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Blowing the Dam 

Why this option—and others—should be discussed, but aren't


Science was not driving the conversation at a recent Mirror Pond Steering Committee meeting. Politics and frustrations, however, were.

On this December day, members of the steering committee trickled into the Bend City Hall boardroom one by one. Soon, five people sat scattered around several large tables. As they exchanged small talk before Mel Oberst, Bend's community development director, set the meeting into motion, Bill Smith cracked a joke.

"Let's take this opportunity and go dredge right now," said Smith, the man who owns William Smith Properties Inc., most of the Old Mill and the dam upriver from Mirror Pond. He was kidding, kind of.

Smith, along with the rest of the steering committee and most of Bend, has grown weary of the inaction that's come to define the Mirror Pond siltation problem. But after six years, not only has there been no action taken, scientists say the city's conversation surrounding the pond's rapid sedimentation problem is still off target.

According to members of the two-year old steering committee, dredging the pond remains the best solution, and one they're willing to spend another $200,000 to cement public opinion. But scientists and conservationists say it's the wrong message.

Rather than maintaining a man-made pond in the middle of town, experts say more nuanced options should still be part of the discussion. Ones that prioritize the river's health and include a passage for fish, a narrowing of the river's channel, vegetation restoration and some dredging, returning the river to a more natural state as it appears in the Old Mill. It's also time to put one big option on the table—blowing the dam.

Dams come down in the Northwest

In October 2011, after 100 years of blockage, the glacier-fed waters of Washington's White Salmon River were set free. The Yakama Nation, long reliant on the river's bounty, rejoiced, as did kayakers, rafters, fisherman and nature enthusiasts. Perhaps those who most benefited from the dam removal were the salmon.

"The habitat [on the White Salmon River] is actively improving," said Rod Engle, a fish biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "Rivers are like huge sediment conveyor belts."

Engle explained that the dam prevented good rock from being deposited downstream. Now, without the dam, Chinook salmon are once again finding appropriate spawning conditions upstream, among the rocks.

Over the last couple of years the Pacific Northwest has seen a paradigm shift on dams and their usefulness. In 2010 a PacifiCorp-owned dam on the Hood River was removed and in 2011 PacifiCorp, the same company that owns Bend's Newport Avenue dam, opted to remove the Condit dam on the White Salmon. This spring a dam on the Elwah River in Washington's Olympic Peninsula was dismantled; other dams on that river are also on the chopping block.

"That created a large amount of new habit for anadromous salmon," said Andrew Wilcox, a University of Montana professor who specializes in dam removals. "They [the Elwah dams] were relatively small hydro producers—small relative to the amount of environmental benefit."

It's a situation not unlike the one at the Newport dam.

The Newport dam creates less than a megawatt of power, which means it produces enough energy to power somewhere between 500 and 800 homes. An amount so small that it's a negligible factor in the equation. The dam's utility is mostly limited to preserving Mirror Pond, which many Bend residents consider the city's principal icon. Meanwhile, the structure remains an obstacle for migrating fish and is a detriment to the river's ecosystem.

At present, local stretches of the Deschutes River are in violation of state standards for redband trout. And there are invasive species, like milfoil, growing in the shallowest areas of Mirror Pond. Plus, the Newport dam will soon be the only dam in Bend that doesn't allow for fish passage.

"All the other dams in Bend will soon have a fish passage, and this one [Newport dam] would be the only that wouldn't," said Ryan Houston, the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council's executive director. The Watershed Council is working on a design modification that would allow for fish passage at the big dam near the Riverhouse.

What's more, PacifiCorp, the utilities company that owns the Newport dam, said it's not dead set on keeping the dilapidated structure in place.

"People need to understand the project is 100 years old and it's a lot closer to the end of its usefulness," said Bob Gravely, a PacifiCorp spokesman. "We want people to know we're not going to continue to operate this dam forever."

This about-face from PacifiCorp should be central to the Mirror Pond siltation solution. But so far, it hasn't been.

Plotting and spending

One of the five people at the table that Monday morning was Jim Figurski, a scholarly-looking fellow with round glasses, white hair and a matching beard. He's the new Mirror Pond project manager and is charged with attacking the committee's public outreach campaign, which so far has centered on dredging.

Figurski, who's operating on a $200,000 budget, with equal amounts raised by the city and the Bend Park & Recreation District, said the steering committee is looking at "a range of possibilities" but needs to establish some parameters that are real and possible.

In his public outreach campaign, Figurski will spend approximately $100,000 to hire science and design consultants to create graphic representations of what a Mirror Pond solution could look like. So far, though, Figurski said the river's health "hasn't been a ranking as of yet."

This is a troubling statement given the river's current state.

However you slice it, dredging the pond is an expensive band-aid solution. Steering committee members figure dredging, which was last completed in 1984 and, if done again, would likely need to be repeated in another few years, would cost between $2 million and $5 million.

"Sediment dredging is really a kind of maintenance and economic issue," said professor Wilcox. "If it's filling up frequently, then it can become very expensive."

Matt Shinderman, a steering committee member who's also a professor of natural resources at Oregon State University-Cascades Campus and a member of Bend 2030, said that no matter what the final solution, dredging would likely be included as a single component. But, he said, dredging alone should be considered a thing of the past.

"I don't think anyone on the steering committee wants to just dredge it and walk away," Shinderman said. "Dredging it repeatedly, at increased cost, doesn't make any sense."

Yet neither does increased spending, unless it comes with the assurance of a multi-faceted solution like the one promoted by former project manager Michael McLandress.

In 2010, McLandress was hired to take the lead on the Mirror Pond sedimentation project. But in 2011, after less than a year on the job, he was let go due to the steering committee's lack of funds, despite the fact he had brought a scientifically minded consulting firm to the table to complete an alternative analysis study.

"What I'd like to see is a micro-hydro system, maybe supplement with solar," McLandress mused over a cup of coffee during a recent interview. He said the best solution might include cutting-edge green energy as well as a fish passage and even a channel for recreational users.

Throughout his short tenure as project manager, McLandress floated progressive solutions but said they fell on deaf ears.

"What we really need to do is look at the whole section from the Bill Healy [Memorial] Bridge down to the Newport dam," McLandress said. "I just think it should be a shared experience."

Forward-thinking solutions

It could be time, as McLandress suggested, for a total review of how the Deschutes River is managed, from Wickiup Reservoir on down. Flows, regulated federally by the Bureau of Land Management, are determined in part by irrigation needs.

"Change comes from Wickiup Reservoir," McLandress said. "There's a high level of silt-laden water coming down from how Wickiup is managed by the BLM."

A shift in management would alter Central Oregon's high desert landscape, but McLandress allows that such a sweeping change would likely be unpopular with many, especially ranchers.

Fish passage, however, has become increasingly important in the eyes of scientists and conservationists who see thriving fish populations as signs of a healthy river ecosystem.

"If there is a solution that involves fish passage that would be great," Houston said. "To me that's the opportunity in this Mirror Pond project—if we can think big."

Houston added that the best solution would likely include some dredging, some wetland and riparian creation, and in that process, a narrowing of the pond which would return the river closer to its natural state. Narrowing the channel would speed up the velocity of the river, which, according to Houston, would improve water quality and help deter future sedimentation.

Shinderman agreed.

"One of the limiting factors for fish population is available spawning habitat. Having fish passage at Newport would open up fish habitat," Shinderman said.

Whether the solution comes as a broad stroke of work or a small alteration in how the river is cared for, change, as advocated by river experts, should be driven by ecological considerations.

"There's probably significant room for improvement," said Shinderman.

Shinderman, who was not one of the five present at the Dec. 3 steering committee meeting, assured us that the committee, which hopes to have a request for proposals out to the public by Christmas, is moving in the right direction.

"I'd like to see some modification and sediment management—an approach other than having to dredge after another 15 years and [one that] allows for some fish passage," Shinderman said.

"I trust that what we're doing will be a better solution than what we've done in the past," he said.

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