When something as unglamorous as a water pipe attracts such attention as Bend's Surface Water Improvement Project (SWIP) has, it is prudent to ask: Why? Why has the City so doggedly pursued a project that has opposition from both conservative developers and conservation-minded environmentalists? Why have City staff championed a project that has never had the full support of city council—and, moreover, was a pivotal campaign issue in 2013 that resulted in the election of anti-SWIP councilors?
To answer these questions, looking back at the origin of the project is a good start. In 2009, Bend had visions of going into the hydropower business, which meant taking more water from Tumalo Creek. That meant a new and bigger pipe. Ultimately, federal funding for the project dried up, but the idea persisted and SWIP became the Bridge Creek pipe project.
Last year a campaign to stop the nearly $70 million project garnered substantial public support, both for protecting Tumalo Creek and for saving ratepayers millions. An unlikely coalition of SWIP opponents came together, including seven former mayors, developers and conservationists, and Republicans and Democrats. They spoke in unison against the project, and presented economic, engineering, and environmental arguments that all pointed to one logical conclusion: The project is unnecessary and wasteful. Yet, in spite of broad-based political opposition and legal challenges, the project continues.
This is the City's second attempt to install the new big pipe to deliver water to the Outback intake facility, located just off Skyliners Road. Last year the City received a Special Use Permit (SUP) from the U.S. Forest Service to replace the two existing pipes with a single, much larger capacity pipe. Those plans, however, were halted when Central Oregon LandWatch appealed the Forest Service decision to the Federal District Court of Oregon—which, in response, granted an injunction, pointing out that the permit didn't adequately take into account impacts on fisheries and habitat. Specifically, Judge Aiken determined that SWIP "[would] degrade water quality, diminish aesthetic values and harm fish and wildlife in and around the Project area."
Not deterred, the City applied again this year. On Nov. 4, the Forest Service released its decision to issue a permit. The SUP granted this year is for the same infrastructure project that was proposed last year. What's especially disconcerting is that the City still ignores the concerns of conservationists and fiscal conservatives.
At a recent October meeting with the Skyliners neighbors, the City's Project Manager assured residents that "nothing has changed as far as what [the city] is building." She went on to explain that the only thing that has changed is an adjustment to the amount of water that the city will draw from Tumalo Creek.
When the City applied for an SUP last year, they requested 21 cubic feet per second (cfs). The SUP that the Forest Service plans to issue this time around limits the city's withdrawal from Tumalo Creek to a maximum of 18.2 cfs. But this "change" is misleading. Although the Forest Service claims the change will allow more water to be left in Tumalo Creek than remains under the current system, in reality the City currently only uses, on average, about 9 cfs annually. The proposed 18.2 cfs means the City can double its consumption from 2 to 4 billion gallons of water per year. Furthermore, while the permit is for 20 years, the proposed new pipe is a 100-year project.
It is difficult to feel confident that the City will limit its use when City staff speak of future increased consumption, like when the Assistant City Manager recently stated publicly that when the city needs more water, they will just get a new permit from the Forest Service.
It's easy to see who the losers are in this story. They are the ratepayers, future generations, and fish and wildlife. Sacrificing Tumalo Creek to a pipe is a loss too great to dismiss without a fight.
Gail Snyder is program director for Central Oregon LandWatch.