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Take Me to the River 

If the city is working toward water conservation, why are environmentalists so upset?

During a special meeting on Friday, the Bend City Council, ostensibly, voted in favor of the environment when they pledged to limit drains on Bridge Creek, the city's main water supply source.

The small Tumalo Creek tributary remains at the center of a discussion about how to improve flows in the watershed, particularly in the future as Bend's water demands increase. Toward that end, the city is working to replace the old water pipelines and intake facility at Bridge Creek, located in the hills west of town. But the project is on hold because of a lawsuit filed by Central Oregon LandWatch in November. The Bend conservation group asserts that the Forest Service signed off on the pipe project without properly weighing its environmental impacts.

Friday's unanimous vote to work toward leaving more water in Bridge and Tumalo Creeks seemed like a river-friendly move—more water in the creeks is good for the fish and the Deschutes River—but environmentalists worry that it's all a bunch of meaningless lip service.

"These things can be changed anytime," says Central Oregon LandWatch founder and attorney Paul Dewey of Friday's resolution. "There's nothing significant about what they did today."

Dewey's concern, and that of other local river stewards, hinges on the amount of water the city is allowed to draw from Bridge Creek. Here's how the current system works: The city pulls 18.2 cubic feet per second from the Bridge Creek intake, pipes the water to the Outback water facility and, whatever water the city doesn't use, it pipes back into the watershed. On average, roughly 9 cfs are returned to Tumalo Creek. Under the new proposed system, which includes installation of a much larger pipe—one with the capacity to take up to 36 cfs—a flow valve will be installed at the Bridge Creek intake and the city could decide how much to draw, based on needs. Initially, the city would only be allowed to draw 18.2 cfs, but Dewey worries they'd soon take much more.

Allowing the city to effectively double its draw on the creek, Dewey says, is a dangerous scenario.

"They're building a pipe that's so big that there's no way they're not going to use more (water)," says Dewey. "Their full intent is to max it out."

Nikki Roemmer, regional director of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, was more optimistic about Friday's resolution, but just a tad.

"It's the first step in the right direction," she says of the city's pledge to target in-stream flow regimes, as set by the Water Resource Department. The final wording was amended after city councilor Jodie Barram requested the change, based on a number of emails she received from concerned community members.

Still, Roemmer would like to see the city go one step farther and commit to a hard number. The city's stated goal of maintaining 32 cfs in Tumalo Creek would be a bold, but environmentally effective policy, notes Roemmer. Presently, only about 10 cfs flows through the creek.

"I think what's failing to be mentioned is why we want increased flows," Roemmer adds. "It's so that we'll still have fish in that stream, and so that we'll have cold water in the Deschutes where fish can thrive."

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