When the Central Oregon Builders Association, Central Oregon LandWatch and the developer of the Old Mill District - among others - all think there's something sketchy about an idea, it's probably worthwhile to pay attention.
The Bend City Council paid attention - sort of - but then voted last week to go ahead with a multimillion-dollar expansion of the Bridge Creek water system anyway.
Bend gets its water from wells and from a pipeline that takes surface water from Bridge Creek, which feeds into Tumalo Creek, which in turn feeds into the Deschutes River. But the Bridge Creek system has problems: The pipeline is old and deteriorating, and the water treatment facility isn't up to federal standards.
To fix those problems the city is about to embark on one of the most ambitious and expensive projects in its history. It includes replacing about 10 miles of pipeline, installing a new treatment system and building a hydropower plant that's meant to recoup some of the other costs.
The price will be steep: City water users can expect their rates to rise by as much as 45.5 percent over the next five years. That's what has the builders' association worried - they're afraid people won't buy houses in Bend if they can't pay their water bills.
But there will be a price beyond dollars and cents, and that's what concerns LandWatch and other conservation groups as well as conservation-minded private citizens like Old Mill District developer Bill Smith. The Bridge Creek project could eventually double the amount of water the city takes out of the Tumalo Creek watershed, with potentially disastrous impacts on fish and other wildlife as well as scenic and recreational values.
There's another way to meet the city's future water needs - pumping more groundwater. That's the option LandWatch and the other skeptics want the city to explore.
In a token gesture to the critics, the city did order a study by HDR Engineering Inc., the same firm hired to do the Bridge Creek project. HDR reported - surprise, surprise - that the groundwater option would cost hundreds of millions of dollars more than the surface option. The critics say HDR and the city lowballed the total cost of Bridge Creek and grossly overestimated the amount of money the city could make from its hydropower sales.
In spite of all the troubling unanswered questions, the council voted last week - with only Oran Teater and Jim Clinton dissenting - to go ahead with an important element of the Bridge Creek project, the purchase of an expensive membrane water filtration system.
We don't understand what the big rush is. This project is going to cost more than $100 million and is supposed to take care of Bend's water supply for the next half-century; it won't hurt to take another few months and spend a few more dollars to have a thorough and - above all - independent analysis done of the environmental impacts and costs of both the surface and groundwater alternatives.
In the meantime, the council majority gets THE BOOT for letting itself be stampeded into a hasty and ill-considered decision.