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When the Dam Breaks

Leak in ailing Newport Avenue dam could force Pacific Power's hand



Last week, a small fissure deep inside the wooden and concrete base of the 103-year-old Newport Avenue dam erupted. River water surged through the hole in the dam—the aquatic impoundment that creates Mirror Pond—and, as of press time, continues to pour through at the alarming rate of approximately 500 cubic feet per second. It is not the dam's first leak, but rather the third in six years.

But this leak may be the one that finally bursts open the dialogue about what to do with Mirror Pond, a body of water that's fast filling with silt.

The breach has drained the Mirror Pond bathtub and its effects are obvious: according to representatives from Pacific Power, the utility that owns the dam, water levels at the in-town portion of the Deschutes River—between the Galveston Avenue and Newport Avenue bridges and along the banks of Drake Park—have dropped about two feet since last Wednesday. By the weekend, Mirror Pond looked less like a pond and more like a languid river.

The leak, however, also has provided an opportunity. The large, exposed mud flats, while unsightly now, have revealed something close to the river's natural banks. In that regard, and for those familiar with river restoration, the dam leak has been helpful. It's revealed a visual as to what Mirror Pond might look like without a dam. And the leak has proven timely, as various decision-making bodies wobble forward in an attempt to draft the most appropriate fix for Mirror Pond's shallow, weed-choked waters.

Most specifically, the leak has forced Pacific Power's hand. For months the utility company has stalled discussions about Mirror Pond's future, effectively derailing restoration efforts by claiming that it is unclear on what the community wants to do about the century-old dam. Meanwhile—and creating a standoff—the Mirror Pond Steering Committee and newly formed ad hoc work group have said that they need to know Pacific Power's intentions before moving forward with costly design modifications for the waterway.

But now, with a gaping hole in its dam, Pacific Power may be compelled to consider whether slapping another band aid on an ailing structure is worthwhile.

"This isn't something we can ignore," admitted Bob Gravely, a Pacific Power spokesperson. Gravely went on to say that the most recent leak, which he called "much more significant" than past leaks, will require a serious assessment from Pacific Power dam inspectors, who will help the utility decide the viability and possible regulatory implications of another fix. At a certain point, dam modifications are likely to trigger costly federal relicensing requirements.

"Does it make sense to go in and spend money on fixes?" Gravely asked rhetorically, "Or is it time to make a bigger decision about the future?" Gravely said a timetable for assessing the leak and making a call about the dam—should it stay, or should it go?— has not yet been made. According to Gravely, the dam's sluice gates have not yet been opened, but he suspects the dam operator will do so soon in an effort to reduce water levels enough to allow for a thorough dam inspection.

Meanwhile, Oregon's Water Resources Department, a state agency that regulates water supplies, recently said it will conduct its own assessment. Kyle Gorman, the agency's south central regional manager, said his department is planning a dam inspection. Gorman also pointed out that the obvious drop in water levels around Mirror Pond is due solely to the hole in the dam. He explained that his agency did reduce river flows to their typical fall and winter levels (at present, roughly 900 cfs), but did so before last Wednesday's leak. Flows are regulated at Wickiup Reservoir and, this season, were reduced to winter levels about two weeks earlier than normal due to heavy rains in September, which reduced demand for irrigation.

Other experts, however, are using the leak as a visioning opportunity and they urge community members to do the same. Scientists, like Matt Shinderman, and river conservationists, like Ryan Houston (who both served on various Mirror Pond management boards and committees), said that while Mirror Pond may appear muddy and unattractive now, the river is more or less in its natural channel and is acting similar to how it might if the Newport Avenue dam was fully removed. Both experts said onlookers should think creatively about the opportunities provided by the larger riverbanks. More grassy parks space or native plant restoration—or a combination of the two—are some of the ideas that have been floated by planning committees.

Shinderman pointed to the nearby river restoration efforts at Lake Creek, near the Lake Creek Lodge in Camp Sherman, as an example of dam removal done right. That dam, like the dam at Mirror Pond, suffered from excessive silt and vegetation build-up, so much so that it was affecting the health of the river. But, Shinderman said, after removing the structure and adding native riparian plants and woody debris to keep the soil in place, the river and its banks turned in to a "pretty fabulous project."

"I think it gives a really good perspective on what stream restoration can look like," Shinderman said of the now seven-year-old project.

Jim Figurski, the Mirror Pond project manager, pointed out that, if nothing else, the latest dam leak has "generated renewed interest" in Mirror Pond and its associated opportunities. Figurski was unsure as to when the next Mirror Pond ad hoc work group meeting would be, though he pointed to late October as the most likely option. The ad hoc group was created to assist other Mirror Pond decision-making bodies in investigating the vagaries that still surround the project.

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