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Doing the Dam Thing 

A plan for Mirror Pond moves forward despite dissent

When the Mirror Pond Ad-Hoc Committee first presented its hybrid proposal for addressing the failing Newport Avenue dam last November, the plan was well received. For a time, it seemed as if the committee had accomplished the impossible—bridging the chasm of public opinion between those who want to repair the dam and save Mirror Pond and those who want to remove the dam and let the Deschutes River run free.

But like all good things, that apparent accord came to a clear end last Wednesday.

Following a thumbs up from the Bend Park and Recreation District Board, City Council narrowly voted—after about three hours of public comment and debate—to support the committee's "preferred alternative" and authorize it to conduct a feasibility study and economic analysis.

The 4-3 split on Council appears to be representative of a continuing divide in the community at large. And that discontent is finding an outlet in action through two ballot measure petition efforts, led by local activist (and partner of Councilor Barb Campbell) Foster Fell. He is circulating two petitions aimed at putting Mirror Pond's future on the May 2015 ballot—one for the Parks District and one for the City—both of which aim to protect redband trout habitat and prevent future dredging.

Though the committee's proposal includes enhancing habitat, enabling fish passage and reducing dredging frequency among its seven primary aims, some are concerned that the Parks and Rec and City Council are putting the cart before the horse. In this case, the horse is science, specifically as it pertains to the health of the river.

"[The science is] not even included at all. It's a completely unstudied option," says City Councilor Nathan Boddie, who voted in the minority. "I don't think there's been any analysis of impacts. It was premature to give it an up-down vote."

Even those who support the preferred alternative say it's more of a vision than a plan, and stress that the science will necessarily come out in further study.

"Like any sort of novel manuscript, we're gonna change a lot of chapters and edit the manuscript," explains Jayson Bowerman, 40, one of the organizers behind the Colorado Dam Whitewater Park project. "I don't think there's any easy way to solve this whole problem. It may be the most complicated public process undertaken in Bend in our generation."

Bowerman, who grew up locally, says he can relate to those who want to free the river and admits he'd love to see more dams come down. But he doesn't think that it's politically, or environmentally, feasible.

"This notion of, 'Let's free the Deschutes!' is misguided. You can't take it back to 1910," Bowerman says, adding that the question should be, "How do we position the river to be the best it can be for the next 100 years?"

Answering that question is ostensibly part of the process. According to the committee's draft plan, any work done in-water would have to be permitted by city, state and federal agencies. A number of regulatory agencies—including the Oregon Division of State Lands, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Oregon Water Resources Division and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality—have indicated to the committee that its vision, as presented in the draft, would likely meet current requirements for improving water quality and habitat.

But those regulations have not been sufficient to stifle skepticism. Casey Corcoran, 32, who runs the Blackjack Bioregional Info Shop and is active with the local Cascadia movement, is among those unconvinced that the public-private partnership approach will prioritize the health of the river.

"It's not about returning to some primitive ideal," Corcoran explains, noting that he is also looking to the next century. "There could be something there that doesn't turn it into a mudflat. We can do a creative restoration, but it needs to be a restoration."

He says that while he understands the argument for seeking private investment, he doesn't believe the redevelopment of downtown should be linked with the dam removal. Rather, Corcoran says he believes the community should be focused solely on restoring the health of the river and the fish that call it home.

"I feel both the legal moral and spiritual obligation to bring back the life of this watershed," he says, explaining that the watershed as a whole has deeper significance than the photo opportunity that is Mirror Pond. "There are residents of our watershed whose spirituality is based on it. It's offensive to me that a small group of investors can claim to have a majority on this. This is treaty territory."

Mel Sweet, a 35-year-old natural resources student at OSU-Cascades, agrees that the focus should be on the health of the river.

"I think that water quality should be the driver in this case," Sweet says, noting that most of the Deschutes River, including the portions that cut through Bend, is on the Clean Water Act's "303(d)" list of impaired or threatened waters. "Not everyone understands that Mirror Pond is a pretty unhealthy spot."

Eyesore, or sight for sore eyes, Mirror Pond's future is still very much in the balance.

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