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Bend Councilors Scale Back Disputed Water Plans


After more than two hours of public testimony and council debate, Bend city councilors voted 6-1 Wednesday night to sharply scale back the city’s controversial $68 million surface water project, by more than half, and focus on replacing an aging water pipeline first.

The move means the city will wait and reconsider a hydroelectric project that a majority of councilors believe would help further trim future rate hikes, and also will wait for the outcome of lobbying efforts to postpone a 2014 EPA-imposed deadline to treat Bridge Creek water for cryptosporidium.

Nearly 30 people spoke to the council over more than an hour — 17 opposed, 12 in favor. Critics claimed the city was rushing the project — something the city councilors and staff have denied, pointing to years of study — or have not adequately considered public input, among other issues. They also claimed a planned independent review isn’t enough — that the whole project should be scrapped or reconsidered, in light of tough economic times.

“I remain concerned that you have not, yet, 100 percent assurance from regulatory bodies that the elimination or even delay of the filtration system” will be allowed, said Oran Teater, one of seven former mayors who have joined the Stop the Drain group in opposing the project.

All the heated arguing of late reminded Andy High of the Central Oregon Builders Association — which has endorsed the scaled-back project — of an old Wild West saying: “Whiskey’s for drinkin’, and water’s for fightin’.”

Mike Hollern of Brooks Resources said foes of the project do deserve some thanks for getting the city to focus more on the cost elements and scale it back: “It may be a belated decision, but I think it’s the right decision.” He also thanked councilors for “taking the slings and arrows” on the controversial topic.

Councilor Tom Greene later refuted allegations they have listened only to staff or consultants who stand to benefit, saying they had done their homework talked to plenty of other expert hydrogologists, engineers and others, not just those involved or with financial interests in what the city will do, one way or another.

Mayor Jeff Eager said delaying the hydro project and water treatment plant takes the cost of the project down to about $30 million, while cutting yearly water rate hikes expected in coming years from 15 percent annually to 5 percent the first year and 3 percent in following years.

Councilor Jim Clinton cast the only no vote, as he has throughout a project that he said unfortunately intertwines two issues — keeping the creek for a dual water source (something many critics argue against, saying more groundwater wells would be chaper) and the specific pipeline project itself. He also sees little if any chance Bend will be exempt from the EPA’s water treatment requirements, since cryptosporidium has been found in the water on occasion (though not at levels to trigger a health alert).

But Eager called the proposal “a good middle ground” that “focuses the city’s scarce resources on the most urgent needs”: to replace pipes built in the 1920s that Bend gets about half of its drinking water through.

“It would be irresponsible,” he said, “for the city council not to replace that pipeline” in coordination with a project next year to rebuild Skyliners Road west of the city, which the water pipe runs beneath, calling it a “valuable coordination that will save taxpayers and ratepayers that money.”

Eager also said it would be “foolish for the city to give up that source” of gravity-fed water and the century-old water rights that provide it with half of its water.

The mayor said the pipe project will benefit the creek, noting that the old pipeline now must be kept full at all times, so it doesn’t collapse — and that means the city must pull all 18 cubic feet per second its authorized to take from Bridge Creek, at all times — whether the city needs that much water or not. Right now, he said, the city “dumps” the excess water back down Tumalo Creek, 11 miles downstream.

With the new pipeline, Eager said, the city won’t need to take more water than it needs out of the creek. He told NewsChannel 21 that engineers estimate that will put 1 billion gallons of water back in the creek in just the first year of the new pipe’s operation.

The economic impact, long-term, isn’t just about water rates, he said, but also about bringing new jobs or keeping the ones we have. “We’ve got enough problems bringing jobs here, and a lack of adequate water availability shouldn’t be added to that list.”

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