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A Drop In The Bucket: Critics say state water laws won't protect Metolius if resorts proceed 

The Metolius goes rushing by.Whether the Metolius basin is a place where you admire spring wildflowers, attempt to catch elusive bull trout, run or ski

click to enlarge The Metolius goes rushing by.
  • The Metolius goes rushing by.
The Metolius goes rushing by.Whether the Metolius basin is a place where you admire spring wildflowers, attempt to catch elusive bull trout, run or ski trails through old-growth ponderosa stands, kayak the river or set up a tent at its banks, most people can agree that there is just something undeniably special about the area.

"You don't find many places like this left in the world," said Jeff Perin, owner of The Fly Fishers Place in Sisters. He calls the Metolius his homewaters, located about 20 minutes away from the shop. And he is smitten.

"I've traveled around the world and have never been so stricken with a river," he said. "I am absolutely in love with the place."

Environmental and river advocates like Perrin say that unquantifiable allure is at risk now that developers have proposed a pair of destination resorts that include almost 3,000 homesites on more than 3,000 acres. And special interest groups aren't the only ones taking an interest. Both resorts have drawn the attention of legislators who are working on at least three different bills, two of which are backed by Gov. Ted Kulongoski, to curtail development in the basin which has been long recognized as one of Oregon's crown jewels. But the bills face opposition from powerful lobbyists working on behalf of the destination resort promoters and local officials who have backed the resorts. They say the governor and legislators are re-writing the rules of the game in the middle of the match.

Proponents argue that the resorts are an economic boon in cash-strapped Jefferson County, and point out that other resorts in neighboring Deschutes County haven't had to jump over the same hurdles. But the real fight over the resorts in the Metolius Basin boils down to one issue: water. How much will the resorts use and to what degree will they impact the springs and tributaries that feed the Metolius and its population of rare and endangered bull trout and native redbands?

In December, Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD) issued a tentative approval of Ponderosa Land and Cattle Co's groundwater permit to drill 10 wells approximately 1,000 feet into the ground. The project, expected to cost $16.4 million, according to the application, would grant 2,422 acre-feet, or 8.8 cubic feet per second (cfs), for overall use. Already, several environmental groups as well as the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs have objected to the permit. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODF&W) registered its concern in a letter to OWRD in late January.

"You see the word 'impact' and suddenly the brain leaps to the possibility that the river will flow half its normal flow," said Rick Allen, lobbyist for Ponderosa Land and Cattle Co. and former mayor of Madras. "Our impacts from water on any stream or waterway would be negligible at worse."

The resort, with 2,500 proposed homesites and 1,000 overnight units, intends to reuse the water used for domestic purposes by treating it and utilizing it on its two planned golf courses, but the permit reflects the necessity to apply for domestic and irrigation water separately. The reality, he said, is that the resort's consumptive use will only be about 2 to 3 cfs - citing the early March flow to be 1650 cfs - and the extra will be reserved for fire protection and to cover water needs for a hot summer day when the resort is at capacity.

"This amount of water is about 40 percent of what Redmond annually uses and about three to four times what the city of Sisters uses on an annual basis," according to Erik Kancler of Central Oregon LandWatch. "It is hard to imagine taking even a drop from the Metolius River."

Existing hydrologic reviews and analysis suggest the proposed well field will diminish surface flows in the Metolius River, Whychus Creek and Fly Creek watersheds, according to OWRD. The department has calculated that the effects of Ponderosa's proposed wells would be divided into the two basins: 30 percent would be felt in the Metolius basin and the rest in the Deschutes basin, according to a contentious new OWRD study.

The resulting mitigation strategy has brought the limitations of the Deschutes Mitigation Program into focus and pins the quantity of water versus the quality of water, according to some critics. Although not clearly defined in state resort statutes, destination resorts are required to mitigate all negative externalities caused by the development, which includes traffic, wildlife and water consumption.

The state's mitigation plan calls for replacing the same amount of water pumped from the ground to be pumped back into the waterways. But there is a catch and it's called "consumptive use." OWRD has determined that 40 percent of what you are able to pump will be consumed for human and plant activity as well as providing for evaporation. The other 60% is thought to percolate back into the groundwater table. For example, Ponderosa resort's tentative water permit approved states that it can pump 2,422 acre-feet from the wells, but its mitigation obligation is 968.8 acre-feet.

Perhaps just as impotantly, the mitigation program doesn't require a resort to put water back into the same place it was taken out of. Additionally, there is no specific plan in place to mitigate for the water that is taken directly from the Metolius.

This means that even though water is being pumped out of the Metolius basin and may affect its local waterways, the user will mitigate for the impact in the Deschutes basin. But critics say that not all water is created equal. And they object to the idea that you can take from one watershed while adding to another to offset the loss.

This situation is a conundrum, said Brett Hodgson, a Deschutes district fish biologist for ODF&W. "The easiest, most acceptable form of mitigation is to buy credits from banks such as the Deschutes River Conservancy and irrigation districts to improve flows in the middle Deschutes," Hodgson said. "This is a good thing, however, that application doesn't address potential impacts on the Metolius River."

Groups such as ODF&W have expressed concern that if there is a decrease in the volume of cold spring water contributing to flows in the Metolius River and other creeks, the likely mitigation water would be surface water which is warmer than spring water and does not provide the equal value.

"I argue that if the resort impacts the Metolius, then they need to mitigate where the impact is," said Mark Yinger, a hydrogeologist who has done work for resort opponents. What is more, he believes that Ponderosa's proposed wells would pump groundwater below the elevation of the Metolius River headwater springs effectively reducing the amount of water that discharges to the river.

The mitigation system isn't perfect, but it is the best way to proceed at the moment, according to Doug Woodcock, manager of the groundwater section for the OWRD. "We have had to balance the issue to allow some development to occur and mitigate impacts as opposed to closing down the Deschutes basin to development," he said.

Ancillary impacts to other drainages cannot always be mitigated, Woodcock said, as this problem has cropped up elsewhere in the state. "This basin is not unique in its groundwater impacts felt on multiple drainages," he said. "The Metolius basin is unique because of the discussion of resorts."

For some, taking water from the Metolius, especially without mitigating the consumption in the same place, is troubling. "Asking Central Oregon Irrigation District to leave more water instream at Bend at the same time they are taking water out of the doesn't even approach satisfying the conditions of the word 'mitigation'," Kancler said. "I don't think that just because it is the best we have so far that it is an excuse to leave it that way."

Allen would like people to keep the issue, one he feels has been politicized, in perspective. "The reality could be that we take a little dinky bit from a whole bunch of places," he said. "There are thousands of cfs coming out of the Cascades - it is literally like taking a cup out of the river and is not going to drop in its depth...the level will be the same as it is today."

The Metolian, which labels itself an as "eco-friendly" resort, has also been subject to questions of mitigation. Dutch Pacific Resources proposes to capture water from a "small unnamed and intermittent tributary" of Davis Creek that runs on the property from March through June to satisfy its annual water needs. The projected water demand for the resort, which has planned for 450 homes and 180 overnight accommodations, is 160 acre-feet per year and the primary use of which would be for domestic purposes in the residential units, according to Jim Kean, co-manager of the Metolian.

The captured surface water would then be diverted into three reservoirs on the property that would, combined, hold about 348 acre-feet of water.

"With a spring surface water capture we have to live off the water that falls on our property every season...and we have to understand how much water the property will receive in three months," Kean said. "We have to balance construction with what happens on the site. That hits on our philosophy of sustainability."

Conserving water on site dictates the need to have precise engineering and smaller dwellings, Kean explained. For instance, homeowners will not be allowed to landscape their yards or import any non-native plants.

Water is a key resource and consumption has been a very important consideration while planning the Metolian, Kean said. While Kean wants to solely focus on the surface water capture strategy, the Metolian submitted a groundwater study submitted to OWRD last April that proposes two wells.

"We don't think you'd ever be able to measure an impact of what we are doing," Kean said.

Not surprisingly, his consultants agree.

"Even if all of the water that we will capture on site actually makes it to the river it would represent 0.06 percent of the average annual flow of the Metolius at the Allingham gauge," reiterated Jon Skidmore, project manager for the Metolian. "This is immeasurable even if it was a direct impact.

But the plans has its skeptics.

"I would argue that by taking surface water they are taking groundwater. I'm sure that a large portion of the water [from the intermittent creek] is going to percolate in the ground before it reaches Lake Creek or the Metolius River," Yinger said. Because the water takes a while to travel down through the ground to the water table, water that percolates in the spring would then be available during the low flow season later in the summer, he explained.

If groundwater and surface water are hydrologically connected, then surface water collection should be mitigated, Yinger said. OWRD evaluates applications to use surface water by determining if water is available for use through quantitative models, according to Dwight French, water rights administrator for OWRD. If surface water is found to be available, mitigation for the water withdrawal is not required.

"I think that it sets a precedent if these resorts go through," Yinger said. "It is saying, 'Yes, we can allow potential new water rights in the basin without mitigation.'"

Kean said that the resort is already planning on self-imposed mitigation. The Metolian will fund a capital trust with a percentage of closing costs on real estate going toward water conservation projects such as implementing water metering for existing wells, installation of low-flow plumbing fixtures, education on xeriscaping and use of native landscaping.

But critics including Kancler argue that these programs and the "eco" label are little more than greenwashing for a resort that is patently incompatible with the landscape.

"I think that if they want to engage folks with a true eco resort they probably shouldn't show them one in the Metolius basin," Kancler said.

If the resorts compromise river flows, they will negatively impact fish populations, according to ODF&W. "Reduction in surface flow will likely adversely impact the productivity and viability of fish populations in each watershed limiting the department's ability to meet its legally mandated conservation and recreation goals" under numerous management plans, according to the department.

click to enlarge fly fishing on the metolius river can be productive year round because of the consistent water temperature.
  • fly fishing on the metolius river can be productive year round because of the consistent water temperature.
fly fishing on the metolius river can be productive year round because of the consistent water temperature. It is important to protect the biodiversity and natural assemblage of fish species in the Metolius River, Hodgson said. Analysis to date has been insufficient to quantify the magnitude of reduced flows and its potential fishery affects. Bull trout, which are listed as federally endangered species, live in both the Metolius River and Whychus Creek and depend on the cold water to survive. "This is one of the most important populations in the state in health and strength," Hodgson said.

Mid-Columbia summer steelhead have been reintroduced in Whychus Creek, and the redband trout, one of the most genetically pure populations in Central Oregon, live in all three watersheds, he said. Potential declines in stream flow from resulting groundwater withdrawal could limit available spawning and rearing habitat for resident redband and bull trout as well as reintroduced steelhead trout, Chinook and sockeye salmon.

Potential impacts of development in the Metolius basin has been a question now debated since the resorts were proposed in 2006. Bend Watermaster Jeremy Giffin had told The Bulletin in March 2007 the effect of development in the Metolius basin would have an "immeasurable" impact on river flows. "I challenge anyone who says they can see a reduction on the Metolius due to construction," he said.

For some the argument is moral. "The Metolius deserves the highest of standards," Kancler said. "John DeVoe of WaterWatch said that this is like death by 1000 cuts, but I think that it is far fewer cuts than that and every time you allow something like this to go in then you are chipping away at valuable resources."

Although resorts in the Metolius basin would likely translate to a boost in business at the Sisters fly shop, Perin doesn't support them moving in. "I think that there are already enough resorts in the area for people to stay at that aren't necessarily full," he said. "The Metolius River is too valuable of a resource to throw away and my business is more valuable with fewer resorts in the area." The Department of Land Conservation and Development (DLCD) has recommended to the state Legislature to label the Metolius Basin an Area of Critical State Concern, a designation that prevents destination resort development in the basin.


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