“Whiskey’s for drinkin’ and water’s for fightin’,” goes the old Wild West proverb. There’s no better example of that than the political and legal battle raging over Bend’s Surface Water Irrigation Project, aka SWIP, aka the Bridge Creek Project.
It all goes back to the EPA’s determination that Bend’s water supply¬ drawn from Bridge Creek just below Tumalo Falls isn’t clean enough, and that if it keeps getting water from the creek the city will have to install an expensive filtration system by October 2014.
The city and the engineering firm HDR came up with a gold-plated solution that involves 10 miles of new pipeline, a state-of-the-art membrane filtration plant, a hydropower plant, and an awe-inspiring price tag of $68.2 million, which will mean a hike of at least 40% in water rates over five years.
Almost as soon as SWIP was off the drawing board it was attacked by a broad spectrum of critics, ranging from Old Mill District developer Bill Smith and former Chamber of Commerce President Jack Holt to the conservation groups Central Oregon LandWatch and the Deschutes River Conservancy. The businessmen oppose the project because they think it’s unnecessarily expensive. The conservationists don’t like it because they’re worried about the impacts on fish and other wildlife.
And there are viable alternatives to SWIP. One is to get all the city’s water from wells instead of taking it out of Bridge Creek. Another is to draw the water out of Tumalo Creek at a point below the falls – the so-called “short pipe” option.
In 2010 the city asked HDR to compare the long-term costs of the groundwater-only option with those of HDR’s own Bridge Creek project. The engineering firm surprise, surprise concluded that the Bridge Creek project was by far the better deal. But an independent study by Bruce Aylward, formerly of the Deschutes River Conservancy, found that the groundwater option would be cheaper by $50 million.
When the city refused to re-evaluate its commitment to SWIP, LandWatch finally sued to stop it.
Enter Chief District Judge Ann Aiken of the U.S. District Court in Eugene. On Tuesday Aiken issued the injunction that LandWatch had been hoping for, which orders the city to halt work on the project. She also ordered the adversaries to take part in a settlement conference.
The way we’d like to see this play out is for the city to conduct a thorough and unbiased re-evaluation of SWIP. The Bridge Creek option is increasingly hard to defend in view of its exorbitant cost and potential environmental impacts. It’s starting to look like another case of the city diving head-first into an enormously expensive undertaking without taking a clear look at all the implications. (Remember Juniper Ridge, anybody?)
In the meantime, we’re glad Judge Aiken issued that injunction giving everyone some breathing space and creating an opportunity for all parties to work out a sensible solution. For that, she gets our thanks and THE GLASS SLIPPER.
CORRECTION: This editorial incorrectly characterizes The Deschutes River Conservancy's position on the surface water project. The organization has not taken a stance on the project. Additionally, Bruce Aylward is no longer with that organization. We regret these errors.