PacifiCorp: Inspection tied to leak, not debate

By Hillary Borrud / The Bulletin

PacificCorp’s decision to inspect the Mirror Pond dam is independent of the discussion about the future of the pond, a spokesman said Monday.

At the same time, PacifiCorp spokesman Bob Gravely said a thorough inspection of the dam could produce some of the information necessary to make a decision about the future of the pond. Silt buildup could eventually create mud flats in Mirror Pond, and officials are discussing how to manage this section of the Deschutes River in the future.

PacifiCorp, a Northwest utility that operates as Pacific Power in Oregon, discovered a leak in the dam, which is more than 100 years old, on Wednesday. It was the third leak in the last five years. The utility installed sheet piling to control the previous leaks.

PacifiCorp repaired at least one of the previous leaks without lowering the water level in Mirror Pond, Gravely said.

This time, the water level already dropped significantly due to the leak, and PacifiCorp plans to further lower the water in order to conduct the inspection. The utility has not set a date for the inspection, so it is unclear when the water level will increase in the pond.

“It leaked once, it leaked twice and now this is a third one, so we think this is more of a pattern,” Gravely said. “It’s hard to see it as isolated events when it happened three times in five years … With this third one, we just wanted to take a look at the broader situation, and we also think the community is interested at this point to get a better sense of the future as well,” Gravely said. At the same time, Gravely said, the utility is not conducting the inspection because of discussions about the future of Mirror Pond. “I think we would be doing this anyway,” he said.

Gravely said the decision to inspect the dam is also tied to economics. “Primarily, the cost of power is much lower, so that effects the overall calculations of repairs and continuing to go forward,” Gravely said.

Two local public officials were supposed to meet behind closed doors with PacifiCorp in early September and then report back to the full Mirror Pond ad hoc committee, which was formed to research options for the future of the pond and potentially select a plan. However, one of those officials, City Councilor Mark Capell, said Monday that he and park district Executive Director Don Horton have not met with PacifiCorp.

The six-member Mirror Pond ad hoc committee planned to hold its meetings behind closed doors, in part so that it could meet privately with PacifiCorp representatives. But the ad hoc committee stopped the practice after just one meeting when at least one lawyer said it violated Oregon public meetings law.

Instead, it formed a subcommittee that consists of Capell, Horton and park district lawyer Neil Bryant to meet privately with the utility.

Capell said he did not know about the leak in the dam and the drop in water levels until he read about them in Saturday’s edition of The Bulletin. Capell said he hopes to meet with PacifiCorp representatives by the end of this month.

“I have no way of knowing what they’re thinking because we haven’t met,” Capell said.

Gravely said the meeting was delayed because Horton is traveling.

The Oregon Water Resources Department manages rivers and other bodies of water. Kyle Gorman, south central region manager with the Oregon Water Resources Department, said the utility does not require permission from his agency to lower the water level.

“What they want to do as far as lowering the water to go in and inspect would be routine, and I don’t see why our department would object,” Gorman said.

PacifiCorp was not even required to notify the state of the leak and subsequent drop in the water level of Mirror Pond, but the utility did so as a courtesy, Gorman said.

Source: The Bulletin ©2013

Dam leak adds twist to pond debate

Water levels in Mirror Pond are expected to drop in the coming days, as PacifiCorp inspects a leak discovered in the Newport Avenue Dam.

Bob Gravely, spokesman for the utility company, said the leak is in one the 13 wooden “bays” visible from the Newport Avenue bridge. The company has previously repaired leaks in two other bays, he said, but the severity of the latest leak will not be apparent until water levels are lowered sufficiently to allow closer examination.

Water levels at the dam have already fallen approximately 21⁄2 inches due to the leak, Gravely said, and PacifiCorp has shut down its electrical generation turbine to maintain water levels upstream.

As of Friday evening, PacifiCorp was checking whether any permitting or regulatory obstacles prevent the company from dropping water levels to begin the work. The company has not yet determined how much water will have to be released, or how low water levels above the dam could drop.

The leak comes in the middle of a larger public process surrounding Mirror Pond, and what should be done to address silt that has accumulated on the floor of the pond in the 29 years since it was last dredged. In public meetings and online surveys conducted earlier in the year, community members were largely split. One faction supports dredging to maintain the pond, and another favors removing the dam to create something closer to a free-flowing river.

PacifiCorp has been involved in the discussions but has been noncommittal, other than to state the day will come when the dam is no longer economical to operate. In recent years, the dam has generated enough electricity to power 200-300 homes.

Gravely said that while the new leak does not appear to be significant, PacifiCorp intends a thorough inspection of the entire dam while water levels are lowered to look for any other emerging maintenance issues.

“It is 100 years old, and I think we’ve been saying we could be one repair away from this not being worth it to fix,” he said.

Don Horton, director of the Bend Park & Recreation District, said he won’t know until PacifiCorp has completed its work if the leak will change the discussion of what to do with Mirror Pond. Horton is one member of an ad-hoc committee that has been gathering information from PacifiCorp to report back to the Bend City Council and the park district board with a recommendation for Mirror Pond. He said the leak will, at minimum, give him and others involved in the process a preview of what a free-flowing river might look like.

“If it does come down, it’s an opportunity for us to photograph what we see — it’s not very often this happens — we may be able to learn something from it,” he said.

Horton said he’s curious to see if opening the sluice gates to lower water levels will actually flush out significant quantities of silt, though he added he’s doubtful that will happen.

Spencer Dahl, a past member of the Mirror Pond Management Board, said he’d prefer to know what the undammed river looks like when flows are not already reduced on account of the end of irrigation season, but is still interested to see what areas dry up when the water levels drop.

During his time on the board, Dahl unsuccessfully tried to persuade PacifiCorp to drop water levels in order to show the public what the area might look like if the dam were removed.

Dahl said he suspects the announcement of the leak — Gravely said the leak was discovered Wednesday; Dahl said he’s noticed the bay in question leaking for much longer — suggests PacifiCorp may be ready to take a firmer public position on their plans for the dam.

“I’m pretty sure its a move toward resolution of the Mirror Pond problem, whether it’s them selling the dam or them trying to justify abandoning it,” Dahl said. “I can’t see any other reason for the timing, because that leak’s been there for months, if not years.”

Gravely said water levels during dam repairs could be further affected by activity at Wickiup Dam, where water managers have begun refilling the reservoir by cutting back on the water released into the Deschutes River. Within the last week, releases at Wickiup Dam have been reduced by more than half, according to figures compiled by the Bureau of Reclamation.

Source: The Bulletin ©2013

Mirror Pond future depends on dam

Bend city councilors and park board members voted unanimously on Tuesday to form a new committee that will select a final plan for the future of Mirror Pond.

They also viewed the results of a recent community survey on four options for the pond.

But officials said before they can reach a decision they need to know Pacific Power’s plans for the Newport Avenue Dam, which created the pond.

“Certainly we should move forward and form a committee,” City Councilor Sally Russell said.

“But for me, in reading all the information provided to us and in preparing for this committee … I think it’s time to get Pacific Power at the table, and I think it’s time to understand what the future is of that dam, because I don’t see this community being able to make a financially responsible decision about the future of Mirror Pond before we understand what the constraints are around that dam,” Russell said.

Officials are discussing how to manage Mirror Pond because sediment is building up behind the dam and creating mudflats. Unless the community takes action, wetlands will develop and the state will begin regulating any activity that disrupts that habitat, Project Manager Jim Figurski said Tuesday.

“I think it’s time to bring in the governor’s office, our senators, Pacific Power, and really get some direction here,” Russell said. “It’s time to be clear and have them put their cards on the table, because they’ve been holding them close.”

City Councilor Mark Capell agreed. Capell said he appreciates that the power company does not want to make the decision for the community.

“That’s really nice of them,” Capell said. “But let’s get down to reality, which is what’s the business decision?”

Pacific Power representatives have repeatedly said they will continue to operate the hydropower plant at the dam as long as it makes financial sense for their customers, and they do not have a specific end date for the project. Angela Jacobson Price, regional community manager for Pacific Power, reiterated the position on Monday in response to questions from local officials. Price is a member of the Mirror Pond Steering Committee, which has provided oversight during the process to develop options for the future of the body of water.

The owner of the dam — whether it is Pacific Power or another owner in the future — is responsible for maintaining the structure and, if it decides to remove it, for the cost to take it out and mitigate impacts to the river.

The new Mirror Pond committee will have up to nine members, including park board members Scott Wallace and Ted Schoenborn, parks Executive Director Don Horton, Bend Community Development Director Mel Oberst, two city councilors and as many as three citizens. The City Council did not decide Tuesday which councilors will serve on the committee.

The community survey data that Figurski presented at the joint meeting of the City Council and park board Tuesday did not show a clear preference among respondents for how local governments should manage Mirror Pond. The questionnaire asked people to rate several options, including dredging sediment from the pond, doing nothing and rerouting the river channel and removing the dam.

More than 1,200 people participated in the survey and when they were asked to rank the four options, 41 percent said their favorite option would be to dredge Mirror Pond and leave the dam in place, according to results provided by the park district. However, 36 percent said they would prefer to realign the river and remove the dam. The survey was not scientific, because people opted in by going online to fill it out.

Source: The Bulletin ©2013

Mirror Pond decision requires focus on dam

If the community wants to preserve Bend’s Mirror Pond, it all comes down to the dam. Will Pacific Power maintain it? If not, is there any way for the community to take it over or otherwise preserve its pond-creating effect?

If the answer to both of those questions is no, options to save the pond in its traditional form are severely limited.

Yet both the park district and the power company report they haven’t tried to find those answers, because they’re waiting to see what the community wants.

They supposedly will learn about the community’s desires today when survey results are presented to a joint meeting of the Bend City Council and the Bend Park & Recreation District board.

But today’s presentation won’t actually tell them what residents prefer; it will tell them only what a few self-selected people think. An unscientific survey will be offered, and may be interpreted as meaning far more than it does.

The park district’s Mirror Pond Project Manager, Jim Figurski, and Pacific Power’s Regional Community Manager, Angela Price, say they will consider the questions about the dam only once this process tells them what the community wants.

That’s backwards, because the community can’t know what it wants, or what it’s willing to pay for, unless it knows the dam’s future.

Figurski said he expects the council and park board to identify a preferred option by the end of the month. Then the work starts on the details of how it could be accomplished and at what cost.

We’ve argued repeatedly for preserving Mirror Pond, but the future of the dam is critical. It would be foolish to spend millions dredging the pond if the dam that makes it possible has a short-term future. We hope the decision-makers will put the survey results in proper perspective and demand real information before narrowing the options.

Source: The Bulletin ©2013

Mirror Pond questionnaire doesn’t reveal public opinion

If more people fill out an unscientific questionnaire, does that make it mean more? Clearly not, which has been the problem from the start with the approach of the Mirror Pond Steering Committee.

Now officials are concerned that too few people are filling out the second questionnaire or coming to the latest round of meetings.

Project manager Jim Figurski said last week that if more people fill out the questionnaire, decision-makers will be more “comfortable” using the “information.”

If true, that’s unfortunate, because the “information” will be all but meaningless, no matter how many people participate.

Mirror Pond, the central feature of Bend’s downtown, is turning into a mud flat, gradually filling in since it was last dredged in 1984. After years of discussion about what to do, the steering committee was formed and spent January and February holding meetings and collecting responses to its first questionnaire, leading to its June presentation of alternatives and price tags. The new questionnaire asks for reactions to those alternatives, which include doing nothing, preserving the pond as it is, returning it to a natural river, and steps in between. The cutoff date for responses is July 12, and results are to be presented to a joint meeting of the Bend City Council and the Bend Park & Recreation District’s board on July 16.

We’ve argued for dredging to preserve Mirror Pond as it is, although such a decision does depend on resolving questions about the future of the nearby dam and ownership of the land beneath the pond.

Unscientific questionnaires or surveys can easily be influenced by organized groups or even loose coalitions on either side of an issue. They tell you nothing about what a majority thinks or wants or is willing to pay for. And yet the discussion about Mirror Pond has treated these limited bits of reaction as if they mean something about general public opinion.

It’s a dangerous approach, because it builds public policy on a phony foundation. Without at least a scientific survey, the public opinion portion of this project can be worse than meaningless, it can be false.