Editorial: Mirror Pond dam report shouldn’t be secret

The audacity is stunning: Taxpayers spent $23,500 for an independent study of the Mirror Pond dam, but they can’t see the results without permission from PacifiCorp, the private company that owns the dam.

That’s because Bend Park & Recreation District Executive Director Don Horton and Mirror Pond Project Manager Jim Figurski signed a nondisclosure agreement they say gives the utility company the right to decide if the report can be released.

According to an email from PacifiCorp spokesman Bob Gravely, the nondisclosure agreement was necessary because the company gave “information about vendors, contracts, employee salaries and other information that is typically considered commercially sensitive by any business.” They want to review the report and redact any such information before it is released. The public will never know just what was redacted and whether its removal was appropriate.

Bend City Councilors Mark Capell and Victor Chudowsky are properly critical of the situation. Both are members of the Mirror Pond committee charged with determining the pond’s future. We agree with their assertion that the public needs to see the full report so it can make a good decision, and with Capell’s position that there’s no reason for the report to contain any proprietary information.

Horton has additionally said the report is not complete, but that’s no reason for secrecy. Draft reports are public record every bit as much as final versions.

The painful, drawn-out process of resolving the future of Mirror Pond has been anything but transparent. When the latest committee was formed, it tried to hold its meetings in secret, refusing admission to a Bulletin editorial writer. Earlier, results of an online survey were presented as if they reflected the will of the community when in fact only a small segment of people responded.

PacifiCorp has financial obligations to its owners that may well be at odds with the community’s interests. It’s not a criticism of either side to acknowledge their unavoidable adversarial positions. Giving the private side veto power over what the public can know is unacceptable, no matter how good the intentions.


Editorial: PacifiCorp does what is right

PacifiCorp has now demonstrated a gift for doing what’s right on Mirror Pond. It just needs to demonstrate a few more gifts.

The company announced Tuesday that it would fix one of the leaks in the dam.

The leak helped make the pond look and smell about as pleasant as inhaling a noseful of skunk.

There was the potential that lower water levels would continue right through the summer. Boating and paddling could be curtailed. Floating wouldn’t be much fun. Swimming would be reserved for people with short arms. And for accuracy’s sake, the pond’s name should be switched to Muddy Pond.

In December, PacifiCorp said the dam would not be repaired, because it was not cost effective for the amount of power it produced. The tune has changed. Mark Tallman, PacifiCorp’s vice president for renewable resources, says it fully understands the community’s concern about the potential for low water levels during summer recreation months.

“It’s possible Mirror Pond would have remained full this summer without this fix, but in our view this is the right action to take at this time,” Tallman said.

It will enable PacifiCorp to restore hydro generation. PacifiCorp also says it should help negotiations with the Bend community to determine if keeping the dam intact is a better option than removal. The cost of the repair is estimated at $250,000.

With that issue seemingly resolved, the Mirror Pond committee is working on getting the community better information so it can make a good decision. The public really needs to know how much it would cost to remove the dam and do any mitigation and how much it would cost to continue to operate the dam and keep the silt buildup under control.

We support keeping the pond, but that does depend on what it would cost.

Now that PacifiCorp has taken this right step, what will it do next?

PacifiCorp’s new release about fixing the dam acknowledges it may have some interests that are not the same as the community’s.

“The company is very committed to trying to find the best possible outcome regarding this facility that balances the community’s priorities for Mirror Pond and our regulatory obligations,” it says. And it goes on to add that “we are hopeful an agreement can be reached that allows this to happen and also protects the interest of our rate-paying customers in Bend and throughout our six-state service area.”

We hope that is true, too.

Another way to save Mirror Pond

I attended the Mirror Pond Ad Hoc Committee meeting on Dec. 3. It was very informative and I learned a great deal about the complexity and estimated costs of saving Mirror Pond “within reason.” The water-rights issues, the cost of repairing a 100-year-old dam, PacifiCorp’s options and the options for moving forward to save Mirror Pond or allow the river to return to a more natural flowing river.

Also, Todd Taylor discussed the reasons he and Bill Smith negotiated an option to purchase the 25 or so acres that the pond covers. Taylor explained they didn’t have any profit motives, only the desire to make sure, whatever happened, that the pond would remain. I might note that there were only a few people in the audience, and only one on the committee, that live outside the west side of Bend, so it occurred to me this issue is more a west-side issue. But in reality, it’s an issue for all Bend citizens.

Both the committee and the Bend City Council have voted to move forward with a plan to save the pond. So public input, it seems, carries little weight for the time being. However, I would like to suggest that instead of trying to save a dam that even PacifiCorp is not willing to repair or maintain, why not allow the power company to either repair the dam (which they have stated they won’t do), sell it to some private enterprise (no one is likely to buy the dam) or decommission it. It seems the third is likely and the committee agreed on that point.

Saving Mirror Pond is a noble cause. However, based on the conversation and debate from the meeting, it will be a long and expensive process that will most likely not be “within reason.” I’d like to suggest a solution that might satisfy the entire community since it is clear that people are divided on this important issue.

Why not just walk away from the table and let PacifiCorp decommission the dam at their expense? Go to the Legislature to create a new water right to allow a pond to exist for the purpose of retaining a cultural part of Bend and for recreation.

Surely our local legislators could carry that successfully to Salem since the pond is an established cultural landmark. Build a new dam just south of Newport Bridge to restore Mirror Pond where the crossing is narrow, create a passage for fish and water recreation and everyone wins. Instead of spending months and who knows how much money trying to negotiate with a company that really doesn’t care about anything but the bottom line and its own self interests.

In this scenario, whatever money is required from the public would go toward creating a whole new attraction for our city. A new and manageable dam that can be used to regulate the high and low water marks of the pond, allow a smaller river channel that flows alongside the pond through Bend, new opportunities for recreation, restored habitat for fish, less silt buildup. Look at the cost/benefit of that approach rather than taking on the expense of repairing and maintaining a failing dam and then having to still deal with the silt problem. As a property owner across from Drake Park with views of Mirror Pond and the Deschutes and as a taxpayer, I could get behind that approach and it might stand a better chance of getting more people to support the effort, especially when putting it to a vote of the citizens.

— Stan Roach lives in Bend.

Source: The Bulletin 2013

Bend is too cool to dredge Mirror Pond

As a citizen of Bend and a 2005 graduate of Oregon State University-Cascades Campus in natural resources, I feel it is necessary to say that Bend is too cool to dredge Mirror Pond. There are several reasons for this, though, none of us have to look too far to see that the city of Bend is always at the forefront in creating a hip and desirable place for its residents to live and tourists to visit.

From an environmental perspective, removing the dam will allow for the Deschutes River’s natural channel to flow, which is by far the most friendly decision for the river’s ecosystem. A dam cannot only cause difficulty for fish headed upstream, it can also significantly alter the water level, causing temperature differences that pose problems to all sorts of aquatic wildlife.

Dredging the river will certainly not help this environmental problem. It will, in fact, further harm the delicate riparian zone and instream species. We must face the truth: dredging will not be an end-all; it will be an expensive, ongoing process that will become more frequently needed as the sediment buildup increases from amplified river use farther up stream.

For citizens who are concerned about losing Bend’s iconic Mirror Pond, I am certain that the city will do a mighty fine job of re-establishing trails and landscaping to make the Deschutes’ natural channel just as beautiful as Mirror Pond — and enhanced by the knowledge that the river is healthy and flowing as it was intended to flow.

Bend is known for its ability to transform out-of-date places and practices into new and revised attractions that amaze its residents and tourists. We need to focus on this significant ability as we look into transforming one of Bend’s oldest landmarks. I like to think of the river flowing freely in its natural channel, with trails and landscaping that allow us to observe its natural beauty, perhaps even boosted by signage that tell of Bend’s forward-looking decisions that caused us to shift toward a newer and improved place. Bend has always been on the leading edge of fashionable decisions and it would be a shame to see this monumental choice go against our powerful standard.

Furthermore, this decision needs to stay in the hands of the citizens, not bigwigs with loads of money who can purchase the choice that rightly belongs to Bend’s residents. It would be a disgrace to see this paramount opportunity for Bend’s people stolen from them by a few certain individuals who think that their money and power are bigger and better than the community’s. This decision must remain in the hands of those who have lived and worked here and those of us who love to see our city come together to make choices about the future of the river that we all love.

The dam is already leaking, the river is already returning to its natural state. Please, let’s not take away its chance to become the river that it is supposed to be.

We are too awesome to give this decision away to money-hungry people who don’t care about the river’s health. Come on people of Bend, we are better than dredging. We have a chance to shine as a city. Let’s shine.

— Tracy Howk lives in Bend.

Get more answers on Mirror Pond

Dam. No dam. Those are the only two options for Bend’s Mirror Pond.

But the community cannot make a decision about the best option without better information about costs and other uncertainties.

The water rights issue is muddy. It’s not clear if once the dam is no longer used for power generation, the state would allow a dam to create a pond without a special exception to state law.

Would the local delegation back such a bill? Could lawmakers get it through the Legislature?

That’s one unknown. Many are about costs and liabilities.

If the decision is to remove the dam, what will the costs be?

What would it cost to remove the dam? One estimate for the Mirror Pond committee put it at about $11 million. PacifiCorp told members of the Mirror Pond committee it believes that is too high but has not provided its own estimate.

There are other issues.

Two local businessmen, Bill Smith, developer of the Old Mill District, and Todd Taylor, president and CEO of the construction company Taylor Northwest, have signed a contract for an option to purchase the land under Mirror Pond. If the river recedes to a channel, would there be developable land exposed? Would riverfront homes become former riverfront homes? What would become of the footbridge? There is no easement for it. Could the parks along the pond be expanded?

PacifiCorp is also interested in keeping its substation near the dam and the adjacent parking lot.

Then there are the costs with the decision to keep the dam.

Smith and Taylor are interested in seeing the pond preserved, so landowner permission to dredge silt should not be an issue. Raising what Taylor estimated would be $3 million to pay for the dredging would be.

The dam also leaks. There is seepage in other places. Some of the structure is 100 years old.

There would be costs for whatever repairs are needed for the dam now and whatever maintenance issues there are in the future.

PacifiCorp has not released any specifics of its recent dam inspection. And contrary to what was said at Monday’s Mirror Pond committee meeting, the state’s dam inspector has no plans to release any report based on his October trip to the dam. His last report from 2012 does not put a dollar figure on repairs.

So the community needs an independent estimate of what the dam would cost to repair and maintain.

There has been some discussion of adding a fish ladder to the dam. What would that cost?

Only after the community gets better estimates can it effectively negotiate with PacifiCorp or present options to voters. It should be clear, though, that PacifiCorp faces significant costs for removing the dam. Those costs and repair costs for the dam should be deducted from whatever price it wants from the community.

Source: The Bulletin 2013

Next steps for Mirror Pond

If the leaders trying to find a solution to Mirror Pond had accomplished something more than secrecy and stagnation, two Bend businessmen might not have felt an obligation to step in.

Bill Smith, the developer of the Old Mill District, and Todd Taylor, president and CEO of the construction company Taylor Northwest, have signed an option to buy the land under Mirror Pond. They say they will transfer the option to purchase the land to any local government entity willing to preserve the pond.

One Mirror Pond issue resolved.

And we also now know PacifiCorp wants out. It wants to transfer ownership of the dam to somebody else.

Two Mirror Pond issues resolved.

Finally, on Mirror Pond there is actually movement toward decisions.

The various Mirror Pond committees have seemed like experiments in forming a new species of government body liberated from the obligation of making a decision. Measuring the committees’ movement would have produced a reading close to absolute zero.

Yes, we know, Mirror Pond’s future is a complicated decision. And no matter which way leaders decide — preserve the pond or rip out the dam and restore a more natural river flow — some people are going to be unhappy. It was also required that PacifiCorp clearly state its intentions.

But too much was still adrift after years of committee meetings. There has been a disquieting pursuit of secrecy in decision-making and committee forming. When a committee did try to do something, it was a farcical attempt to get a sense of what the community wants for Mirror Pond through an unreliable online poll.

It’s no secret we favor preserving the pond, but there are some things that we all must know.

What would it cost to keep the dam in dollars and liabilities?

What would it cost to get rid of the dam and clean up?

Will the state allow the dam to continue to create a pond?

What will voters pay for?

The big responsibility is back on the Mirror Pond committee officials. Can they make a stunning break with the muddling past and amaze us all with leadership?

Source: The Bulletin 2013

Dredge the pond

When the dam broke and drained Mirror Pond, we all looked at the dry riverbed. The pond drained and the solution appeared. Dry dredge Mirror Pond. Drain it, dredge it dry and then fix the dam. Dry dredge is cheap, easy and fast. We were thinking we could only wet dredge, which is expensive and takes lots of time. I say this winter, we drain Mirror Pond, do the dry dredge and then fill it back up in the summer.

Charles Baer

Committee still striving for secrecy on Mirror Pond

The committee that’s trying to decide the future of Bend’s Mirror Pond held a meeting Tuesday that was open to the public.

That shouldn’t be an occasion to hand out medals. In this case, it initially felt like it.

But then the committee proceeded to renew its efforts to cultivate secrecy. Nobody’s getting a medal now.

A subset of the committee is going to hold private talks with Pacific Power to discuss the dam.

Those are the meetings that will attempt to get to the bottom of one of the crucial unanswered questions about Mirror Pond’s future: What is the dam’s future?

That answer goes a long way toward dictating if Mirror Pond stays Mirror Pond or returns to a more natural river.

The Mirror Pond committee’s plan is to have Bend Park & Recreation Director Don Horton, the district’s lawyer, Neil Bryant, and Bend City Councilor Mark Capell hold talks with Pacific Power. Nobody else would be allowed to watch.

The trio would then presumably return with whatever deal Pacific Power would agree to.

So, for one of the most crucial unanswered questions about Mirror Pond’s future, the deal is going to be decided behind closed doors.

It must be hard for some to remember that Oregon’s public meetings laws are about keeping the public’s business open to the public. At the same time, the law does recognize that there are some things that need a level of confidentiality — real estate transactions, some employee issues, litigation, trade secrets and more.

In Oregon, the instrument for such confidentiality is executive session. A governing body opens a public meeting. It then declares the reason it is going into executive session. It can then meet without the public, though the media can attend. It’s subject to the understanding that media representatives don’t directly report what goes on in executive session.

The media is there to improve its understanding of decisions so it can keep the public better informed. It is also there to be a watchdog — to ensure that what is discussed in executive session is appropriate.

The important thing to remember about Oregon’s law is that the nondisclosure requirement should be no broader than the public interest requires.

What the Mirror Pond committee is doing is going further. It is saying that those critical negotiations with Pacific Power should not be held in executive session. They should be held without any oversight at all.

The Mirror Pond committee’s aim should not be to preserve its privacy.

Source: The Bulletin ©2013

Test case for democracy

The publicly funded Mirror Pond Project — with its skewed polls and committees heavily weighted in favor of preserving this abiotic impoundment on the Deschutes River — is a test case for the viability of democracy in Central Oregon.

Recently, the “ad hoc Mirror Pond Committee” held a possibly illegal and certainly improper closed meeting. This is the latest outrage in a so-called public process that is anything but.

For too long this community has staggered under the influence of powerful special interests that use government to do their bidding. We finally saw a popular uprising against rule by fiat in Bend with the election last November of city councilors pledged to restore transparency.

Even so, our local power elite has chosen to revert to old habits, and the Mirror Pond Project has been turned into a classic case of political behind-the-scenes manipulation to arrive at a predetermined outcome.

The original Mirror Pond Project Web page announced that “ultimate decision making authority” would rest with the five-member steering committee. Then, on May 16, the Bend Park & Recreation District Board wrote, “the ultimate decision will be made jointly by the elected representatives of the Bend City Council and the BPRD Board.”

Now we learn that the new “ad hoc” committee (consisting of people from the old committees) will be “authorized to select a final plan for the future of Mirror Pond.”

The $200,000 that we are shelling out for this dismal project should, at least, buy us a vote.

Foster Fell

Source: The Bulletin ©2013