Early Thursday morning, a crane appeared at the contested dam. It was the latest indicator that, in case anyone was questioning, the dam is broken. Large steel plates were placed, like giant bandaids, by Pacific Power over the leaks, in what increasingly seems like an uphill (downstream?) battle to patch up the aging dam, and also served as a very real reminder that time is running low before someone, anyone, needs to make a decision about whether the city should take over the dam and maintain Mirror Pond, or whether it should take it behind the barn and put a bullet in its head, and clear the way for a new chapter for the Deschutes River.
A few hours later, about 300 or so City Club members gathered in an auditorium several miles away at St. Charles Hospital for the monthly City Club forum and for what was billed as "Mirror Pond: One Year Later." Over the clink of plates and forks, moderator Scott Wallace from Bend Park & Rec explained that each of four men would give a six-minute presentation on each of their solutions, and also gave the intriguing announcement that "the dam is agnostic," presumably meaning that there was no clear indication whether God intended for Mirror Pond to exist—and to continue to exist.
Toward that question, however, City Council is clear about its intentions, although their rationale may be flawed.
To articulate those arguments city councilmember Victor Chudowsky stood up and reminded the audience that City Council had unanimously voted to maintain the pond; that reiteration, however, did little to move forward the merits of the discussion, or to shore up any support of the decision made three months ago by City Council to maintain the dam/pond.
It is, of course, a circular argument: Just because the decision by City Council to maintain the water as Mirror Pond was unanimous does not make it the right decision, and to continue to act as if it is without scientific or financial basis, dangerously bypasses questions lurking beneath the surface about the cost to save and maintain the dam/pond, and who and how those bills will be paid.
"This is so cool that people are swimming in the middle of the city," Chudowsky added. But, again, that proclamation fails to answer the more pressing question: Is it $7 million cool?
What Chudowsky did in his six-minute allowance was an admirable job trying to quantify what importance the current setup—a meandering river feeding into a pond—has for the City of Bend.
One afternoon last summer, he said, some 300 innertubers were counted passing under one bridge in 15 minutes (which, if accurate, would be one every three seconds, and sounds more like the Indy 500 than a peaceful summer afternoon). And, he used several reasonable measurements to try to gage the popularity of this stretch of the river/pond—noting the number of people riding the free shuttle between put-in and take-out, and the number of tubes and paddle boards rented (a loose assessment at 20,000 users who could easily be counted, which he said only accounts for a portion of the total number). With those numbers—and with an audience murmuring in approval— Chudowsky went on to try to further frame the argument as speaking for a silent majority, saying that many of the river/pond users are teenagers who cannot yet vote.
"This is a great opportunity for teenagers," he added, "that doesn't involve shopping."
The assessment is a valiant attempt to quantify what has largely been billed as the sentimental argument for maintaining Mirror Pond. Yet, further consideration of those numbers actually potentially deflates their financial wherewithal. Say, even 100,000 people use that stretch of the river/pond (a number higher than Chudowsky presented). At an initial cost of what has been estimated to be $7 million to restore the dam to properly maintain Mirror Pond and the current slow moving downstream current—and, say that is the only cost over the next decade—that would calculate out to $7 a ride; or, to use the same loose math, the equivalent of City Council declaring it will pay for every teenager in Bend to go to the movies for free over the next decade.
Furthermore, the number of users also doesn't seem to be a solid-ground argument, as removing the dam and letting a river run free does not necessarily cancel the recreational opportunities for tubers, stand-up paddler boarders and, of course, canoers and kayakers.
The next speaker, Ryan Houston, Executive Director of the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, also provided compelling numbers: 51 dams removed on American rivers last year; eight in Oregon, he said.
He went on to tick off that there were environmental reasons to remove the dam, but then, like a skilled courtroom attorney, debunked his own assertion, while pumping up his credibility. "But this is not where I'd put my first $7 million," he said, referring to an effort aimed at fixing and managing environmental and fish health issues along the Deschutes River—and at other places where the river has more immediate needs.
Houston then went on to focus on what should be the central question in the debate. "We have been benefitting for the past 100 years for free," he explained, referring to the benefits that Mirror Pond has offered to Bend, really at no municipal cost; no matter what solution comes out of these discussions, that free ride is over. "The fundamental question," he added, "is are we willing to pay for that?"
That simple and rhetorical question is perhaps the most important consideration necessary to bring a solution to reality—and one that has largely been eclipsed by City Council's sentimental efforts to maintain the pond/dam.
Later during the forum, Chudowsky did speak up and address that issue directly. "Look," he said, "this community raised $4 million for OSU very quickly."
But even that assessment seems limited in its applicability, as it is unclear whether the dam has as much far-reaching community support (it is generally assumed the city is split evenly on what to do about Mirror Pond), and what, if any, financial benefit there is for the City of Bend (as expanding OSU-Cascade to a four year campus has).
After each presenter gave a six-minute argument, moderator Wallace moved the noontime event to its next phase: Small group discussion. He gave three minutes for each table to talk about whether they would be willing to accept a "line-item" tax to help pay for any of the options.
The room broke into excited chatter. Attendees at one table surveyed in the back of the room shook their heads no, no, no and one weak head shake "yes" for the tax, while the table next to them gave six thumbs up for a tax, and two sideways thumbs indicating "maybes." A minute later, when the moderator asked the entire room for a show hands in favor of a tax, the majority were raised.
Perhaps as interesting, moderator Wallace then asked one parting question, whether the discussion had changed anyone's mind about what course to take. In response, about one-quarter of the audience's hands went up. But the next question wasn't asked: In which direction?