In 2015 the Bend Park and Recreation District released a "Community Vision for Mirror Pond" after a series of community meetings and public outreach. Two years before that, Pacific Power publicly said it might decommission the century-old Newport Dam, which created Mirror Pond. The City of Bend and BPRD wrestled with impacts of Mirror Pond for years, namely a costly process of removing built-up sediment on the riverbed called dredging.
Besides the question of who would pay to dredge, the public and government agencies thought long-term about Mirror Pond. On one end of the spectrum, people argued that the dams should be decommissioned and the Deschutes returned to its natural free-flowing state. On the other were people who viewed Mirror Pond as iconic and wanted it retained. Pacific Power ended the possibility of a free-flowing river when it confirmed it would continue operations at the Newport Dam for the "foreseeable future," but the 2015 Community Vision offered a middle ground —retaining Mirror Pond but finding ways to enhance the habitat and enable fish passage.
The City and BPRD adopted resolutions in 2019 to create the Mirror Pond Fish Passage and Advisory Committee, which would analyze the available options for fish passage between May 2021 and June 2023.
"The city talked about dredging, and then Park and Rec talked about dredging. As an outgrowth of that, Bend Park and Rec said, 'before we go any further on this one thing, if the dam stays, then, at the very least, before we talk any further about dredging or the future of the pond or anything like that, we want to see serious discussion of fish passage past the dam,'" said BPRD Board Member Nathan Hovekamp. "It was kind of like, a prerequisite to looking at some of these other obviously connected issues."
The committee is comprised of conservationists, government officials and representatives from Pacific Power. Overall, it met 14 times, discussing options laid out by consultants: a roughened channel, a conventional fish ladder or a nature-like fishway.
A roughened channel could've impacted maintenance on the dam and conventional fish-ladders look artificial — which is counter to preferences in the 2015 vision — and couldn't be repurposed if the dam does close. The committee decided unanimously on a nature-like fishway, a channel around the dam made from natural materials like logs and rocks.
"This nature-like fishway, it's that sweet spot where it's more natural materials, rock, logs, things like that. And it's small enough that we could repurpose it into some larger project, if that was the case years down the road," said Kirs Knight, executive director of the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council and member of the MPFPAC. "This happens to be the most cost effective; that's not the sole reason by any stretch that it was selected."
The fish passage would be most beneficial for the Redband Trout traveling between Lake Billy Chinook and Wikiup Reservoir. The dam is the most significant manmade obstacle for fish traveling on that section of the river, second only to natural features such as Steelhead Falls.
"This was an exciting opportunity to provide passage and open up miles and miles of fish habitat upstream of that dam," Hovekamp said. "Not only of fish but providing connectedness to other vertebrates and even invertebrates."
The Bend City Council and BPRD accepted the recommendations at a joint meeting on June 21, but are still considering the next steps. The conceptual recommendation doesn't specify designs, costs or funding structures to build a passage. There's also no direction on which entity is going to maintain it or own it once it's completed.
"There's still a lot to be answered there, but it's very doable. And I think if we keep clipping things along, I think we can answer those questions in a reasonable timeframe," Hovekamp said.
Knight, of the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council, said his organization is experienced in finding federal and state grants to subsidize projects and is currently looking at fundraising the fish passage. But, he also warned that projects like this can take a long time to get built.
"We've got a concept to try and move forward now. These things take time and funding. It has taken us a couple of years to agree on this concept, and now we can use that momentum to go and figure out how to design it, and then ultimately build it. All the partners are wanting to continue to work together and figure this out. But, these things don't just happen quickly; good things take time," Knight said.