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Flushed Away: City hydro project could be a drain on Tumalo Creek 

City hydro project could be a drain on Tumalo Creek.

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You wouldn't guess it from the rain soaked streets this week or the water gushing down Tumalo Creek, but there are signs aplenty that the upper Deschutes basin is running out of water to meet the demand of farms, cities and fish - all of which have legal, as well as historical and biological, cases for getting their share of water, especially during the parched summer months.

Recent data indicates that well owners are drilling deeper to hit groundwater, hinting that population growth and other high-intensity uses like golf courses may be negatively impacting the aquifer - something that just a few years ago experts said wasn't likely to happen under the current rules. Meanwhile, pending applications for new groundwater withdrawals are approaching the ceiling the legislature set up when it crafted a series of special rules to stave off a potential development moratorium.

In the case of Bend, conservation campaigns have done little to curb residents' thirst. The city still ranks significantly higher than similarly sized cities in the valley for per capita water use. And the city council recently spiked a proposal to address the problem with a tiered-rate structure that would have charged big-time water users more than conservation-minded residents. Still, the city has prided itself on being a leader on the basin's water issues, working collaboratively with groups like the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, the Deschutes Resource Conservancy (DRC) and the local irrigation districts on river restoration efforts designed to restore habitat and pump up traditionally meager summer flows on the Deschutes River and its tributaries.

That's why the city's latest water initiative has left some environmental advocates puzzled. Buried inside Bend's massive surface water treatment plan, which emerged last month, is an initiative that could more than double the city's withdrawal from Bridge Creek, potentially wiping out some of the summer and winter flows downstream in Tumalo Creek, a major tributary to the middle Deschutes that has already had millions of dollars invested in restoration efforts to offset the effects of erosion and excessive water withdrawals.

The city has yet to release the exact details of its diversion plan, though a feasibility report was due out last month. One of the major elements of the plan, however, is already raising a cautionary flag with some observers. Specifically, the city is proposing to add a small hydropower project to its water supply when it replaces a pipeline that funnels a sizeable chunk of the city's drinking water from Bridge Creek to the Outback storage facility. The city estimates that by pushing drinking water through a turbine system before funneling it into the storage tanks, it could generate $1.8 million worth of electricity.

The only problem: nobody, except maybe the city, knows just how much surface water - one of the basin's most scarce and precious resources - the city would have to divert to meet those estimates. And right now the city isn't talking. According to the Department of Water Resources, Bend holds certificates for about 36 cubic feet per second (cfs) of surface water in Bridge Creek, or about 16,000 gallons per minute. However, the city diverts only about 14 cfs of that on any given day. The rest of the water is set aside for irrigation and "in-stream" flows - the water that is left in the river for fish and all other manner of life that depend on the river for sustenance.

Prior to the 1980s, and for the better part of a century, that number was zero. The state never saw fit to leave any water in Tumalo Creek when it doled out water rights around the turn of the century and farmers and irrigators weren't about to hand over their water to a few trout and snails. As community values changed and people began to put a greater weight on the inherent value of a natural river, irrigators responded. In the case of Tumalo Creek, the irrigation district changed its point of diversion from near the source of Tumalo Creek to its current location downstream of Shevlin Park, the move restored summer water to roughly ten miles of stream, around Bend's urban area.

"Tumalo Creek since the mid-'90s has been on a restoration trend," said Scott McCaulou, Deschutes River Conservancy program director.

"The situation in Tumalo Creek has been improving over the past 15 years in large part because of Tumalo Irrigation District's desire to deal with the problem," said McCaulou, who oversees DRC's upper basin leasing and water bank programs aimed at restoring flows on the Deschutes River and its tributaries.

In addition to changing its point of diversion, the irrigation district also embarked on several water conservation projects with the assistance of the DRC and other state and federal agencies, McCaulou said.

Those projects, which consisted of replacing miles of open canals with watertight pipes, resulted in restored flows of about 8 cfs, or about 3,500 gallons per minute, below the district's diversion near Shevlin Park. It's the only thing keeping the water in that stretch of the river during peak irrigation months of August and September.

At this point it doesn't appear that the conserved water from those projects is in any danger of being diverted by the city, but it could make it difficult to add more flow to that trickle that represents just a fraction of the water requested for fish by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

And it could impact how much water tumbles down the stream at other important times of the year, including the late spring when fish are beginning to spawn in shallow gravels.While a few cubic feet may not seem like much in a basin that flushes hundreds of gallons of water per second through its canals, it can have a significant impact on a small stream like Tumalo Creek, staving off fish mortality in summer months when water temperatures soar as well as preventing damaging ice-over events during the winter months.

"A few cfs is a significant volume of water in this context where maybe it isn't on the main stem (of the Deschutes). Small changes could have a large impact and that's one of the things that we're interested in having a conversation with the city about once the plan is available," McCaulou said.

It's more than just a philosophical or abstract management question. The DRC, in collaboration with other state and federal agencies, has invested some $5 to $7 million in Tumalo Creek since restoration efforts started, mostly in the form of piping projects.

The DRC isn't the only organization to pour resources into Tumalo Creek restoration in the recent past. The Upper Deschutes Watershed Council has also made a significant investment in Tumalo, mostly in the form of stream channel work designed to counteract erosion and enhance habitat.

The city's diversion and hydro plan was the topic of discussion at a recent Watershed Council board meeting. And while the council is taking a wait-and-see approach on the issue, it's watching closely. Like the DRC, the watershed council hasn't heard much from the city and is waiting for its technical documents to see how much deference the city has given to the environmental issues. But right now, watershed council has very little to go on.

"We don't know what their intention is, what they want to do, or what the consultants say they should do," said Watershed Council Executive Director Ryan Houston.

A lack of a clear plan of action, however, didn't stop the city from recently moving ahead with a major piece of the project. Last month, the city council authorized staff to purchase the steel pipe for the transmission line.

Veteran Bend City Councilor Jim Clinton explained the purchase as something less than a commitment to the Bridge Creek project. Should the city decide to go a different route, Clinton said it could simply recoup its investment by re-selling the pipe - for which there is presumably a demand. Still, the fact that the city would write a check for the pipe has some questioning just how serious the city is about considering other options.

"It's probably one of the only times I've ever seen a government entity agree to buy materials before they actually had a feasibility report that was out and made public for comment. A lot of people might say, 'So what?' but usually these kinds of issues are expanded upon when we're talking about a pretty important resource like Tumalo Creek," said Tom Davis, a retired engineer and Sisters resident who sits on the Upper Deschutes Watershed Board and is active in fish conservation issues throughout the basin on behalf of the Native Fish Society.

While the Source had a relatively long list of questions for the city about its plan, as well as issues related to its current conservation strategy, phone calls to staff weren't returned until after deadline. But some of the city's existing public research does illuminate. For example, the city opted to purchase a pipe that is more than double the system's current capacity, indicating that it plans to, at some point in time, divert more water. However, there are some legal limitations. According to a consultant report for the city released in September, the city can only divert water for hydro that is actually being used in the drinking system. Whether that would limit how much the city diverts depends on just how many showers and sprinklers are running on a given day - and perhaps on who is counting.

But with a strong financial incentive to divert more water (more water = more power = more dollars) don't expect the city to pass on any water it can get. As the report indicates the city is counting on the fact that, "water will be available for generations up to the anticipated right/water use volume for each year."

Not everyone at the city agrees that it should pursue an aggressive diversion strategy. Clinton, who also sits on the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, said he supports the project, but only if the city limits its withdrawal to its historical diversion from Bridge Creek.

"I think that whatever the city does it should hold Tumalo Creek harmless," Clinton said. "That's a lot different than saying, 'Let's not do Bridge Creek at all.'"

Clinton isn't the only one on the city council approaching the project with caveats. Not everyone is convinced that preserving the surface diversion makes sense. New federal drinking water rules, which were a big impetus for starting the conversation on the future of the Bridge Creek supply, apply only to surface water, but require from Bend an investment somewhere between $17 million and $30 million to meet new federal treatment standards. There's also the question of the hydropower feasibility. While the physics are pretty straightforward - water comes downhill and turns a wheel - the economics are a little murkier. Due to the various tax incentives incorporated in the initial outline of the project the city would have to find a private partner to pick up as much as half of the initial investment in the project, or about $41 million when the pipe is included.

Yet there are some upsides to the project. The revenue from the hydro plant would help cut down on planned water-rate increases to the city's customers. Under one scenario outlined by city staff, the annual-rate increase would be about half what it otherwise would over the next five years if hydro is included. There is also paradoxically an environmental incentive. Wells and pumps (the alternative if Bridge Creek is retired) are huge energy consumers. If the city went that route, it would be importing more energy, likely from coal plants and salmon-killing Columbia dams, to run its wells, rather than exporting hydropower from an existing pipeline.

While staff has pushed these benefits, some councilors are still eyeing the project cautiously.

"There are just so many moving parts with this issue. My main point from the get-go is let's try to turn this into a series of manageable decisions, rather than just say let's go forward with treatment and the whole piping, or let's not do that. There's no reason why right now we have to make the ultimate management decision," said Bend City Councilor Jeff Eager.

In the meantime, if the city can't find a partner for its hydro project, Eager said it might make sense for the staff to start looking at the possibility of moving away from surface water and relying on more wells. In the end, it may just come down to dollars and cents. City staff estimates that energy sales from the hydro project would generate $176 million over the next 50 years, an attractive proposition for a city that has been through several rounds of lay-offs.

But without a private partner, the hydro project is a bust and city-rate payers would have to shoulder the entire cost of the new pipeline through rate increases and charges on new development, which under one scenario could amount to an annual rate increase of up to 10 percent through 2014.

"That's really the linchpin of the hydro project, if that doesn't materialize or it looks like we can't do that, then maybe a great reliance on groundwater makes sense," Eager said.

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