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New, split Bend council stays course on water

By Barney Lerten
Published On: Feb 07 2013 04:00:31 AM CST
Updated On: Feb 07 2013 12:51:14 PM CST
Water faucet

BEND, Ore. -

Leave it to new Bend Mayor Jim Clinton, perhaps the record-holder on the losing end of 6-1 votes in his years on the city council, to wrap up the new council’s first, at-times contentious discussion of the controversial $68 million Surface Water Improvement Project by garnering a 7-0 decision – and a fast one, no less.

“Let’s see if we can make a little progress in the next five minutes,” Clinton said, looking at the clock tick toward the regular 7 p.m. meeting time after the council had spent more than an hour of its work session wrestling with whether and, if so, how to change course on the project that’s already been tied up in court by its critics.

He posed the question to colleagues: Do you favor the city giving up its dual sources of water – from the Bridge Creek tributary of Tumalo Creek, and from groundwater wells – and to move to groundwater alone?

It was a work session, so it was more a nod of heads – but each councilor gave a one-word answer: “No.”

That result brought some laughter on an issue that’s been anything but fun for the city since the massive water project ran into stormy opposition – and a court fight that prompted a project halt last fall. Some, though not all of those foes feel that the city should drill more wells and end its century or so of pulling water from the creek.

But at the end of the night, after dealing with other business, the council came back to the water project issue, largely because a hearing is scheduled in just two weeks on one related, appealed item, the city’s Public Facilities Plan. And on a 4-3 vote, the council decided the city should stay the course on the $20 pipeline replacement/intake facility project, facing a tight schedule even if the city prevails on those court appeals.

Many of those critics no doubt were disappointed by the new council’s first water project decisions, especially since new councilors Victor Chudowsky, Doug Knight and Sally Russell won in part due to the criticism of the city’s process and plans. Though the planning has gone on for years, with plenty of public meetings, some still insist that the public has not been asked the community, in the right times and ways, what it wants to do.

(And one big factor that can't be avoided: The city says nearly $15 million of the $20 million price tag for the water pipe/intake facility work already has been spent -- so the new councilors likely have found that, timing-wise, this ship has, for the most part, sailed -- and changing course could be even costlier.)

The split breakdown among councilors was less clear on related issues, such as whether to change course on ay membrane filter water treatment to meet the EPA’s 2014 water-treatment deadline for the city – one City Manager Eric King says the feds already know cannot be met, due to the court injunction and its delays.

Clinton kept working to keep the council on track, framing the issues with questions revolving a March 2012 council resolution that modified the water plans, but pulled back to study mode on the water treatment options and on a planned hydropower plant to garner revenue. Even with those changes, Clinton had cast one of those lone no votes on the resolution, saying the city was spending too much and had moved too fast.

As is turns out, King told councilors Wednesday night that the last in a series of water rate hikes last summer means no more rate increases will be needed to pay for the new water pipeline or intake facility.

Whether the treatment plant will require higher rates depends in part on whether the membrane filter or a cheaper ultraviolet filtration system is employed. (And then there’s the cost of replacing an untold number of other aging, failing water pipes buried across the city.)

“Are we continuing the same path, or wanting to look at other options?” Clinton said.

Councilor Mark Capell said the decision last March was “an effort to compromise,” and he still supports the resolution. Like the critics, he said he’d like to put more water into Tumalo Creek, but he said that means more work with the Tumalo Irrigation District, which withdraws the majority of water that leaves the creek.

As for the big cost, Capell said he’s thinking long-term, such as the future cost of electricity for those groundwater well pumps: “Do you want free water that flows by gravity, or to pump it at a cost out of the ground?”

Knight appeared to be the strongest supporter of revisiting the entire pipeline issue

“I do agree with Mark that we need to take a long-term approach to infrastructure solutions,” said the former long-time planning commission member. “To me, that means minimizing our capital up-front costs.”

“I believe we have taken our eyes off the ball on meeting EPA compliance,” he said, instead spending $21 million on a new pipeline – without proof, in his view, that the current, leaking, decades-old pipes can’t be repaired instead.

Knight offered up this analogy: “It’s a little like invading Iraq when we should have been concentrating our efforts in Afghanistan.”

Russell voiced a similar view: “I think it’s time for us to stop and take a look at this project. The city has a lot of infrastructure needs.” And she said she thought the city had “lost sight of the rest of the water system that serves the city,” and what it’ll need.

(Later Wednesday night, by the way, the council had another unanimous vote, directing staff to proceed with some short-term sewer fixes while a citizen panel keeps working on the long-range issues)

At that point in the water discussion, Capell – who said last month he was looking forward to less “boring” council meetings -- began to bristle and make that happen, noting the pressing deadlines to get water pipe work done during low summer flows, before an upcoming Skyliners Road rebuilding project.

“You’re going to end up delaying the project, which loses the season this full to put pipe in the ground,” he said. “The minority opinion, in opposition of this project – because they can’t win the argument, they delay the project until they win. They delay and delay and delay, and end up costing the city money.”

“I wouldn’t put it that way,” Knight said, noting that The Bulletin saw the fall election as a “mandate” to revisit the water project.

“I don’t agree,” Capell replied.

Councilor Jodie Barram said she was willing to reevaluate the filtration options, while Scott Ramsay said he still backs the resolution he voted for last March “as it stands.”

Chudowsky said he “struggled” with what position to take, but after his review and staff’s answers to a list of questions he submitted, “I think we’re stuck with the current pipeline configuration.”

“Given the water rights issues around the (19)50s pipe, I had staff investigate the option of a smaller, narrower pipe (than planned), to kind of replicate the current system, as much as possible,” he said. But he learned that would end up costing $1.5 million more than the current pipe, “so that’s out for me.”

Clinton said he believed he heard four councilors willing to consider changes, “interested in having a more careful process. … It’s been going along in a way that probably could have been done better, in my opinion.” But he added, “We are where we are here. A large amount of money has been spent. Nevertheless, I think we need to put everything on the table and take a look at it, and get more assistance from the community.”

But Capell said he saw three, not four, in that mode – Clinton, Russell and Knight. The others, he said, don’t appear to be calling for a stop on the water pipeline project, only wanting to review treatment and hydro options.

“I didn’t hear a consensus of the council saying to go back and revisit the whole thing,” he said.

“That was my opinion,” Clinton said.

City Attorney Mary Winters said the council is scheduled at its next meeting in two weeks to hear the state “remand” of the city’s Public Facilities Plan, which she laid out as a simple process of providing more information on the water project. But she said that timetable is crucial to get a permit approved by the Forest Service and meet the construction window at Skyliners Road.

“We don’t have the luxury of delaying – we lose opportunities,” she warned.

And that’s the sentiment that prevailed as the meeting ended.

Knight read a prepared statement, urging spending ratepayer funds as prudently as possible, but not wanting to waste the "sunk costs," so laid out a list of suggestions, including to return or offer for resale the pipe materials.

Ramsay responded that the current pipe runs at full capacity to prevent collapse, so to wait 25 to 30 years and use the "decrepit pipe" would be wrong, and allow for a possible burst or spill in the forest.

But Knight said he'd seen only scant anecdotal evidence of serious problems with the current pipe: "I don't see evidence to me that we need to replace the entire pipe right now."

Russell said she believed there are still "incremental options" to not spend so much money up front, But Capell stood his ground and said to wait would just mean higher costs down the road, and "another year lost."

Consultant Tom Hickmann said, "Based on the condition of the existing pipes and ... threat of failure, they probably would not approve us using the existing alignment." The current permit allows the city to replace the two current 24-inch pipes, but decades ago, a repair project was abandoned as unworkable due to technical concerns.

"Even if we tried to go in today and follow the permit we have, they wouldn't allow it," Hickmann said. "They would prefer us out of the existing alignment. ... They would prefer us under the roadway and sharing the existing easement."

Clinton noted that while the project is on hold due to an appeal, more appeals could happen, whatever new direction the city goes.

Knight’s motion to open, but continue the Feb. 20 hearing while the whole project is reviewed died for a lack of a second.

Ramsay made a motion, seconded by Capell, to continue with the current plans, knowing the council will revisit one section of last year’s resolution involving the water filtration and hydroelectric aspects.

Clinton said he'd like to reopen the pipeline issue in hopes of resolving the appeals, while Russell said she wanted to reach out to the community at least one more time.

But after all that discussion, Barram, Ramsay, Capell and Chudowsky voted in favor, while Clinton joined Knight and Russell in voting no.

"So much for kumbaya," said Capell with a smile after the first (but no doubt far from last) 4-3 vote of the new council.

"Well, you wanted a lively debate," Russell replied in lighthearted fashion.

"And we still respect each other," Barram said, echoing another Capell plea.

The council wrapped up its work shortly before 11 p.m.

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