Critics say hydro plant should be turned off

The aging power plant on the Deschutes River in downtown Bend is a money-loser, a fish-killer and an eyesore, and the community would be better off if it were shut down, critics of a plan to relicense the facility said Wednesday.

However, PacifiCorp officials said the hydro facility that ushered the electric age into Bend eight decades ago can be revitalized and made to safely churn out electricity for decades to come.

“It is old and tired, but there is nothing to preclude it from operations for another 30 years,” said Randy Landolt, a member of PacifiCorp’s hydro division.

PacifiCorp, the parent company of Pacific Power, is seeking a new 30-year federal license for the so-called Bend Project, the dam and power plant built by the now-defunct Bend Water, Light & Power Co. on the east bank of the Deschutes in 1910.

PacifiCorp officials held an all-day meeting in Bend Wednesday to gather comments of various local, state and federal agencies. The government leaders urged the utility to either retire the power plant or make major improvements in the facility.

Critics of the relicensing plan insisted that the utility take steps to reverse longstanding environmental problems, including damage to fish runs, problems created by ice buildup behind the dam and the sedimentation of Mirror Pond.

However, utility officials warned that the small hydroelectric project—which generates enough power to provide electricity to only about 400 homes—is not profitable enough to merit spending millions of dollars on fish screens and other improvements.

“This project cannot in and of itself support every improvement that people want to see,” Landolt said.

PacifiCorp officials sparred with Deschutes County Commissioner Tom Throop and other local government leaders over the question of whether the power plant is responsible for the heavy sediment buildup in Mirror Pond.

The sediment, which comes from eroding banks and other sources on the upper Deschutes River, is deposited in Mirror Pond when the river is slowed at the PacifiCorp dam.

“If the dam wasn’t there, and the power plant wasn’t there, there wouldn’t be a sedimentation problem in Mirror Pond,” Throop said.

“If the dam wasn’t there,” Landolt replied, “there wouldn’t be a Mirror Pond.”

PacifiCorp also was criticized for concluding that fish screens and other measures that would allow fish passage of the dam were simply too expensive to construct, given the limited production at the power plant.

A PacifiCorp study last year concluded that about 40,000 fish—including 1,200 to 1,400 rainbow trout—are swept into the powerhouse turbines each year.

However, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists said the study occurred at the tail end of a four-year drought, when fish populations were at perhaps an all-time low. In fact, biologist Ted Fies said, the number of fish that enter the powerhouse could be more than 100,000 a year.

Rich Kruger, another ODFW biologist, noted that a major effort is under way to improve fisheries in the upper Deschutes, including the stretch of river in the urban area.

“There is a lot of money being poured into this region to improve things. This is of a major importance to us,” Krugar said. “The Department (of Fish and Wildlife) is not going to back down on this.”

Dennis Canty, a National Park Service analyst, noted that PacifiCorp admitted that in the future the Bend Project will cost more to operate than it will produce in revenues. He said the power plant should be retired and the turbines removed, allowing for fish passage.

“This is a fundamentally inefficient project,” Canty said. “I don’t think the public is well served by pursuing licensing for another 30 years. How can you justify this?”

Landolt said PacifiCorp wanted to relicense the powerhouse because it would cost the utility more to shut it down than to keep it operating. “The alternative is a major capital expenditure for retirement with absolutely no revenues to offset it,” he said.

PacifiCorp’s application for relicensing will be presented to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in late December. The agency, which must balance the need for power against the environmental costs of operating the plant, could take several years to issue a ruling on the matter.

The Bend Project’s current license expires in December 1993.

Source: The Bulletin ©1991

Future clouded for Mirror Pond dam

Historic powerhouse on Deschutes River in Bend may be shut down after 81 years of use
Historic powerhouse on Deschutes River in Bend may be shut down after 81 years of use

The dam and powerhouse that formed Bend’s Mirror Pond and sent the first electricity surging through the community 81 years ago now faces an uncertain future.

PacifiCorp, owner of the historic facility that sits on the east bank of the Deschutes River near downtown Bend, is seeking a renewal of its federal license for the project.

But some local government officials are urging PacifiCorp to permanently shut down the powerhouse, which provides only a tiny fraction of the electricity used in Central Oregon.

Others see the relicensing application as an opportunity to address for the first time environmental problems—such as heavy sediment buildup in Mirror Pond—that is partially caused by the power plant.

Meanwhile, PacifiCorp even has suggested the possibility of removing the powerhouse and the dam—a move, which is unlikely, that would have a dramatic effect on the appearance of downtown Bend.

It will be months before a final decision is made. But these issues will be discussed Wednesday when PacifiCorp officials come to Bend for an all-day meeting with city, county, park district and other government representatives.

City and county officials plan to press PacifiCorp to make major improvements to the dam, and ask the company to commit to sharing the future costs of removing silt that backs up into Mirror Pond. In 1984, the community spent several hundred thousand dollars to dredge the pond; already, the work is needed again.

Too, those agencies want the utility to reduce the size of its substation, take steps to protect fish from the power turbines and provide public access through the site for a continuation of the Deschutes River Trail.

“We see this as a great opportunity,” said Deschutes County Commissioner Tom Throop. “This power project has had far-reaching effects on Bend, and we’ve never been in a position before to influence its operation.”

The Bend Metro Park and Recreation District, meanwhile, has joined the National Park Service in requesting that PacifiCorp retire the powerhouse. The Park Service is required by law to review federal dam relicensing applications.

Ernio Drapela, park district director, said he favors shutting down the powerhouse but preserving the historic brick building and the dam.

Shutting down the powerhouse, which illuminated a total of 375 light bulbs when the turbines began spinning in 1910, would have little effect on Bend today.

The powerhouse now produces less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the electricity deliverer by Pacific Power to customers in Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson counties.

Source: The Bulletin ©1991

Mirror Pond to be drained for Dam work

Mirror Pond will be drained to one of its lowest levels in history next week while crews repair the historic—and leaky—dam that backs up the Deschutes River and forms one of Bend’s best known landmarks.

Pacific Power, the owner of the 80-year-old dam to the north of the Newport Avenue bridge, has asked the Deschutes County watermaster to greatly reduce the flow of the Deschutes into Mirror Pond.

That will enable crews to install a fabric liner along the face of the aging wood crib dam, said Rich Barney, a Pacific Power spokesman in Portland. The liner should cut down on the leakage through the rock and wood structure, the first dam ever built on the Deschutes.

Barney emphasized that the maintenance is routine and that the structural integrity of the dam is not at risk.

Beginning Sunday, the Central Oregon Irrigation District and the Arnold Irrigation District will divert water from the Deschutes upstream from Mirror Pond. Members of those irrigation districts should take advantage of this opportunity to fill stock ponds and cisterns.

“We’re going to try to take as much water out of the river above the pond as we can,” Barney said. “We’ve taken it down before to work on the dam, but this time we’re trying to get roughly a foot lower than we ever have in the past.”

Barney said the dam repair work will begin Monday and take about three days to complete. Severe cold weather could prevent the work from taking place, he said.

The dam and nearby powerhouse today produces less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the electricity delivered by Pacific Power to customers in Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson counties.

The structure, built by the now defunct Bend Water, Light &Power Co.. took several years to construct. Cement for the project was hauled by horse-drawn wagons from Shaniko, about 100 miles away. The dam itself—15 to 20 feet thick at the base—was made from wood cribs filled with lava rock.

When the switches were first thrown at the powerhouse during a ceremony in 1910, a total of 375 electric light bulbs sprang to life across Bend.

Once the power was flowing through the lines, maintenance was led to one man who worked with a wheelbarrow full of tools.

Pacific Power bought the dam in 1930. The powerhouse now serves as the company’s dispatch center in Bend.

Source: The Bulletin ©1990

Dam’s light dims, but memories shine

Photo by Lyle Cox / The Bulletin

On a cold November morning in Bend nearly eight decades ago, an eager community waited for a businessman to throw the switch on the town’s first system of delivering electricity.

There were cheers when 375 electric light bulbs sprang to life across town.

That day in 1910 was a culmination of years of work by the Bend Water, Light & Power Company on the first dam to harness the power of the upper Deschutes River.

Cement for the project was hauled by horse-drawn wagons from Shaniko, about 100 miles away. The dam itself — 15 to 20 feet thick at the base — was made from wood cribs filled with lava rock.

The minimum monthly rate for electricity in Bend in that first year was $1. Once the power was flowing through the lines maintenance was left up to one man who worked with a wheelbarrow full of tools.

Historians say the company’s powerhouse and dam — which backed up the river and created what is now known as Mirror Pond — changed the face of the community and brought Bend into the 20th century.

Time however, has eroded the brick powerhouse building, the lava rock dam and, most significantly, the importance of the small amount of power generated by the plant.

Today the dam just north of Newport Avenue produces less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the electricity delivered by Pacific Power & Light Co. to customers in Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson counties.

PP&L purchased the dam in 1930*, and in recent years the venerable powerhouse building has served as the company’s dispatch center in Bend, said Marion Henderson, superintendent at the site.

The cramped office inside the brick building is staffed around the clock, and dispatchers also monitor the aging generators.

The powerhouse could pass as a museum of early day power generation equipment. Almost all of the original equipment remains in use, including the polished brass switches and ponderous turbines that fill the room.

But there are changes in the offing for the dam, which is on the list of historic places in Deschutes County.

Henderson said an engineer is studying various options for automating the powerhouse, which would mean overhauling the equipment and possibly moving the dispatch crew to another site in Bend.

“It’s due for some major revisions, but we’re still not sure yet exactly what’s going to happen,” said Henderson. “But I’m sure this plant still is going to produce power.”

Henderson and the other men who work at the old powerhouse have an obvious affection for the historic dam. It would be difficult for them to say goodbye if the plant is automated and they are sent to work elsewhere.

The grounds are neat and the lawn sloping up to the dam is close-cropped and green. A massive peach-leaf willow tree towers over the outflow of the powerhouse.

The tree apparently was planted after the powerhouse was built because it is now shown in old photographs of the site. A researcher recently concluded that the tree’s trunk has the largest circumference of any peach-leaf willow in the United States.

Concerns about liability insurance last year brought an end to frequent tours of the site by school groups, Henderson said, but art classes from COCC still visit to sketch and paint the historic structure.

“We are kind of proud of this little old plant,” Henderson said. “It is still an important part of Bend.”

Source: The Bulletin ©1988