A close look at Bend’s Mirror Pond dam

The committee looking into what should be done with Mirror Pond got an up-close look at the leaking dam there Wednesday, joining representatives of Pacifi­Corp on a tour of the more than 100-year-old facility.

The ad hoc committee, formed last fall, includes representatives from the city of Bend, the Bend Park & Recreation District and the general public. It will weigh in on the relative merits of dredging the pond, keeping the dam, which is owned by PacifiCorp, removing the dam and other alternatives.

The group’s tour came one day before a team of consultants hired by the park district is due to arrive in Bend to inspect the dam. PacifiCorp has been lowering the level of Mirror Pond in recent days to allow for a safe inspection, but water levels should be headed back up this weekend.

Jim Figurski, the head of the park district’s efforts on Mirror Pond-related matters, said the inspection should provide a better idea of what kind of maintenance costs the city or park district would have to bear if they were to acquire the dam from Pacifi­Corp. PacifiCorp has committed to repairing a hole that opened up in the dam last fall, dropping water levels to nearly 7 feet below seasonal normals, but is looking to divest itself of the dam as a generation facility.

“Part of the analysis is what would we need to do for a 50-year or more fix, not just a 10-year fix or a near-term fix,” Figurski said.

He expects the consultants will have a complete report for the committee by the end of the month.

On the back deck of the powerhouse, members of the tour group learned Wednesday how the gates at the base of the dam can be manipulated to control how much water flows out, allowing the dam operator to maintain Mirror Pond at a consistent elevation.

They peeked into buckets of bottles, cans and old tennis balls that are scattered across the dam property, all of them retrieved from the pond above the dam with the help of a long-handled net.

Descending a ladder to a wide lawn hemmed in by the dam on the upstream side and barbed wire on the downstream side, the group examined a now rarely used gate at the north edge of the spillway, where boards can be removed to discharge ice and debris into a crudely constructed rock and concrete sluice gate.

Water seeps through several points along the concrete dam face, nourishing thick cushions of moss sprouting from the stained walls, and as suggested by the footprints dotting the mud below, a handful of raccoons and other small animals that find their way through the fences.

Mark Tallman, vice president of renewable resources for PacifiCorp, said the seepage is a cosmetic problem more than a safety issue.

“The dam is just like a drafty house, it’s just old,” he said.

Visitors donned fireproof suits before venturing inside the powerhouse, where three large generating wheels sat idle Wednesday on account of the lowered water levels. When turning, the three generators can produce enough electricity to power 300 to 400 homes.

Tallman told tour members the powerhouse is still potentially dangerous even when the generators aren’t spinning due to a live power line running across the ceiling that — under the right circumstances — can throw off high-voltage arcs. The controls for the adjacent substation are also inside the powerhouse, Tallman said, cautioning the visitors to avoid touching any of the equipment.

“It is possible, if you accidentally touch or move the wrong handle, you could put Bend in the dark,” he said.

Scott Wallace, a member of the park district board and a member of the ad hoc committee, said he expects the behind-the-scenes tour will prove useful once the engineering report is complete. Until Wednesday, Wallace said he only had a hazy idea of what went on at the Mirror Pond dam.

“I grew up in Bend, and this is the closest I’ve ever come to the powerhouse,” he said.

City Councilor and committee member Victor Chudowsky said he was impressed by the architecture of the powerhouse. If the city or the park district acquires the dam someday, it would be ideal if the powerhouse could be preserved, he said, possibly as some kind of small museum where visitors could learn about how electricity is generated and about a notable piece of Bend history.

Chudowsky said the tour confirmed much of what he already knew — that the dam is old, and in places, starting to fail. Though its days as a power generation facility may be numbered, the dam may still be the easiest and least expensive way to preserve Mirror Pond into the future, he said.

“Really, what we need to be deciding is, is this an asset or a liability, then go from there,” Chudowsky said.

— Reporter: 541-383-0387, shammers@bendbulletin.com

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.

Utility to fix Bend’s Mirror Pond dam

PacifiCorp announced on Tuesday that it will repair the leak in Mirror Pond dam in April, in time for people to enjoy higher water levels on the Deschutes River this summer.

One of the wooden panels in the dam began leaking in October, and since then, the water level has sunk, leaving visible the mud flats that have been building up in the Mirror Pond section of the river. The utility stopped generating power at the dam after it discovered the leak, and executives have been meeting with a Bend city councilor and the executive director of the Bend Park & Recreation District to discuss the possibility of transferring ownership of the dam to a government agency.

PacifiCorp plans to install a steel sheet piling upstream of the leaking panel, according to a news release from the utility.

Once the dam is repaired, PacifiCorp will again begin generating electricity at the dam, Mark Tallman, PacifiCorp’s vice president for renewable resources, said in the release.

Tallman also said it is possible Mirror Pond would have filled up anyway this summer, when more water will be released from Wickiup Reservoir.

In December, PacifiCorp spokesman Bob Gravely said it would not be cost effective to repair the dam because it produced a meager amount of electricity. On Tuesday, Gravely said utility executives decided to repair the dam for different reasons.

Gravely said PacifiCorp hopes that repairing the dam will make it easier for the utility and local officials to reach an agreement to transfer the dam to a local government agency. “We don’t intend to generate (electricity) long-term, so fixing one leak for that purpose wouldn’t make sense.”

Gravely said PacifiCorp estimates that fixing the leak will cost $250,000.

Park district Executive Director Don Horton recently called for PacifiCorp to repair the dam to prevent further damage to the structure and ensure the river will be safe for boaters and others recreating on the river this summer.

Regarding PacifiCorp’s announcement, Horton said, “It shows that PacifiCorp has been listening to the community’s needs and trying to do their part in this negotiation process that we’re going through, to figure out a long-term solution to Mirror Pond and the dam.”

PacifiCorp also met privately on Tuesday afternoon with City Councilor Mark Capell and Horton to continue negotiating a possible transfer of ownership of the dam. Capell and Horton are members of the Mirror Pond ad hoc committee tasked with deciding the future of the pond. They were joined in the negotiating session by Ned Dempsey, a citizen member of the committee. Dempsey is a civil engineer who owns a home across from Drake Park.

The committee is scheduled to meet at 1 p.m. today to discuss a proposal from committee member and park board Chairman Scott Wallace to appoint Dempsey to the small group that is meeting with PacifiCorp. However, Horton said Tuesday that Wallace went ahead and appointed Dempsey without waiting for a public meeting.

Capell said that during the meeting Tuesday, Bend officials and PacifiCorp discussed proposals from firms that want to conduct an independent inspection of the dam on behalf of the park district. Capell had to leave the meeting during discussion of a proposal from HDR, a large engineering firm where Capell’s brother Paul Capell works. Capell has said PacifiCorp should repair the Mirror Pond dam and give it to the community, and on Tuesday, he said the announcement that the utility will repair the dam does not mean it will be worth more. “It’s not going to make them any money, for sure,” Capell said. Nonetheless, Capell said the utility’s decision to fix the leak is a positive development. “I thought that was an outstanding step forward by (PacifiCorp),” Capell said.