages, a final plan should be in place by summer. He said while the city has enough money for visioning, there are no funds readily available for construction. And he told attendees that the 19-question survey was meant to gauge values, not illustrate fixes.

While some hope to retain the pond's iconic status, Figurski's survey explanation didn't sit well with at least a few community members.

"I have a problem with the questionnaire," Dennis Peters said during the Feb. 6 meeting. "I think the questionnaire reflects what you want to see. What about the Deschutes River?" After the meeting Peters elaborated. "They want answers for Mirror Pond, not for the Deschutes River," he said. "It frustrated me."

In January, Figurski and the steering committee created a questionnaire, which they hope will elucidate the community's values and priorities associated with the Deschutes River as it flows through downtown Bend. Polling closes on Feb. 25 and on Feb. 28, Figurski will reveal the results of the survey before launching into a more specific visioning phase. Unfortunately, though, the survey, which has been completed by just over 1,000 Bend residents, left confusion and exasperation in its wake.

In response, various Bend groups are taking the visioning process into their own hands, including one neighborhood association and the City Club of Central Oregon.

The Old Bend Neighborhood Association, frustrated by the official survey issued by the Mirror Pond Steering Committee, drafted an unofficial eight-question survey. And in hopes of creating a more nuanced vision for the Deschutes River, the City Club of Central Oregon monthly forum is focusing on specific solutions for dealing with the downtown section of the waterway.

"We thought it mixed too many issues and was too convoluted," Spencer Dahl said of the official survey. Dahl, a representative from the Old Bend Neighborhood and member of the Mirror Pond Management Board, an independent citizen advisory committee which reviews and offers recommendations but has no real decision-making authority, said the unofficial survey drafted by his neighborhood association was a "direct response" to the official questionnaire issued by the steering committee.

In the unofficial survey, Dahl said that over 60 percent of the nearly 300 respondents were in favor of removing the Newport Avenue dam and returning the river to its natural channel—a solution that was very briefly mentioned in the official survey.

Former Mirror Pond project manager Michael McLandress voiced a similar critique.

"It seems like the survey is kind of biased toward the management of Mirror Pond rather than the health of the river and the experience that that would create for our community," McLandress said.

The survey was one of three central themes that resurfaced time and again during the Feb. 6 public meeting. The other two also kept Figurski on his toes: "Who's paying?" and "What will the proposed solution look like?"

"Why don't we ding Pacific Power to take care of this problem?" asked one audience member. PacifiCorp operates Pacific Power and owns the dam that creates the impoundment. Many in the community have said that decision makers should be looking to the utility company for answers.

Figurski explained, "It's not their responsibility."

McLandress, who worked as project manager from 2010 to 2011 before he was let go due to a lack of funds, disagreed. McLandress said he thinks Pacific Power should be asked to ante up. He said members of the management board agree.

As for proposed solutions, Figurski said that phase will come later—late winter, perhaps. It's in the second phase that Figurski said the public can expect to see graphic representations of proposed fixes for the river.

The City Club forum, however, aims to accelerate the visual aspect of this project.

At the Feb. 21 forum, three river experts, Ryan Houston, executive director of Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, Gabe Williams, hydrologist, and Joseph Eilers a local hydrologist who's conducted hydroacoustic mapping of the pond, will illustrate specific scenarios showing exactly what can and can't happen along the banks of the Deschutes.

"If this town ever asked a professional hydrologist: Give us some concepts that will increase sustainability, maintain some kind of pond and have a floatable, recreational feature by removing the dam, you'd get incredible designs," said David Blair, a City Club board member. "Those questions never get asked."

Strangely, neither Figurski nor any other steering committee member will be on hand for the Feb. 21 City Club forum, they said. Figurski said they don't want to confuse the public as visioning is "not the process we've engaged in yet."

But Blair and others on the City Club board hope to get the creative ball rolling.

"I hope people walk away feeling that there are a lot more interesting options than they thought there were going in," Blair said.

McLandress is similarly excited about possible solutions. What if we converted the substation area near the Newport dam into a new downtown district—the Powerhouse District—he asked? Remodel the old brick powerhouse building for retail or public use; create more public greenspace and maybe design a park where residents could watch both wildlife and recreationalists interact with the river.

"The potential there is just awesome," McLandress said. SW

City Club of C. O. Monthly Forum

11:30am Thursday, Feb. 21

St. Charles Center for Health and Learning

$20 (members and guests), $35 (nonmembers)

Find the survey at mirrorpondbend.com

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