Although the debates surrounding Mirror Pond have dragged on for years, there are now two actionable proposals on the table: the Bend Park and Recreation District is updating portions of Drake Park while a group of local citizens is preparing a dredging project. Together, these may represent more than $10 million worth of activity that will influence the future of the pond.
Both of these projects have brought renewed debates about the future of the pond and how we manage the river and its habitat. From the perspective of river health, the projects present a tension: on the one hand, Mirror Pond plays a relatively small role in the overall health of the river and, consequently, what happens in Mirror Pond will not govern the long-term fate of the Deschutes.
On the other hand, the Deschutes River is the iconic representation of the natural world through downtown Bend. While not a wild river, the river brings water, wildlife, reflection and open space for those who float, paddle, walk, jog, sit or saunter there throughout the year. Bats, birds, fish, otter and many other critters live here, carving out an existence among the tubers, paddlers and errant Frisbees.
Although the fate of Mirror Pond will not determine the fate of the Deschutes, the decisions we make about these projects are important because they become an expression of how we view our role as stewards of the Deschutes. They reflect how we weave together human "wants" and the river's "needs," and how seriously we, as a community, take our responsibility as caretakers of the river. What do we want our actions on these projects to say about our community's commitment to a healthy river?
In spite of the conflict and disagreement often cited in the news, there is considerable alignment in the community's dedication to a healthy river. A statistically-based 2015 City of Bend poll found that 77 percent of respondents feel that "providing improved water quality, river banks and wildlife habitat" is "extremely important" in the future planning for Mirror Pond. A smaller but significant proportion of respondents (60 percent) feel that "ensuring historic aesthetic and pond views are maintained" is "extremely important." (error: ±4.9 percent)
Some quick math tells us that many of these people—the people who want to see improved habitat and maintenance of the historic conditions—are likely the same people. They care very deeply about both the health of the river and the character of Mirror Pond. Where does this leave us on the projects before us today?
First, let's explicitly acknowledge the needs of the river as a basic starting point for every project that affects the river. Currently, water clarity is poor, nutrients and warm temperatures bring excessive algal growth, sedimentation smothers habitat, trampling along the banks chases out wildlife, and water quality doesn't meet Oregon standards. Any publicly-supported project along the river should incorporate specific goals focused on improving these conditions.
Second, public funding should not be used to dredge Mirror Pond. If there are discretionary public funds available for river projects, those funds should be invested in projects that improve the health of the river, not bring the water quality and habitat impacts that would come with dredging. If private interests choose to invest private funds into dredging privately-owned sediment from private property, they can do this. The desire to dredge is understandable but the cost, both financially and ecologically, does not merit public investment.
Third, we should utilize the most innovative approaches to managing urban rivers in the Drake Park update. Let's create spaces—overlooks, boardwalks, plazas—for people to engage with the river, enjoy the iconic views and access the water without trampling the vegetation that makes for a healthy river and beautiful scenery. Create robust, healthy habitat so the park and river remain alive with birds, bats, trout, otter and others. Dispense with sterilizing rip-rap and retaining walls by weaving in habitat that supports wildlife and contributes to cleaner water. These types of approaches are not difficult, they just require commitment, creativity and intention.
These steps won't solve all of the issues on the river but they will help ensure that public investments adequately reflect our values and contribute to a healthier Deschutes River.