The colorado spillway at present. Deschutes River drownings and close calls have become a grim summer ritual around Bend when a combination of tourists and well-lubricated locals descends on the urban waterways. And it isn't just the waterfalls and whitewater that have been causing headaches for rescuers and others charged with public safety. Man-made obstacles around Bend are responsible for many of the accidents and several deaths.
One of the major culprits has been the nearly 100-year-old Colorado Avenue spillway, which can send an unwitting rafter plunging into a garden of sharp rocks and churning whitewater - if the boater isn't first pinned against the steel reinforcement bars under the bridge.
The spillway, which sits smack in the middle of a popular summertime inner tube float between Farewell Bend and Drake parks, has claimed one drowning victim and seen several near misses in the past few years. The section, which otherwise meanders lazily through the Old Mill, has grown increasingly popular with floaters since the opening of Farewell Bend Park in 2004.
But as summer rolls on in Bend, it appears that a plan to make the dam safer for floaters will have to wait at least another season while details of the proposal are hashed out between stakeholders, including the park district, local paddlers, dam owner Bill Smith and conservationists.
The park district has come up with a series of alternatives to completely re-engineer the spillway that would preserve the upstream characteristics of the river through the mill area while creating a safe passage for floaters under the Colorado bridge. The plan also includes a long-discussed whitewater play area, which would likely be located river left - adjacent to McKay Park below the dam. The redesign would have the additional benefit of improved fish passage, which is currently limited to a largely ineffective fish ladder. By contrast, the proposal, if implemented, would allow fish to swim freely up the large channel created for floaters, allowing downstream fish to access spawning areas upstream. Total costs for the project have been estimated at $1.7 million, said Bruce Ronning, planning and development director for the Bend Metro Park and Recreation District.
While the district doesn't have money set aside for funding, the project would likely be eligible for an array of grants. Local paddlers are ready to pitch in as well and will begin fundraising as soon as there is an approved plan for the redesign, Ronning said.
Not everyone, however, is jumping at the initial proposal. The Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, a non-profit group that spearheads collaborative river restoration projects in the basin, has asked the district to consider scaling back the scope of the work, which as initially designed would involve a significant amount of disturbance below the spillway to segregate as many as three distinct channels.
"The last set of drawings that I saw had 5,000 or 7,000 feet of fill and concrete going into the river. That is massive. That is a large amount of material being built into the river," said Ryan Houston, the Watershed Council's executive director.
In addition to aesthetics, Houston said the organization would like some assurance that the project isn't going to reduce the amount of fish habitat and spawning gravel - of which there is already little below the dam. At present, some of the best habitat is located within a few hundred feet of where most of the work would be done, but it has yet to be surveyed by the park district or anyone else with any level of detail.
To date, Houston said there hasn't been much attention given to biology or ecology in the re-engineering plans. While public safety is paramount, he said there is no reason that the project can't address safety issues and create additional recreation opportunities while maintaining or improving fish habitat.
"I think it's absolutely possible to make it outstanding on all three of those objectives that we're talking about," Houston said. "It's not a win-lose situation."
An artist's rendition of the full-meal deal with floaters and fish passage river, right and whitewater pools river, left. Old Mill developer and political heavyweight Bill Smith doesn't share Houston's concerns. Smith, who acquired the dam when he and his investors purchased the Brooks Scanlon Mill in the early 1980s, said his biggest concern is the protection of an osprey nesting area opposite McKay Park.
While he is supportive of the overall plan to modify the bridge, Smith said he wouldn't help pay for the improvements, in part because he believes the area is already safe - or at least safe enough - despite a 2006 drowning and several other incidents of floaters passing through the narrow spillway.
"You can't protect everybody from everything. We've had accidents at the dam, but I think it's pretty safe," Smith said.
While initially skeptical of the redesign, Smith said he is now supportive of the plan because he believes it is reflective of the community's will. He dismissed the concerns of the Watershed Council as nay saying.
"The Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, they're kind of paid to bitch," Smith said.
"They worry too much. They're trying to make an urban river into a natural river," he added.
Houston, however, said the organization has no illusions about the urban character of the river. He said the concerns are based more on habitat preservation than maintaining the current appearance of the river at Colorado.
"This is a very manipulated stretch of river," Houston said. "It has a dam...a lot of urban development and bridges. We're not talking about pristine wilderness. What we've brought up as topics to consider is basically that some of the key ecological functions like spawning gravel need to be integrated into the project."
While both the park district and the watershed council agree that more work can be done on the biology side, the district hasn't entirely overlooked the ecological impacts. It commissioned a wildlife analysis from a Wilsonville-based consultant. The report, however, didn't get down to the level of fish surveys and other specific habitat quantification that the Watershed Council would like to see.
At this point, the district is working with its engineering consultant to come up with a middle-of-the-road option that would reduce the overall footprint of the project, while still accomplishing the major objectives - something that would fall in between the status quo and what Ronning calls the "full meal deal" proposal initially floated.
"I think what's missing is it's either all or nothing the way it's proposed. So we thought we might have an intermediate scaled down (rafter/tuber) passage and not include the white water park," Ronning said.
That's of course a concern to whitewater enthusiasts who have been at the forefront of the effort to re-engineer the spillway and could be a major source of private funding for the project. Bend Paddle Trail Alliance Board President Carl Koenig said he only recently heard that the park district was considering an alternative without a whitewater play area. Koenig said he was particularly frustrated that the news didn't come directly from the district, despite the fact that BPTA has been working with Bend parks for several years on the proposal.
However, Koenig said he remains hopeful that paddlers, the park district and other stakeholders can craft a compromise.
"I think if we exclude any of the groups we're going to shortchange ourselves," he said.
Ronning said that whatever comes out of the ongoing discussions it will reflect the community's desire and not the lobbying of a single interest group.
"Personally, I'd love to see a whitewater play park, but the public agency point of view is really to find consensus, and that includes not just Bill (Smith) but the environmental community and the community at large."
In the meantime, the agency and the community will wait and hope that increased signage around the dam is enough to avert another accident waiting to happen. The park board, Ronning said, is scheduled to have the revised proposal back next month for additional discussion - just as floating traffic around the spillway peaks.