Groundwater could be a better answer for Bend

June 2, 2012
Groundwater could be a better answer for Bend

By Toby Bayard

Published: June 02. 2012 4:00AM PST

In Leo Busch’s recent letter, he extols the virtues of Bend’s decision to pursue a “dual source” water supply system. Busch notes that “certain business interests and environmental groups suggest that this surface water source be given up ...” but failed to mention that the business interests (which include some prominent community leaders and a number of former Bend mayors), and the environmental groups (along with trout fishing and outdoor recreation advocates) are actively collaborating to oppose Bend’s surface water improvement project (SWIP), an unusual arrangement that calls to mind Shakespeare’s words, “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.”

It may indeed be best for the city to preserve its ability to use both water from Bridge Creek (surface water) and from wells (groundwater). And the city can easily do so by leasing its surface water back “in-stream,” (returning it to Tumalo Creek and the Deschutes River) preserving the option of using surface water until the future time when needed to accommodate growth. In-stream leasing would, as a bonus, provide Bend with a revenue source (they get paid to leave the water in the river). The SWIP could still happen — just later, when it is needed.

Mr. Busch opines that doubling the pumping of groundwater presents a greater likelihood of contamination, although he doesn’t say why. It should be noted that 60 percent of the water that the city already provides to its users comes from wells. Furthermore, future growth per city documents will be almost exclusively dependent on expansion of groundwater. Whatever risks groundwater faces, the city will have to manage whether or not SWIP is completed.

But Mr. Busch exaggerates the risks to groundwater. His expertise comes from managing groundwater programs in the Middle East, which may explain his infatuation with surface water (most of the Middle East’s surface water is salty and undrinkable). He next worked for the Justice Department in central California where the runoff from fertilizers clearly does pollute groundwater — but the issues facing the agricultural San Joaquin Valley have no relevance to the Oregon Cascades, which produce huge quantities of untainted groundwater that is filtered through hundreds of feet of volcanic ash and rocks, rendering it wholesome and pure.

Busch says he is concerned about Bend’s groundwater quality, including the dangers of hexavalent chromium “within the volcanic geology surrounding Bend.” Trivalent chromium is a naturally occurring element found in volcanic ash and rocks and is widely understood to be a beneficial “trace element” in the human body. Conversely, hexavalent chromium comes from heavy industry (metal processing, etc.) and is in no way linked to volcanic activity. To imply otherwise is misleading and calls into question the author’s grasp of the issues.

Finally, it must be noted that SWIP water faces substantial risks. City wells are enclosed in locked facilities while the remaining 40 percent comes from water that gurgles along in an unmonitored creek that anyone can tamper with, and which runs through an area where the wildlife (including Homo sapiens) does not use indoor plumbing. And what about forest fires? The latest SWIP edition will be shut down indefinitely if a fire occurs in the watershed. Climate change also will impact surface water sooner and more severely than groundwater. Maybe groundwater is actually more secure than SWIP water.

Toby Bayard lives in Bend.

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