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Muddying The Waters: Mirror Pond sedimentation offers no easy solutions 

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Before event organizers moved the Pole Pedal Paddle upstream to the Old Mill in 2004 it wasn't unusual to spot frustrated canoeists and kayakers trying to free their boats from the muck that had gathered just inches underneath the surface of Mirror Pond. Today boaters know better than to venture out of the narrow channel when they paddle Mirror Pond, if they paddle at all.

The iconic feature that has framed many a postcard and just happens to adorn the label of Bend's flagship beer is being choked to death by sediment. But fixing the problem involves more than just scooping out a few shovelfuls of dirt.

Initial estimates to dredge the pond run between $2 million and $5 million at a time when the city of Bend doesn't have cash to support basic services like buses and road maintenance. And while the city has taken the lead on solutions for our disappearing pond, officials now say they aren't going to foot the bill or subsidize a solution with staff time.

Even if a large pot of money could be identified, say through the economic stimulus package, there's no guarantee that the community could secure the necessary regulatory permits from state and federal agencies to restore an aesthetic but otherwise unnecessary feature on the river.

"The real issue right now for Mirror Pond is that whenever there is going to be dredging, or any kind of project involving a river, you are required to obtain federal and state permits," said Ryan Houston, executive director of Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, which put together a recent report on the status of Mirror Pond for the city.

"There has to be an evaluation to document that the activity in question is the best possible scenario given what needs to be accomplished. If someone just walks in the door and says, 'Hey, I want to dredge the river,' the federal and state governments are going to ask why, and ask that person to complete research that documents why. Whatever scenario or approach that is developed needs to be one that is justifiable," Houston said.

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Additionally, if there is federal funding involved, another environmental review process is required, Houston continued. "The Federal Clean Water Act regulates what people can and can't do with rivers and streams. Generally speaking, when some type of construction occurs in a river or stream, you have to get the required permits to ensure you are in compliance with The Clean Water Act. At the state level, the program is called 'The State Removal-Fill Law,' and it regulates what kind of removal or fill of material people can do in waterways. It's all part of trying to protect the integrity of waterways."

At this point it looks like any work on the ground for Mirror Pond is at least two years off. The city plans to convene a seven-member independent advisory board, which will report back to the city council this fall. It will be charged with weighing the pros and cons of both options, and deciding whether or not it is appropriate to secure funding for the project, as well as the state and federal permits required to move forward.

The independent board will consist of people from seven different groups: the Bend City Council, Bend's Metro Park and Recreation District, the Deschutes Basin Board of Control or another irrigation management organization, the Bend Chamber of Commerce or other local business organization, Pacific Power, adjacent neighborhood associations or property owners, and a local river or watershed management organization.

City Councilor Jim Clinton said the primary purpose of bringing these particular stakeholders to the table is to find a source of funding for the project - whatever shape it takes. Clinton, who chaired a technical advisory committee on Mirror Pond just a few years ago, said he believes the city needs to look at solutions beyond just dredging the muck and starting over.

"I think everyone is kind of frustrated that this has been hanging around as an issue for a long time, but you have to go step-by-step. You just can't go in there and dredge, for example. The regulations require that you have to consider different various options and that you choose the best one under the criteria established," Clinton said.

But Clinton acknowledged that some of the city councilors, as well as some of the stakeholders might not be on the same page in that respect.

"Probably some are more likely to say that you have to go in there and dredge the thing like we did before," he said. "But the work has changed, the regulatory environment has changed, and the understanding of what causes these problems has changed."

Houston said one part of the proposed project that is tricky is the boundaries of some property owned by residents of Bend actually extend out into the river, so the bottom of Mirror Pond is, as crazy as it sounds, owned by multiple people.

"There are also local businesses, irrigation districts and the general public who are stakeholders in this issue," Houston said. "It runs the entire spectrum of folks who own private land to municipal bodies to the general public. They each have an interest in what Mirror Pond looks like as a key feature of Bend. The city also needs to have a very careful community outreach process that establishes good conversations with the public about what type of approach makes sense."

Bend City Councilor Jodie Barram says a combined approach - some dredging and some restoration of areas along the waterway - is the way to go, from a political perspective.

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"The citizens of Bend have expressed a strong sentiment as far as what the community wants to do with Mirror Pond through various (surveys), such as Bend 2030," Barram said. "From that and other surveys the community has said it wants to keep Mirror Pond as an icon of Bend. Most people have said they don't want a full-blown wetland to be created, nor do they want Mirror Pond dredged to the point of causing irreparable environmental damage, either. The advisory group being put together will help us find that balance and make sure that all concerned parties are at the table to discuss it."

Bend City Manager Eric King says the city will not dedicate staff to the feasibility study other than to facilitate meetings, and that local government's role is limited at best.

"We don't see ourselves as a funder of this project," King said. "The city does not have much of a stake other than as a neutral convener. We're in the middle of our budget process right now and that takes more of a priority than forming the (review) board.

King said also that it's important for the city to come up with a strategy that provides for a long-term solution to the sedimentation at Mirror Pond - something a wholesale dredging of the river wouldn't do.

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"The big thing for this community is to evaluate the alternatives to dredging. People tend to react to this as either dredging or no dredging, but it's not that simple. There are a lot of options, including those that would prevent the community from having to do this every 20 years or so. It's a pretty big time-suck to go through all of this," he said.

But the first thing that needs to be done is to develop some kind of local consensus on what the river should look like in the future, given the regulatory and financial constraints that community is working within, King said.

"No one wants to alter the character that Mirror Pond provides for the community, and if it can be accomplished in a way that minimizes ongoing costs and maintenance, and keeps it the way it looks right now, that would be optimal. There is a lot of science to it. As for politics, the community has to get behind an option that accomplishes those goals and if that happens the project will be in a better position to get funding. Whatever happens with Mirror Pond, Bend won't get federal funding for the project if the community is divided over it," King said.

With additional reporting by Eric Flowers

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