BEND, Ore. -

Leave it to new Bend Mayor Jim Clinton, perhaps the record-holder on the losing end of 6-1 votes in his years on the city council, to wrap up the new council’s first, at-times contentious discussion of the controversial $68 million Surface Water Improvement Project by garnering a 7-0 decision – and a fast one, no less.

“Let’s see if we can make a little progress in the next five minutes,” Clinton said, looking at the clock tick toward the regular 7 p.m. meeting time after the council had spent more than an hour of its work session wrestling with whether and, if so, how to change course on the project that’s already been tied up in court by its critics.

He posed the question to colleagues: Do you favor the city giving up its dual sources of water – from the Bridge Creek tributary of Tumalo Creek, and from groundwater wells – and to move to groundwater alone?

It was a work session, so it was more a nod of heads – but each councilor gave a one-word answer: “No.”

That result brought some laughter on an issue that’s been anything but fun for the city since the massive water project ran into stormy opposition – and a court fight that prompted a project halt last fall. Some, though not all of those foes feel that the city should drill more wells and end its century or so of pulling water from the creek.

But at the end of the night, after dealing with other business, the council came back to the water project issue, largely because a hearing is scheduled in just two weeks on one related, appealed item, the city’s Public Facilities Plan. And on a 4-3 vote, the council decided the city should stay the course on the $20 pipeline replacement/intake facility project, facing a tight schedule even if the city prevails on those court appeals.

Many of those critics no doubt were disappointed by the new council’s first water project decisions, especially since new councilors Victor Chudowsky, Doug Knight and Sally Russell won in part due to the criticism of the city’s process and plans. Though the planning has gone on for years, with plenty of public meetings, some still insist that the public has not been asked the community, in the right times and ways, what it wants to do.

(And one big factor that can't be avoided: The city says nearly $15 million of the $20 million price tag for the water pipe/intake facility work already has been spent -- so the new councilors likely have found that, timing-wise, this ship has, for the most part, sailed -- and changing course could be even costlier.)

The split breakdown among councilors was less clear on related issues, such as whether to change course on ay membrane filter water treatment to meet the EPA’s 2014 water-treatment deadline for the city – one City Manager Eric King says the feds already know cannot be met, due to the court injunction and its delays.

Clinton kept working to keep the council on track, framing the issues with questions revolving a March 2012 council resolution that modified the water plans, but pulled back to study mode on the water treatment options and on a planned hydropower plant to garner revenue. Even with those changes, Clinton had cast one of those lone no votes on the resolution, saying the city was spending too much and had moved too fast.

As is turns out, King told councilors Wednesday night that the last in a series of water rate hikes last summer means no more rate increases will be needed to pay for the new water pipeline or intake facility.

Whether the treatment plant will require higher rates depends in part on whether the membrane filter or a cheaper ultraviolet filtration system is employed. (And then there’s the cost of replacing an untold number of other aging, failing water pipes buried across the city.)

“Are we continuing the same path, or wanting to look at other options?” Clinton said.

Councilor Mark Capell said the decision last March was “an effort to compromise,” and he still supports the resolution. Like the critics, he said he’d like to put more water into Tumalo Creek, but he said that means more work with the Tumalo Irrigation District, which withdraws the majority of water that leaves the creek.

As for the big cost, Capell said he’s thinking long-term, such as the future cost of electricity for those groundwater well pumps: “Do you want free water that flows by gravity, or to pump it at a cost out of the ground?”

Knight appeared to be the strongest supporter of revisiting the entire pipeline issue

“I do agree with Mark that we need to take a long-term approach to infrastructure solutions,” said the former long-time planning commission member. “To me, that means minimizing our capital up-front costs.”

“I believe we have taken our eyes off the ball on meeting EPA compliance,” he said, instead spending $21 million on a new pipeline – without proof, in his view, that the current, leaking, decades-old pipes can’t be repaired instead.

Knight offered up this analogy: “It’s a little like invading Iraq when we should have been concentrating our efforts in Afghanistan.”

Russell voiced a similar view: “I think it’s time for us to stop and take a look at this project. The city has a lot of infrastructure needs.” And she said she thought the city had “lost sight of the rest of the water system that serves the city,” and what it’ll need.

(Later Wednesday night, by the way, the council had another unanimous vote, directing staff to proceed with some short-term sewer fixes while a citizen panel keeps working on the long-range issues)

At that point in the water discussion, Capell – who said last month he was looking forward to less “boring” council meetings -- began to bristle and make that happen, noting the pressing deadlines to get water pipe work done during low summer flows, before an upcoming Skyliners Road rebuilding project.

“You’re going to end up delaying the project, which loses the season this full to put pipe in the ground,” he said. “The minority opinion, in opposition of this project – because they can’t win the argument, they delay the project until they win. They delay and delay and delay, and end up costing the city money.”

“I wouldn’t put it that way,” Knight said, noting that The Bulletin saw the fall election as a “mandate” to revisit the water project.

“I don’t agree,” Capell replied.