Central Oregon City Club hears Mirror Pond options

Repairs to leaking Bend dam underway

By Scott Hammers | The Bulletin

Three alternative solutions for the future of Mirror Pond were presented Thursday at a meeting of the City Club of Central Oregon.

The City Club invited a panel to make the case for the three possibilities under consideration by the Mirror Pond Ad Hoc Committee, a group made up of representatives of the city of Bend, the Bend Park & Recreation District and the general public.

Formed last fall primarily to look into what should be done about silt accumulating in Mirror Pond, the group’s focus has shifted with the emergence of a leak in the Mirror Pond dam, and the announcement by PacifiCorp that it is no longer economically feasible to use the dam for power generation.

Separately, PacifiCorp began repairing the leak Thursday, a process spokesman Bob Gravely said should be complete by Tuesday.

At the City Club event, Bend City Councilor and ad hoc committee member Victor Chudowsky said he and the other members of the council have committed to preserving Mirror Pond but are committed to keeping the current dam only if viable. David Blair argued for a hybrid alternative that would maintain the level of the pond, while replacing the dam with a new structure. Ryan Houston of the Upper Deschutes Watershed Council described the ecological benefits of dam removal and a free-flowing river.

Scott Wallace, chairman of the Bend Park & Recreation District Board and the Mirror Pond Ad Hoc Committee, provided a brief overview of the construction of the dam and an update on the status of an independent inspection of the dam commissioned by the two groups. He said the inspection report should be complete by early April and should include some estimates of what it would cost to repair and maintain the dam.

Chudowsky recalled how he first discovered Bend while on vacation years ago and spotted a large group of people swimming in the river near the Galveston Bridge. Mirror Pond may be an icon, he said, but it’s not just a pretty view — it’s something people use, he said, with an estimated 90,000 floaters and paddlers using the river between the Old Mill District and Drake Park each summer.

Chudowsky said removing the dam would narrow the river and quicken the current, drastically altering how locals enjoy the river today.

“Let’s remember those tens of thousands of floaters, many of them are young people, teenagers,” he said. “They don’t vote, they’re not going online to fill out questionnaires, they’re not at the City Club — they haven’t been a part of this conversation.”

Chudowsky said the city and the park district will need to carefully assess the inspection report to make sure they’re not assuming a massive liability if they choose to move ahead with acquiring the dam from PacifiCorp.

Houston said the case for removing the dam for environmental reasons isn’t particularly strong. Of the 10 dams along the Deschutes River from its source in the Cascades to the Columbia River, the Mirror Pond dam would probably rank around eighth in terms of its adverse effect on the health of the river.

The choices facing the community on Mirror Pond are really more about economics than anything else, Houston said. For 100 years, Bend residents have enjoyed the benefits of the pond created by the dam without being asked to pay for it, he said. With PacifiCorp ready to give up on the dam, residents need to decide whether preserving the pond is worth it — and how much they’re willing to pay.

With a price tag estimated at around $7 million, removing the dam would be cheaper than other alternatives that would require ongoing maintenance, Houston said, but it would radically alter the pond without providing significant environmental benefit.

“It’s not where I would put my first $7 million, if I had $7 million to spend on river restoration on the Deschutes,” he said.

Blair said although the hybrid alternative removes the dam, the area from Drake Park upstream wouldn’t have to look like it did this winter, when the combination of low water and the leak in the dam exposed wide mud flats on both shores.

The proposal outlined by Blair would include the removal of the dam and the construction of a dam-like structure a few hundred yards upstream that would allow floaters and paddlers to pass through. Downstream, the river channel could be sculpted, possibly with a series of dropping pools, he said, while upstream, a series of sediment traps could be built to allow for easier removal of silt.

Blair said it’s been difficult to draw up a firm estimate of what the hybrid option would cost. He encouraged the park district and the ad hoc committee to consider it a serious alternative and proceed with the studies needed to compare it side-by-side with preserving the dam.

Much of the discussion on how to proceed with Mirror Pond has been bogged down with talk of water rights and other permitting issues that appear to make some alternatives impossible, Blair said. As any of the alternatives under consideration would probably require intervention by the state Legislature, the community should instead focus on what it wants, he said, and stop being “intimidated” by supposed regulatory hurdles.

“We will create a great place, no matter what,” he said.