BEND, Ore. -

Bend city councilors just sent a letter to the state asking them to delay enforcement of new new federal water treatment rules for several years. They say that would postpone parts of a controversial water project, spread out the cost and most importantly, head off bigger water bills for residents.

For almost a year now, it seems we have been hearing a lot about the $68 million water project and the opponents who want it stopped.

While if granted, the new request could delay parts of the project several years, opponents say they still want it all stopped.

It's considered the biggest infrastructure project in the history of Bend, and it's also considered the most controversial.

The Bend Surface Water Improvement Project is designed to update the city's Bridge Creek water supply system by among other things replacing aging pipeline. The city says that would assure residents and businesses can have safe and clean water in the least costly way.

But opponents have come on strong.

"For too long the city has, the engineers at the city have taken the position of 'build it first, ask questions later,' which isn't very productive, we find," Bruce Aylward, one of those strong critics, said Thursday. "It would be nice if they put the project on hold and stop spending $20,000 a day of ratepayers' money on designing a project they may never need."

But it is a project that Bend Mayor Jeff Eager says is needed -- though he also admits a delay on part of the project would be welcome.

"It's very important that the city be as aggressive as possible in pursuing regulatory flexibility to save ratepayers money," Eager said.

And the city thinks they have a solution. Councilors are asking the the state to delay compliance with federal safe drinking water regulations, for several years, allowing water rates to increase at a slower pace over a longer period of time to pay for the project amid a tough economy.

"It's something that the city needs to do," Eager said. "We need to push, and we need to make our case to the regulators that people in Bend can't afford to do all this at once."

Aylward added, "The positive takeaway from this is the city is now listening to opponents and started to ask critical questions about this project/"

"It's good to see the city is looking to see how they can save ratepayers money," he added, "and that's what we have been asking all along, so we are glad to see this movement forward."

Portland city councilors asked the state to hold off on the same rules, and the state recently granted the request. But until recently, Portland's water system didn't show any of the parasite known as cryptosporidium -- a new test, reported Thursday showed it in Portland's Bull Run water supply -- and our water system in Bend has shown it several times in the past.

Bend councilors will talk about the issue at their next meeting on Jan. 18, as a facilities plan is up for review that includes elements of the big water project.

Here's the city's full news release:

Bend city councilors sent a letter to the state Thursday, requesting a delay of "several years" in implementation of new federal water-treatment rules, which would let the city spread the costs of its controversial $70 million water project over a longer period, officials said.

A new compliance schedule would postpone construction of the water treatment plant component of Bend?s Surface Water Improvement Project and spread out project costs, reducing the burden on rate payers -- also easing a brewing dispute with critics of the project.

In a news release issued Thursday, Bend officials said, "The city seeks to delay compliance for several years so that it can construct a pipeline associated with the project before the water treatment facility."

Under the adjusted schedule, design of the water treatment facility would continue so that the project would be ?shovel ready? by the new compliance date. The adjusted schedule also would allow water rates to increase at a slower pace over a longer period of time to pay for the project.

The Oregon Health Authority is the state agency responsible for enforcing the Environmental Protection Agency?s Long Term 2 (LT2) Enhanced Surface Water Treatment Rule to filter surface water for cryptosporidium, a microbe that can make people sick.

The letter sent to OHA outlined the City?s economic troubles and the negative impact that increased water rates would have on its citizens at this time. As the recession hit, Bend?s reliance on two volatile industries ? real estate/development and tourism ? made it especially susceptible to high levels of unemployment, foreclosures, and poverty.

The letter follows recent discussions with the Oregon Drinking Water Program, regarding whether Bend could qualify for a variance to the LT2 Rule as Portland did last December.

Bend would not likely qualify for a variance because, unlike Portland, Bend has detected cryptosporidium in its surface water source, Bridge Creek, at levels higher than the EPA would allow seven times since testing began in 2005.

he Bridge Creek watershed also is open and accessible to the public and at risk of wildfire, both of which increase the likelihood of water contamination without a treatment plant.