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It Doesn't Have to be This Way 

A look at the successes of other Central Oregon dam-removal efforts

Want to know what Mirror Pond could look like without a dam? Experts say: Think like a child. Or, in other words, use some imagination.

Just don't presume the banks along Mirror Pond will look as raw and muddy as they recently have, two weeks after a significant leak in the 103-year-old Newport Avenue Dam drained the pond and allowed the Deschutes River to return to an approximation of its original channel.

According to area conservationists and scientists, a free-flowing river near downtown Bend would not only benefit fish and wildlife habitats, but the possibilities for increased park space and native-plant landscaping would also grow. As an example, river conservationists like Ryan Houston, executive director of the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, point to the success of other Central Oregon dam removal projects to show what could be accomplished at Mirror Pond, which has become shallow, silt-filled and choked by weeds.

Take the 2006 restoration project at Lake Creek, near the Lake Creek Lodge in Camp Sherman: There, a concrete dam created a warm, silt-filled pond—not unlike the scenario at Mirror Pond, just smaller in scale, says Houston. In order to create a healthier river habitat and a more attractive water feature, the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council partnered with other local agencies to remove the dam and restore the banks along the creek.

During construction, Lake Creek—like Mirror Pond now—was an ugly, muddy mess, Houston remembers. Today, however, the banks of Lake Creek are lush and green, thick with native grasses, river rocks and flowering plants. And just beyond the riparian corridor—just a few feet from the creek—are fields of thick grass maintained by the Lake Creek Lodge.

"Practically speaking, it's a fairly similar concept," Houston says, comparing the restoration efforts at Lake Creek to what could be done at Mirror Pond. "The same principles apply." And the model is easy to tweak, Houston says, depending on what the community wants. Greater vegetation or more open views—it's simply a mater of planting high or low-growing plant species.

Houston adds that it was surprising how quickly the project took hold and how good it looked just months after their construction and restoration efforts were completed.

Matt Shinderman, a natural resources professor at Oregon State University-Cascades, agrees.

"It looks great now—it looks like it was always that way," Shinderman says. And, he adds, the situation at Mirror Pond could benefit from similar efforts.

"If we took an active role, certainly in some of those areas those banks could be made really attractive."

Aside from aesthetics, the dam removal and other improvements at Lake Creek, an important tributary to the Metolius River, had environmental benefits as well. Similarly, the Deschutes River, its surrounding river basin and the community all stand to gain should the Newport Avenue Dam be removed, Houston says.

The advantages of a dam removal scenario—one of the many options floated by the Mirror Pond Steering Committee, a group that's charged with drafting a fix for the shallow pond—are numerous. But, from the perspective of the river's health, there are two driving reasons to take down the ailing dam, Houston points out.

For one, a freer-flowing river would allow migrating fish to travel up and downstream. Currently, the Newport Avenue dam is the only dam in Bend that doesn't allow for fish passage, or include plans to create fish passage. All the other dams do. A dam removal scenario, says Houston and his peers, would be a boon for river habitat.

"We would then have fish passage all the way up and down the Deschutes—and that's important for the fish," Houston says.

Secondly, without a dam the river's water would change from near stagnant to moving, which means increased oxygen—another improvement for fish and wildlife habitat.

The community is still waiting for Pacific Power, the utility company that owns the dam, to conduct an inspection of the leak and decide whether the dam—which creates enough power for about 400 homes—has outlived its usefulness.

On Monday, however, in what seemed an odd turn of events, the muddy shoals of Mirror Pond—exposed since the leak burst almost two weeks ago—disappeared as the urban pond once again filled with water. This rapid reversal surprised almost everyone involved with the river and its fluctuating levels, including Mirror Pond project manager Jim Figurski and Kyle Gorman, the Oregon Water Resource Department's south central regional manager—especially since the leak in the dam remains.

The explanation for the quick fill, though, is surprisingly simple: Monday morning marked the official end of irrigation season, which resulted in more water in town—about 220 cubic feet per second more—as diversions to upstream canals were shut off. Because of the nature of the leak, Gorman and others were unsure if the pond would remain full or once again be drained by the breach in the dam.

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