The Newport Avenue dam is at the end of its life cycle. Everyone knows it—even PacifiCorp, the utility company that owns the 102-year-old dam, which creates the pond at Drake Park near downtown Bend.
What many don't know, however, is that the dam cannot remain if it ceases to function as a hydroelectric facility. Those are the rules: According to water-right certificate No. 29581, Pacific Power & Light Co. (now PacifiCorp, which owns Pacific Power) has the right only to use the water for power generation and ice and debris removal. There's no built-in right for storing water.
So, the idea that PacifiCorp can simply retire the crumbling dam from service as a power-generating tool, but leave the structure in place to retain a pond, is a thought that should no longer be considered.
"By no means could it stay there just to keep Mirror Pond," said Deschutes Basin Watermaster Jeremy Giffin, who also put to rest talk of transferring those water rights for recreational purposes. All of the water rights on the Upper Deschutes River, said Giffin, have already been allocated.
PacifiCorp officials hope, however, the case isn't as cut and dried as it seems. Company spokesman Bob Gravely said, although, "it's not really an issue we've looked at closely," he's optimistic a solution could be found that would allow the dam to remain in place.
But the water-right news puts PacifiCorp in a tight spot. Company representatives have admitted that, from a hydroelectric standpoint, the dam provides negligible electricity. According to company stats, the dam only generates enough power for 300 to 400 homes. Angela Price, PafiCorp rep and Mirror Pond Steering Committee member, recently called the structure "a small asset."
Moreover, altering the Newport Avenue dam is also an unlikely course. Adding fish ladders and other such necessary updates or repairs would be expensive and would trigger action from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. FERC licensing would be a costly route that could take years to navigate—an unappealing scenario for PacifiCorp.
Jim Figurski, the project manager who's been hired by the city and Bend Park & Recreation District to find a fix for a pond that is clogging with silt, has already thought about all this.
"My understanding is that the water right is solely associated with the generation of power," said Figurski, echoing Watermaster Jeremy Giffin's words. Figurski added that, while he can't speak for the city, he thought a handoff or sale of the dam from PacifiCorp to the city highly unlikely.
To account for this, Figurski, who also sits on the Mirror Pond Steering Committee, the decision-making body overseeing the project, said at least three of the four possible solutions being drafted by his consultant team will include a Deschutes River with no dam in place at Newport Avenue. Figurski expects to have four designs, ones created by Portland's Greenworks, a landscape architecture and environmental design firm, ready for public viewing and input by early June.
Fellow Steering Committee member Ryan Houston, Upper Deschutes Water Council executive director, is enthusiastic about Figurski's approach but wants to make one thing clear: "Whether you want a pond or not is irrelevant—that dam is old," Houston said. "The writing is on the wall."
Going forward, Houston said he hopes the community can understand that the issues swirling about the silt-filled pond aren't either/or.
"It's either going to benefit recreationalists or homeowners; water quality versus not—when I hear someone playing these things off of each other as if they're-black and-white solutions, I say 'no,' " Houston said. "They're false choices."
Some would like to see the pond stay, no matter the cost, as they see it as an iconic Bend fixture. Other residents, who value the river's health, would rather see the Deschutes return to a more natural state. River enthusiasts hope the solution allows for more recreating on the river. Others still ask that the area around Drake Park remain aesthetically pleasing.
The solution, Houston said, should be clever enough so that it pleases environmentalists, neighbors and recreationalists alike.
Figurski agrees, and said he's trying to help his design team think outside of the box.
"The potential to retain pond-like characteristics," Figurski said, is there, even without a dam.
But, at this point, one eventuality is clear—the dam's days are numbered. SW