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A River Runs Through It? 

Inspectors say leaky dam is showing its age, neighbors get a glimpse of a river

Early last week, in order to get a good look at the leaking Newport Avenue Dam, Pacific Power, the utility company that owns the structure, drew down the already-low water levels of Mirror Pond (or, do we now call the water adjacent to Drake Park the Deschutes River?). The reason for lowering water levels even further, said officials for Pacific Power, is they want to get a good look at the 103-year-old structure and figure out whether it is even worth repairing.

While a full report is still weeks away, inspectors are relaying no real surprises about the dam's condition: It's old.

But, the two-day inspection did provide neighbors with an unintended consequence. It revealed what the aquatic area (seriously, do we call it a pond or a river now?) adjacent to Drake Park might look like were the dam removed. And, for at least a few days, the Deschutes River did an odd thing: After spending more than a century as a shallow pond, it flowed quietly and slowly past downtown Bend.

At least a few residents who live on the water were giving the new look a thumps up.

"As a person who has grown up around rivers my whole life, I like to see rivers in their natural state whenever possible," wrote Peter Lowes, an area real estate broker and business owner, in an email to the Source. "Living across from Mirror Pond, I would be in favor of seeing the Deschutes return to its natural flow."

Craig Lacy, who also lives on Mirror Pond and is a self-described "fly fishing gadfly," said whether a pond or a river, he'd first like to see the larger silt problem solved. For decades Lacy, a retired fish biologist, has worked to protect and preserve rivers in the American west. He explained that the biggest issue plaguing Mirror Pond is the fluctuating winter and summertime flows that erode the riverbanks and transport silt downriver. The flows are controlled by Oregon's Water Resource Department, which releases water from Wickiup Reservoir.

"It's a downward spiral," Lacy said. "That same silt in Mirror Pond has choked all the spawning beds." He stopped short, however, of calling for dam removal and admitted to sentimental attachment to the pond he's lived on 30 years. "I'm really torn on this issue," said Lacy.

His hope is that the silt problem is managed and that river temperatures are cooled and fish are allowed to more easily travel upstream.

Aside from revealing something close to the river's natural channel, the recent low flows—which have, to a large degree, been mitigated as Pacific Power started trapping water behind its leaky dam again last Friday—also exposed the river's banks. The expansive flats had many locals asking, what would happen to the newly exposed land were the pond to return to a river?

Such a scenario has been floated by members of the Mirror Pond Steering Committee and Management Board, some of the same people who will make the ultimate decision on the pond's fate. Project manager Jim Figurski said that the options for those banks are many—community members shouldn't feel bound to the exact renditions released this summer.

"Those [renditions] were pretty broad-based and generic," Figurski said. According to Figurski, increased park space, grassy lawns, wetland areas and native plants are all landscaping possibilities should those banks become a reality. "The one thing I've said repeatedly is there's a lot that can happen within options C and D," he added, referring to a menu of four different scenarios presented for the area's future. Both options, which can be viewed at mirrorpondbend.com, show a river without a dam.

The one scenario that is not likely to happen is for the landowners who live on the pond to enjoy an extension of their yard space due to a lower water line. According to Bend Park & Recreation District general manager Don Horton, the land underneath the pond still belongs to the McKay family. Members of the Mirror Pond Steering Committee have talked to the McKays about a possible purchase of that land and hope to proceed with those talks soon.

"It does make sense for that [the river banks] to be public property," Horton concluded. (Bruce McKay declined to comment on a potential sale.)

Before a preferred option for the silt-filled pond is agreed upon, though, Pacific Power must decide what to do with the compromised dam that currently only provides enough power for roughly 400 homes. The leak, which was first discovered on Oct. 2 and triggered last week's dam inspection, was not the dam's first, but the third such leak in six years. The breach was in one of the dam's 13 wooden bays and near where past repairs had been made.

"It's inline with our expectations, which is, it's old," said Pacific Power spokesperson Bob Gravely last week while standing on the Newport Avenue Bridge overlooking the dam. Gravely, who was relaying reports from the engineers onsite, went on to say that the dam would require "extensive work" to continue to make it operational in the long term.

"And that's what we suspected," he concluded.

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