January 5, 2012 - Bend Bulletin - Put Bend's Bridge Creek surface water project to a vote

January 10, 2012
January 5, 2012 - Bend Bulletin - Put Bend's Bridge Creek surface water project to a vote

Put Bend’s Bridge Creek surface water project to a vote

By Toby Bayard
Published: January 05. 2012 4:00AM PST

The Bend City Council will meet at 7 p.m. Jan. 18 at City Hall to adopt a public facilities plan that includes a highly controversial surface water improvement project. Many believe that Bend’s City Council should put the SWIP to a vote so that ratepayers, who must pay for the entire project — currently estimated to cost $68 million — can approve or reject it.

It is true that Bend has invested years studying various options to provide water to its ratepayers. It’s also true that much has recently changed. The SWIP’s original purpose was to replace aging pipes and conform to federal regulations that required surface water be filtered to screen out the microorganism cryptosporidium.

Portland Water Bureau’s Bull Run watershed faced the same regulations. But unlike Bend, its water bureau administrator, David Shaff, launched an aggressive effort to avoid building a $60 million treatment plant that would have been financed entirely through hefty increases in water rates. On Nov. 29, Shaff was granted a precedent-setting variance from federal regulations. Bend officials are still considering whether or not to apply for such a variance. Even if they are granted one, city representatives state they will still push forward with other parts of the multimillion-dollar SWIP.

The question is why? Much of the water that city ratepayers now use comes from wells. Subject matter experts who oppose the SWIP — even the city itself — agree that Bend’s existing wells have the capacity to supply more than 140 percent of the city’s peak day capacity needs; much more groundwater is available if additional wells are drilled. Further, wells are secure from tampering; locked and heavily fenced structures protect them. Conversely, surface water is vulnerable to malicious attack and to the heavy ash and mud flows that result from forest fires. Experts also agree that a forest fire in the Bridge Creek area — the source of SWIP water — will occur, that it’s not a matter of “if” but “when.”

Bend’s ample supply of groundwater provides a comfortable cushion that allows the city to delay the SWIP for years. If it seeks and obtains a variance, it can continue to use both water sources. If it does not, it has the option of “in-stream leasing” its existing surface water — i.e., letting it remain in Tumalo Creek — without losing its future rights to use it. The additional surface water will benefit the Deschutes River Basin and the fish and other wildlife populations it supports.

If Bend’s City Council votes to adopt the PFP, which includes a ratepayer-funded SWIP, it is committing to a project that Bend City Engineer Tom Hickman described — during a recent Bend Planning Commission public hearing — as “a Class 5 estimate; it could cost 100 percent more or 50 percent less.” Should Bend forge ahead with the SWIP when its costs are still high-level estimates? What’s the rush?

Portland’s Water Bureau serves about 586,000 ratepayers. Bend’s serves about 58,000. Yet Portland’s SWIP — now unnecessary — costs about the same as Bend’s. Why? In 2011, Bend commissioned a water system master plan optimization study from the consulting firm Optimatics; it stated that Bend is “fortunate to be located near water sources with excellent quality” with access to “groundwater from the substantial Deschutes Aquifer.” Couldn’t Bend, a more remote, less urban city than Portland, also get a variance from federal regulations and avoid a costly SWIP? Shouldn’t Bend at least slow things down until it better understands its costs and options?

Finally, the consultant Bend used to justify its SWIP over a groundwater-based approach is Nebraska-based HDR. HDR is also the engineering firm Bend contracted with to design the SWIP. Many object strongly to this apparent conflict of interest.

I suggest that Bend’s water ratepayers attend the Jan. 18 City Council meeting and ask that the SWIP be put to a vote.

It’s your money — you should have a say in how it’s being spent.

— Toby Bayard lives in Bend and is a member of the Stop the Drain Campaign.

Published Daily in Bend Oregon by Western Communications, Inc. © 2011


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An aerial view of a body of water.