Editorial: Water negotiations deserve more than secrecy

September 20, 2015
Editorial: Water negotiations deserve more than secrecy

We don’t know what kind of deal Bend residents may get in the secret mediation over its Bridge Creek drinking water project. But there are reasons residents should be concerned.

Care about water bills going up? Worry about Tumalo Creek? Intrigued by hydropower? Then read on.

First, a bit about how we got here. The city of Bend agreed earlier this year to enter mediation to settle the lawsuit filed by Oregon LandWatch and WaterWatch of Oregon. That suit claimed the U.S. Forest Service failed to adequately investigate how the city’s project would affect water flowing through Tumalo Creek.

The city and the Forest Service already won in court. U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken ruled last year in favor of the Forest Service, saying it followed the law. The opponents have appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

The city tried before to reach a settlement and failed. With a change in the council after the last election, it’s trying again.

The mediation is in secret. There’s both federal and state law that permits the secrecy.

We have to wonder, though, if secret negotiations on this matter are in the best interest of the public.

The city and the Forest Service have won in court and believe they have a strong case. That argues there is no need for negotiation. Even if there is a deal, LandWatch and WaterWatch don’t just stop suing.

Then there’s the elements that could be in play in negotiations. The project’s opponents have said they want the city to agree to maintain a certain flow in the creek. That wouldn’t necessarily solve anything. Tumalo Irrigation District could take the water.

The opponents have also said they want Tumalo Irrigation District to remove its intake from Tumalo Creek. But the irrigation district is not part of the lawsuit.

So what could happen in the negotiations? The deal could impact Bend water rates. The city has estimated that water rates are going to need to go up by as much as 3 percent a year. In a deal, Bend water customers could be paying more to help Tumalo Creek by funding piping of Tumalo Irrigation District’s canals.

More water for Tumalo Creek is certainly a good thing for the creek and the Middle Deschutes. But how much more do Bend residents want to pay to do that? Shouldn’t a debate about that be in public?

Then there’s the possibility of a hydropower plant, built using the pressure built up in the project’s new water pipe. It would generate clean, renewable energy. It would generate revenue. A deal could be structured to take some or all of those revenues. Instead of using them to pay off the construction of the plant and reduce water bills, they could be directed to piping canals for Tumalo Irrigation District. Shouldn’t a debate about that be in public?

Of course, any significant deal involving the city would have to be approved by the Bend City Council in public. By then, though, the negotiations would be effectively over. Water rates, the future of Tumalo Creek and hydropower deserve a broader public debate.

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