A majority of the Bend City Council has voted to proceed with the pipe portion of the city's controversial $68 million surface water improvement project. The decision means there will be no public hearing on the installation of the approximately 30-inch diameter pipe.
Three councilors voted to halt the project in favor of a major public involvement process, including Sally Russell, Doug Knight and Jim Clinton.
Four councilors voted to proceed with the laying of the pipe, which will carry water from Bridge Creek to a city water storage facility west of town, including Victor Chudowsky, Mark Capell, Scott Ramsay and Jodie Barram.
It was something of a surprise move from Chudowsky, who had campaign on a platform of concern about the surface water project. His vote on Wednesday ensured there would be no public debate on the question of the pipe.
It was a stunning decision to critics of the project who had hoped to weigh in on it publicly.
Paul Dewey, executive director of Central Oregon Landwatch, said he was extremely disappointed in Chudowsky and Barram because they had both indicated they were open to a public discussion on this issue but had voted tonight to go forward without that input.
"To do so before even hearing from the public is a violation of the trust people had in electing them," said Dewey, speaking specifically about Chudowsky.
The council will, however, hold a public hearing on Feb. 20 to hear from the public about how best to comply with an Environmental Protection Agency rule requiring treatment of surface water for cryptosporidium, an organism found in Bend's surface water, that can cause illness. The council is also still open to input on the question of whether a hydropower plant should be part of the overall project.
The water project was a pivotal issue for all candidates in the November council election. Many voters had hoped that Russell, Knight, Clinton and Chudowsky, who were elected in November, would stop the project.
Chudowsky said Wednesday night that he had researched the project extensively and determined that because of the $14 million already sunk into the design of the new pipe, that it made the most financial sense to go forward with that large pipe option. Other options on the table were designing and laying a smaller pipe, simply using a current pipe from the 1950s or moving to an only groundwater system.
Had it been two years ago, before the city had already spent the $14 million on designing the current project, Chudowsky said he would not have been in favor.
"I would have said no and gone with a simple system with no bells and whistles," said Chudowsky.
Chudowsky had said consistently on the campaign trail that if too much money had already been sunk into the pipe project, he would likely have to move ahead with the current plan. Still, it's likely many of his campaign supporters will be extremely disappointed with his Wednesday decision.
"That's just the way it is," he said of the need to make a pragmatic decision.
The entire council agreed that the city must retain its dual source water system regardless of any details on this current project.