November 18, 2010 - Bend Bulletin - Groundwater option deserves serious study

November 22, 2010
November 18, 2010 - Bend Bulletin - Groundwater option deserves serious study

Bend’s councilors were in a great hurry several years ago when they launched the city’s public transit system. Taxpayers had said on multiple occasions that they didn’t want it, but councilors knew what was best and, besides, had tired of public debate. So they took the plunge.

We all know how that worked out. The bus fleet the city snapped up in its haste turned out to be junk, and the operational cost of the transit system has been a consistent burden.

Nowadays, City Council is in a great hurry to rebuild its surface-water system. The project’s been in the works for quite some time, to be sure. But a noteworthy group of local professionals, including Old Mill District developer Bill Smith and local attorney Bill Buchanan, have begun to question the wisdom of the city’s course. Wouldn’t it be better, both environmentally and financially, to scrap the hugely expensive surface water project and drill more wells instead, they ask?

City Council, with the exception of Jim Clinton, responded to this eruption of skepticism by pulling its old bus system stunt. On Nov. 3, councilors voted to move ahead with the surface water project, presumably hoping to end debate. It hasn’t worked, and it shouldn’t. Bend paid only six figures for its junk bus fleet. The surface water project is expected to cost between $54 million and $74 million.

We’re not arguing that the city should throw up its hands and give up on its project. Rather, it ought to pause long enough to commission a thorough comparison of the costs and benefits of both options.

That comparison, by the way, should be prepared by an organization whose involvement won’t raise eyebrows, which automatically rules out HDR Engineering Inc. The city, having already hired HDR to work on its surface water project, asked the company recently to figure out how much it would cost to ditch the surface-water option and drill wells instead.

The result — surprise! — heavily favors the surface-water project and — surprise! — has failed to convince groundwater-only proponents who have faulted HDR’s conflict and its assumptions. They argue, for instance, that the company has exaggerated the future price of electricity, which inflates the estimated cost of pumping. They also argue that HDR fails to account for the value of the additional water that would flow through Tumalo Creek if the city scrapped its surface water diversion and relied instead entirely upon wells.

We don’t know which side’s right, but the city’s proposal is highly inconsistent with the regional trend in water management, which seeks opportunities to increase surface water flows, especially in water bodies (like Tumalo Creek) that feed and cool the Middle Deschutes. That’s why taxpayers have spent millions of dollars lining and piping irrigation canals. And that’s why it’s entirely reasonable to consider the streamflow opportunities presented by the groundwater-only option.

Of course, the city’s case for surface water is also reasonable. Delivering piped surface water to Bend residents requires very little energy, and pumping water requires quite a bit. And last we checked, electricity wasn’t free.

But City Council did itself no favors by commissioning HDR to crunch the groundwater-only numbers, and then, on the strength of HDR’s report, voting to sweep the groundwater-option off the table entirely. The council’s rush job has met the suspicion it deserves. If the council didn’t believe the groundwater-only option deserved further consideration, why did it order up a comparative analysis? And if the council did truly want a closer look at the costs and benefits, why did it hire its surface water engineering firm to do the job?

Commissioning a new comparison will cost money and time, complicating the city’s desire to synchronize the surface water project with the reconstruction of Skyliners Road. But the exercise is worth the cost. Bend residents will have to live with (and pay for) the surface water project for decades to come. They’ll also have to sacrifice healthier flows in Tumalo Creek and the Deschutes River. Before moving forward, the city owes taxpayers a fully credible comparison of costs and benefits.

What Bend residents don’t deserve is a city council committed unswervingly to one course of action regardless of the public’s legitimate reservations. We’ve been there already with Bend’s problem-plagued bus system. We don’t need to do it again with a $74 million surface water project.

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

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