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Mirror of Sand

Reflecting on the Needs of the River That We Now Call Mirror Pond.

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Are we in a time machine? Maybe we are—but one that loops time, and stories, round and round. In '99, the big question was, should Bendites dredge Mirror Pond, remove the dam and let the river go free, or do nothing? So far, the latter has won out.

Published Date: Jul. 29, 1999

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irror Pond, fondly known as the heart and soul of Bend by many townspeople, may need an angioplasty to remove silt or undergo other cures to rejuvenate the Deschutes River along Drake Park.

Call in the river doctors. Should the city dredge accumulating silt as it did in 1982? Let cattails and a marsh take root in the bottom? Or remove the 1910 Pacific Power dam and allow the river to run fast and free—at least between the Colorado Street dam to the south and the 40-foot North Unit dam no far down river?

Nearly 90 years of mystique and history are immersed in the pond's tranquility. For a time, the shiny surface obscures nature's stead buildup of silt below. Silt-flour-like grains of rock and mineral—and other sediments are as much a part of the 40-acre pond as the Canada geese, mute swans and ducks that everyone ogles while strolling the park west of downtown. Indeed, geese and ducks stand offshore on high spots of accumulating muck.

The wooden Pacific Power dam below Newport bridge sets up the right conditions for silt and nutrient-rich sediment to fall out of the water as the Deschutes runs toward the Columbia River. Very simply, silt and sediment fall out in slow water. Sediment deposited in the pond comes from several sources, according to a pond rehabilitation study prepared in 1981 before dredging. Possible sources include eroding river banks upstream, development, changing river levels caused by irrigation flows out of Wickiup Dam, runoff and fertilizers, faulty septic tanks, and turf management in residential areas and parks.

Bend doesn't face a silt crisis just yet. That's the point. Better to talk now, that at the last minute about the sense of place Mirror Pond gives residents and visitors in a landscape becoming increasingly more urban, civic observers say. "It's so important for the community to start thinking and talking about the issue," says Darcy McNamara, project manager for the Bend Riverway,. "We (Riverway) don't have a recommendation on what should happen. All we think is we should be proactive and involve all the stakeholders, which in this case is the entire community."

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The Riverway , a nonprofit group creating a vision of the river's many faces through town, keeps a diplomatic distance from political decisions. "We didn't say the river will flow free. We didn't say the dam will be gone. We didn't say anything like that," McNamara says. Instead, the push is for "quality community decision-making."

Issues demanding choices that will surely displease some are tucked in lists of proposed projects in a thick, draft Riverway report. The document says silt is building up and something will need to be done, perhaps within five years. In other words, discuss remedies before everyone is drawing in the silt.

Talking about how to solve Mirror Pond's mucky bottom cuts to the nerve. "Bend without Mirror Pond is unthinkable," says Jim Crowell, a Bend resident since moving here as a child in 1940 from Minnesota. He's chairman of the Park Foundation, but speaks as a private citizen. He's adamant Mirror Pond won't change in his lifetime. You'd see him at the front of the line protecting the pond.

Crowell recalls that old newspaper stories he reviewed for his master's thesis revealed an insight that lingers with him. "In the early years, when the river was natural and free, there was a disproportionate number of child deaths due to drowning in that river," he says.

McNamara considers the problem as she sits on a park bench within a stone's throw of the river. The sounds of ducks splash-landing mingles with the roll of truck tires on pavement over Portland bridge. "I think a lot of people don't want to talk about it because it's a little bit frightening to think about change. The pond is such a valuable commodity in our community. People just adore Mirror Pond," she says.

"The whole thing is going to boil down to money and how much do we love Mirror Pond. We're going to put a price tag on it. And that's when it's going to be very interesting," she adds, "It's going to be a tradeoff."

City Engineer Tom Gellner worked for Bend during the first and only dredging in 1982. He isn't particularly worried right now, saying the issue isn't on anyone's plate. The only people who bring up the question are the media, he says.

Last July, Gellner said about 40 percent of sediment that had been removed had returned to the pond about five years after dredging. He speculated silt had increased since then, but he couldn't guess by how much.

In 1982, Bend dredged 84,000 cubic yards of silt and dumped it in a former gravel pit where the National Guard Armory now stands. An engineer's report at the time predicted dredging would be needed again in 2004. This time, the federal government probably won't pick up what could be a $1 million bill—more than three times as much as the first time. Where to deposit the silt poses more uncertainty. Gravel pits west of town are a possibility, Gellner says.

Silt isn't accumulating as fast as engineers predicted, according to Gellner. "I think it's where it was seven or eight years ago," he says. The city used to measure silt, but no longer does. "We've (the city) got enough things to worry about."

Bend Water, Light and Power Company built the dam that creates the pond. The privately held business merged with Pacific Power in 1926. Irrigation and water rights govern how much and when water flows in the Deschutes below Wickiup Dam. Because of that, Pacific Power generates "run of the river" power—1.1 megawatts or enough for 400 homes. That's less than 1 percent of electricity consumed during last winter's peak use in Bend, says Clark Satre, Pacific's customer business manager in Bend.

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emoving the dam isn't on the table now, Satre says. Demolishing the dam and restoring the river was estimated at $4 million to $5 million in a 1990 relicensing study for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, he says. "We have no plans to take it out. At the present time, we intend to continue to operate it as it exists today." The dam is in "very good shape" despite its age, and will stay that way as long as the structure is wet, he says.

Satre says it is always possible Pacific Power might one day stop producing power at the small facility and look for a public agency to assume maintenance. A major equipment failure that would cost more than shutting down the dam could theoretically trigger a decision. Operation and maintenance costs, however, are still reasonable, he says. One employee maintains the dam and another dam at Cline Falls. Other employees pitch in.

MIRROR POND. 18 YEARS LATER AND IT'S FUTURE STILL SEEMS MURKY.
  • Mirror Pond. 18 years later and it's future still seems murky.

Stopping power production wouldn't automatically mean removing the dam. "We realize the community values the pond," Satre says. An arrangement could be worked out with Bend Metro Park and Recreation District or the city, he says. "Our intent would be to turn it over to an entity that would maintain it the way the community wants.

Pacific Power contributed about $40,000 toward dredging the pond. The company would be open to discussing contributing again, Satre says.

Removing dams is no longer unthinkable in a region dominated by hydroelectric power. Pacific Power is seriously considering removing Condit Dam about 70 miles east of Portland on the White Salmon River in south central Washington state Satre says.

The 125-foot dam was built in 1913 and produces 15 megawatts or about 15 times the energy production of Bend's dam. Taking out the dam would be a financial decision. Improving Condit for salmon passage required by federal relicensing would cost about $30 million. Dismantling the dam has been estimated at about half the cost. If the dam falls, more than 2 million cubic yards of sediment behind it would gush into the White Salmon, according to an estimate.

One of Satre's many hats is a member of the Riverway project's steering committee. Returning the Deschutes to a free-flowing river has come up, he says, "but hardly anyone thinks it's the right thing to do for Bend. I think the vast majority places a high value on Mirror Pond."

Fish passage isn't a legal issue for Pacific Power's dam in Bend. FERC decided a federal license was unnecessary because the river isn't navigable. The ruling essentially let the company off the hook and discussions about fish screens and fish ladders evaporated , Satre says.

Downriver, the North Unit irrigation dam has no fish passage either. Upriver at Colorado Street, a fish ladder was installed a few years ago.

As native fish, mountain whitefish and redband trout are species of concern in the Deschutes River, says Steve Marx, district fisheries biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in Bend. Brown trout, important to recreational anglers, and kokanee, a landlocked salmon, live in the river as well. But bull trout haven't been seen in Wickiup reservoir since 1956.

Dams fragment subpopulations of fish, such as redbands, distinctive for the red band on its sides and large, dark parrs. The Deschutes population isn't on the Endangered Species Act list, but populations to the arid east are being considered for federal protection. Marx says redband subpopulations separated by dams on the Deschutes could mingle and genetically strengthen if passage upriver was possible and fish habitat improved. Such a move would hopefully avert the need for future federal protection, he suggests.

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f Bend decided to dredge silt, one of the Department of Fish and Wildlife's biggest concerns would be the potential effects on existing habitat, Marx says. The chance of water laden with sediment moving downstream and harming habitat is another worry Marx and other biologists would raise.

At Mirror Pond the river is moving through too large an area for the water's flow, the biologist says. Edges fill in with silt and sediment.

Marx's alternatives to dredging would be letting the river mature on its own into a confined channel that would naturally carry sediment through or the city could physically reduce the channel. Rushes and cattails in a wetland similar to areas above Colorado bridge would develop. Pacific Power's dam wouldn't matter if it's operated as it is now, he says.

"The question is what's going to be the best way to have a long-term stable system that will function properly," says Marx. "The tradeoff would be the pond would look different, but would that be bad?" he asks. Hard concrete or rock edges along the river would be replaced by riparian banks better for fish and wildlife in biologists' eyes. Landscape architects could easily sketch the changes to give the public a sense of the new look, says Marx.

Any stream will carry a natural load of sediment, says Marc Wilcox, hydrologist for The Deschutes National Forest. Unknowns that hydrologists are trying to answer are how much sediment is natural and how much is man-made.

The Forest Service is working with the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council on flows and characteristics in the Deschutes River, which runs through national forest for about half its length. Some portions of the Deschutes and the Little Deschutes rivers don't meet federal Clean Water Act standards for various reasons. Among them are sedimentation, turbidity, and altered flow and habitat. Stretches are tagged with a "303 (d)" designation by the state Department of Environmental Quality, a label noting the section of the Clean Water Act they fail.

OH, WHAT A BEAUTY YOU ARE.
  • Oh, what a beauty you are.

"Our biggest concern is how water comes out of Wickiup," Wilcox says. In hydrology jargon, it's called "ramping rates" and refers to the velocity of irrigation water released at the dam. At issue is how that affects riverbanks and erosion.

Some fingers point to Wickiup dam when blame is being doled out for sediment and turbidity in the upper Deschutes River. Deschutes Basin watermaster Kyle Gorman says it is just speculation at this point. Since 1995, he says, Wickiup releases have been governed by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act management plan when rates fall below 800 cubic feet per second. When it reaches that level, the plan limits the rise in river water to one=tenth of a foot per hour. The rate of the river falling is limited to two-tenths of a foot per 12 hours.

A cooperative project of the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council and the U.S. Geological Survey could eventually help uncover precise origins of sediment and turbidity. The groups received a grant to develop a water quality monitoring plan for the upper basin, Gorman says.

Nationwide, the Forest Service has come under criticism about the effects of road building on erosion and water quality. "In the national forest, we're also very concerned how watersheds are managed, how much (timber) we cut, how roads are built and how that affects sediment in the river," Wilcox says.

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Wilcox developed an affinity for river restoration from Luna Leopold, son of Aldo Leopold, recognized as a leader in the history of conservation, environmental ethics and public land management. The younger Leopold developed a friendship over 20 years after the hydrologist took a class from him and they later worked on a court case.

Wilcox cares about what's happening in Mirror Pond. "What Mirror Pond is is a mirror of our activities. It reflects all our activities in the watershed. When we have to dig it out every so many years, it makes you wonder if we can't do better in our watershed," he says.

The city's Gellner sees dredging the pond as the only successful remedy to deal with silt.

That remains to be seen. There's enough expertise and creativity - and presumably interest - among Central Oregonians to look at Mirror Pond and the Deschutes River with a new perspective. Who knows what ideas might surface if environmental specialists were given the freedom to imagine.

Consider as inspiration last year's bold step of introducing two pairs of trumpeter swans to the section of the Deschutes above the North Unit dam. Chris Carey of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Audubon Society and Bend Metro Park and Recreation District hope the young swans from Wisconsin will breed and eventually establish a migrating flock here. Trumpeters were once native to Oregon. Bringing the big birds to the Deschutes was the first step in replacing non-native mute swans upriver in town, including Mirror Pond and above Colorado Bridge.

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t first, the idea of replacing mute swans made some folks bristle. Now, the trumpeters are protectively watched by riverside homeowners. It's another Bend story of change and new beginnings.

Westside resident Michele McKay, co-director of Central Oregon Environmental Center, hopes Bend will look at more alternatives than dredging for Mirror Pond. She recommends a broad investigation of solutions as thorough as an environmental impact statement. "I have very high hopes that there is a way to work with the dynamics of the river system and the pond system to keep what we love about Mirror Pond and not have to dredge," she says. "It may mean some things will look different, we may have vegetation in spots instead of cement walls and access in some areas, but vegetation in others."

McNamara wants to embark in community brainstorming with a clean slate. "Some people out there think silt is a problem and dredging is the solution," she says. " There's people out there who favor a free-flowing river, but most people think that's quite a radical thing."

Her straight-forward advice: "We need to look at all of our options together as a community."


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