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The top 10 water-logged controversies in the High Desert

Ask any juniper or brittlebush, water management in a desert environment is critical, tricky and politically prickly. The Source identifies these Top 10 issues as the most important we've tangled with lately in the High Desert.

1. Laying Pipe in our Backyard: Bridge Creek Surface Water Improvement Project

Whether it's a good project or not doesn't really matter anymore. The debacle over replacing pipes, building a hydropower plant and a new water-treatment facility has left the city with a dent in its credibility to rival the BAT buses. Plenty of people are convinced the city railroaded the $68 million project through without an open process. Critics, including several city councilors, want to go back to the drawing board. But city officials are under the gun to make the project happen before Skyliners Road is repaved by the county and the city misses a window to affordably lay the pipe under the road. The underlying issue here isn't really whether to replace old pipes, it's about how much water the city ultimately hopes to pull from Bridge Creek, which drains to Tumalo Creek. The 30-inch pipe the city is planning to lay could certainly pull more than the current 18.2 cubic feet per second. City officials say the time for talking this out is over, but environmental watchdog Central Oregon Landwatch could keep the conversation going in the courts for years to come.

2. Damn the Dam: Mirror Pond

Hoo-boy, what a cluster! The iconic pond in downtown Bend is chock full of silt and, unless something is done to clean out the muck, is headed to federally- protected wetland status. Not only are there 10 shades of perspectives on what to do here—including (crowd favorite!) blowing the Newport Avenue Dam, or dredging the pond, or doing nothing, and everything in between—no one seems to be stepping up to take full responsibility for addressing the problem.

Yes, both the city of Bend and the Bend Park & Recreation District have forked over cash to find a solution, but neither they nor any other entity actually controls the conversation. Two local administrative boards have been created to move a solution forward, but the ultimate answer is likely to be yet another layer of bureaucracy in the form of a new district—maybe one with taxing authority, because it seems no matter what we do here, someone has to pony up and pay.

3. Cancer Anyone? Avion Water Contains Carcinogens

Have you heard the news about Bend's water? So clean, so clear, so carcinogenic. Yes, if you get your water from the wells of southeast Bend's Avion Water, you're getting a little something extra—hexavalent chromium, to be specific. The city of Bend water system serves most Bend residents, but it's Avion that delivers to residents south of town. The 2010 Environmental Working Group study of water systems around the country, including Bend's, was met with skepticism about some sampling methods. Even so, that study prompted the Environmental Protection Agency to issue stricter guidelines about hexavalent chromium, though critics continue to press the agency for tougher standards.

4. Potty Talk: Nitrates in La Pine's Water

Down in south county, they've got a real problem. Both residential septic systems and drinking water wells are right at the surface, leading to some pretty significant contamination of drinking water with nitrates. Nitrates, which are most often leached from septic systems or fertilizers, mess with the body's ability to process oxygen. It's complicated, but could lead to significant health problems in adults and even death for infants. Really, though, the gross-out factor alone is enough to earn this issue a spot on our list. Here's to hoping that new test results released this winter will give officials the data they need to flush this problem away.

5. More Poop! Northside Sewers are Overflowing

In the past decade, manholes near the Highway 97 and Highway 20 interchange have overflowed multiple times. It's an indication the city must take action on our beleaguered wastewater system A-S-A-P. The process for upgrading the system is under way, but the full-price fix is upwards of $120 million—a scary number considering that the bulk of that cost will be shouldered by ratepayers in monthly bills. In the meantime, the city has pioneered a triage approach that seems to be working. An 18-person committee has ciphered out two projects that could help stave off a moratorium on development and prevent any more manhole eruptions.

6. The Blue Whale: Central Oregon's Aquifer

A few years ago, a study of the giant underground water reservoir beneath Central Oregon revealed some alarming news. In the area between Redmond and Prineville, the aquifer had dropped some 20 feet in 20 years. The conclusion of this and other studies is that our blue whale, so named because of a commonly used infographic, shows that we simply don't have enough water stored underground to keep pace with the demand for groundwater in the area. It is an issue we can't put off forever. More broadly, it cuts to the heart of pressing questions about development in the region—and those aren't easy to answer.

7. By The Balls:

Irrigation districts in Central Oregon

Property is nine-tenths of the law—an adage perfectly apropos to the knotty mess that is water rights management in the High Desert. But as complicated as it can be to figure out who will get what water from which waterway, one thing is always certain—the irrigation districts are gonna get theirs. Seven districts in the Upper Deschutes River Basin bring water to agricultural properties, by some estimates draining 97 percent of the Deschutes River in the summer. These districts own the most and the oldest surface water rights in the region. And that means no matter what you think about growing crops in the desert, these old-school operators hold all the cards. Getting them to the table in an effort to put more water back into streams and the river is a delicate balancing act that underscores some of the most difficult water issues in the state.

8. Stop the Seepage: Piping the Canals

Every April, the irrigation districts turn on the taps to bring water from the Deschutes and other Central Oregon streams, such as Tumalo and Whychus creeks. From the river to the farm, Deschutes River Conservancy estimates that about 50 percent of the water is lost due to seepage through the porous volcanic rocks that line these canals. Piping would surely cut down on the loss of water, but recent research shows that the canals are significant sources to recharge our aquifer, and piping could limit the amount of water heading to our already diminishing underground water source.

9. The Silent Polluter: Stormwater

In the Willamette Valley, where rain is as commonplace as putting on socks in the morning, stormwater on busy city streets is often managed through extensive catch systems that divert runoff into underground pipes. Stormwater then heads to the local treatment plant, preventing contamination of water sources with nastiness like oil, trash, fecal matter, pesticides and fertilizers. In our desert town, which gets only about 12 inches of rain a year, we have a limited system of piping—most of which, according to the city of Bend website, drains to Mirror Pond. Mostly, we inject our stormwater back underground, which can be dicey given the propensity for contamination of groundwater by all the nasty stuff collected in stormwater. This summer, the city will take a step forward in managing this issue and will shut down the Third Street underpass corridor to build a better collection system that, if all goes well, will solve both a flooding and contamination problem at one of the lowest points in the city.

10. Restoring Fish Runs:

The Pelton Round Butte Project

No discussion of water issues in Central Oregon is complete without an acknowledgement that man's interference with the river decimated fish passage from the Upper to the Lower Deschutes. But an unprecedented collaboration between the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and Portland General Electric led to the creation of a massive 275-foot tower mounted in the waters of Lake Billy Chinook that appears to be solving the problem. The tower mimics the original characteristics of the river telling fish how to get downstream. The upstream migration is managed by trucking fish around Round Butte Dam. The project recently led to the first salmon and steelhead runs in the Upper Deschutes since 1968.

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