The dams that define Bend

Long before logging trucks existed, horses dragged fresh-cut trees to the train tracks that wound through the woods surrounding Bend. Train cars dumped logs into the Deschutes River, where they floated in the pool behind a dam.

Almost 90 years later, that dam, near what is now the Colorado Avenue bridge, still holds back the Deschutes, but the logs are long gone.

The idea of building that log pond dam took seed as early as 1907, and it was built in 1915.

“The community said that pond could draw mills and make the town boom,” said John Frye, a volunteer for the Deschutes County Historical Society.

They were right.

The mills, which ran 24 hours a day, employed 1,500 people in 1916, when only 5,193 people lived in Bend. They stacked acres of lumber to dry in the area where the Driver and Motor Vehicle Services building is now located.

The log pond dam is just one of four dams on the Deschutes River within the city that significantly shaped the region’s economy and spurred the city’s growth. And it’s the only one that is not still used for its original purpose.

The other dams brought electricity to the city and facilitated irrigation that allowed agriculture to develop on the High Desert.

They are:

-The Pacific Power dam at Newport Avenue, built in 1910 for generating electricity.

-The Tumalo Irrigation District diversion dam at Pioneer Park, built in 1922 to divert water to the Bend feed canal.

-The North Canal dam near Division and Third Street, built in 1912 for irrigation canals that stretched all the way north to Madras.

Newspaper articles testify to the community’s pride when the dam at Newport Avenue was built to generate power.

“The community was really bragging about how great that was,” Frye said.

Electricity changed the nature of the community located in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly, the power heated and lighted up homes. Women started using electric irons, Frye said.

The power plant still generates about one megawatt of electricity — enough to power more than 500 homes — and its power is dispersed into the general power grid, some of which feeds Bend.

During the homestead era, circa 1910, farmers were building irrigation ditches in the desert, Frye said. Irrigation diversion dams built on the north end of the city’s stretch of river in 1912 and 1922 allowed agriculture to develop all the way north to Madras.

Now, those irrigation canals have become central to a regional discussion about water use because their diversions dramatically drop the level of the Middle Deschutes River — just downstream, to the north of the diversion dams.

And Pacific Power’s dam at Newport Avenue created one of Bend’s signature water features — Mirror Pond — bordered by Drake Park and a row of high-profile homes.

Because the dam slows the water flow right there, silt has stacked up in the pond, making it shallow and muddy.

“When the river slows down and hits the still water behind the dam, it doesn’t carry the sediment load,” said Roger Prowell, water quality supervisor with Bend’s Public Works Department. “Dams build up silt deposits.”

The silt was once dredged in the mid-1980s. A 16-inch pipeline passed through people’s yards and deposited the dirt in a hole below what is now the Deschutes Brewery’s plant along the river upstream. “That was when machines in the river did’t cause a crisis. Now it’d be hard,” Prowell said. “If you go in a river with a machine, people will argue that you’re killing the fish.”

There are companies that basically dehydrate the silt and remove the dry dirt from the site, which would have less impact on the fish and the neighbors. Prowell guesses that would cost more than a million dollars.

Whether to dredge again is a decision the community will have to make, and water experts say the topic has been discussed. But, it’s not a burning issue, Prowell said.

If the silt is allowed to accumulate, at some point vegetation would eventually start to grow and a riparian zone would be reborn along the edges of the pond.

The river would flow through a narrow channel and the water flow would speed up.

Bend officials have no control over the dams or whether the sediment is removed.

“People perceive the city in control of those dams,” Prowell said. “We don’t have anything to do with it. The river just flows through our community, through the control of other people.”

For example, irrigation districts own and control the irrigation diversion dams, and Pacific Power still runs the power-generation dam.

And Bill Smith, developer of the Old Mill District mixed-use and retail center at the former mill site, owns and controls the former log dam at Colorado Avenue.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) regulates fish habitat, and the Department of Environment Quality (DEQ) oversees water quality, but Smith more or less has control of the floodgates.

“I can pretty much do whatever I want,” he said.

But he does have to provide a water reserve for a fire flow to Willamette Industries. Smith said he keeps the water about 36 feet deep just upstream of the dam.

If he lowered that, letting more water flow through the gates, it would effectively create more developable land in the Old Mill District, potentially raising his lands’ value.

If he wanted to do that, he could build a pipe-to-pond system for a fire protection reservoir in the industrial area — but that would be expensive, he said.

Smith said he plans to keep the water level in the river to maintain wetlands — something the community has come to expect.

For the most part, Smith’s dam doesn’t affect the river’s flow much, said Kyle Gorman, regional manager for the south central region of the Oregon Water Resources Department. He said no formal guidelines govern that section of the river, but his department oversees safety issues there.

Removing the dams would be up to the dam owners, said Steve Marx, fish biologist for ODFW in Bend. He hasn’t heard any talk of it lately, though.

Talk of removing the Mirror Pond dam came up about 10 years ago when the power company was going through relicensing proceedings, Marx said. Only hydro-power dams need licenses.

“It’s a big social issue — how that would change Mirror Pond,” he said. “It would become a river environment instead of a pond environment.”

Whether that’s good or bad depends on whom you talk to, Marx said.

A more natural stream channel would be a positive thing for fish habitat. But people enjoy the aesthetics of the pond, too.

However, removing the dam could wash too much sediment downstream, and that could be bad for the river’s ecology, he said.

Silt would fill the spaces between rocks and within gravel where insects — fish food — live. It would affect spawning and cover for fish.

Right now, the biggest ongoing discussion at ODFW related to the dams is the ability of fish to pass them.

Fish can’t pass the north canal dam or the Pacific Power dam. The Tumalo Irrigation District diversion dam at Pioneer Park and Smith’s dam have fish ladders for the redband and rainbow trout.

Building fish ladders can be expensive and the responsibility falls to the dam owners.

“It’s a long-term goal to restore passage at those dams and restore (fish) populations at those dams,” Marx said. “We have isolated fish populations in each of those … fragmented sections.”

Source: The Bulletin ©2002