4-3, again: Bend council still backs water project

But could pipe replacement stay tied up in court - or go to voters?

Bend moving forward with controversial pipeline

BEND, Ore. - The critics were loud, even fierce -- but for the second time in two weeks, Bend city councilors voted 4-3 Wednesday night to proceed with a new water pipeline from Bridge Creek to the city's water storage facility on the west side. Foes are unlikely to give up.

It came down to the same 4-3 in favor, with Mayor Jim Clinton joining new councilors Sally Russell and Doug Knight voting no and the other new councilor, Victor Chudowsky, joining Scott Ramsay, Mark Capell and Jodie Barram voting yes.

This time, the vote was on a revised resolution that only will reconsider the water treatment options and whether to add a hydroelectric plant -- not whether to replace the two decades-old pipe that a consulting engineers insists are in imminent danger of failing.

Before the public was called up to comment on the project, a clarification was needed on what was going to happen Wednesday night.

"My understanding is that there was the vote at the last meeting was about modifying the resolution in the way that it has been modified," Clinton said.

"It was my impression with the motion that I made that we actually approve to continue with the resolution that we are not re-voting on moving forward with the resolution," Ramsay said.

At issue at first was whether or not the council had voted on a resolution to move forward with the pipeline. Both Ramsay and Capell said the vote last time was to move forward except for one provision.

"My motion is, I move to approve the revised version of Section 4 of the already approved resolution," Capell said.

So councilors agreed to just vote on the changes within the resolution and not a re-vote of the entire thing.

But before the vote, the public weighed in -- and the large majority of those who showed up to speak were firmly against moving forward.

"In my 20 years of being a city planner and planning director, I have never seen such a poor planning process," said Jeff Boyer, who lives in the Boonesborough neighborhood east of Bend but has property that gets city water service.

Boyer alleged an "illegal" conflict of interest because the consultant that reviews the options also developed construction plans.

He and others said last fall's election was a "clear mandate for more transparency" and to change course on the water project.

"Maybe you didn't get the memo," Boyer scoffed. "The city shoots the messengers, ignores the message. This does not pass the smell test. It's no wonder people hate government. There is no immediate water crisis, and no need to put pipes in the ground. You can be heroes, or go down as the Watergate city council of Bend."

A letter was read from Ned Dempsey, founder of Century West Engineering (which oversaw the 1980 Bend water master plan and the 1980s city sewer project), who urged reconsidering the entire SWIP, saying it had never been reviewed without the hydroelectric element.

Several speakers urged councilors to send the matter to voters, much as the Bend Parkway and Southern River Crossing (westward extension of Reed Market Road) was done in past years. One man noted no legal challenges followed those referendums  (though perhaps it also should be noted that they didn't stop the projects, either.)

Coincidentally, another controversial Reed Market Road project -- a planned roundabout at SE 15th Street -- filled the speakers' portion of the agenda, including Expressway Market owner Tom Healey, who said he gathered 850 signatures from those concerned about such issues as major traffic backups from the nearby railroad tracks. Others raised issues of pedestrian safety near the Bend Senior Center.

As for the water issue, the Bend Chamber of Commerce announced they won't weigh in until they have a third-party assessment done. But Capell said waiting for those results would put the city past the schedule for getting the new pipe laid before Skyliners Road is rebuilt.

One former mayor -- Allan Bruckner -- took his familiar critic's role on the project, citing "bad assumptions" on water demand and power prices that have not proven true. Perhaps more surprising was a letter read into the record from former mayor Bruce Abernethy, who said it was "well past time to take a deep breath and review" the project.

He noted the even costlier issue of sewers has put constraints on development of late - not a lack of water -- and said the Surface Water Improvement Project (SWIP) could become, like Juniper Ridge, a well-intentioned project that goes awry.

Land-use attorney Paul Dewey of Central Oregon Landwatch -- which with the group Stop the Drain went to court and got the project halted last fall -- showed no signs of giving up or in, saying sewer and water rates have risen 200 percent in the past eight years, 'far beyond what most people can afford in their daily lives."

"Have the staff lay out all the projects coming up in the next few years, so you can choose which can be done," Dewey said, later suggesting, "At least put it up to the voters, like the parkway was put up to the voters, so the public can decide."

Not stated was that those votes came as a result of initiative petitions, not from the decisions of those councils.

Carol Dressler was even more blunt, comparing the water project "boondoggle you are foisting on the city of Bend" to the Portland area's controversial Columbia River Crossing.

There were some speakers in favor of proceeding, including a council meeting regular, Mike Lovely, and Roats Water Co. owner Casey Roats, who said having two water sources, surface and ground water, is the envy of many communities. He also thanked councilors for investing in infrastructure that should pay for itself, rather than "kicking the can down the road."

City engineer Tom Hickman told councilors that unless some reprieve is granted, Bend residents will get notices after an October 2014 deadline that the city is not complying with an EPA water-treatment requirement, though the agency might relent if shown a timetable of progress toward that goal.

When Russell asked if the city instead could treat water coming from its existing pipes, Hickman replied, "From an engineer's perspective, anything is possible," but that such an effort would raise some "interesting challenges."

Consulting engineer Bob Willis no doubt raised eyebrows when he said the two pipelines that are 50 to 80 years old are in such "terrible shape," and have been for decades, that they are "now showing signs of imminent catastrophic failure."

"Those pipelines need to be replaced, and they need to be replaced as quickly as you can do that," Willis said. "If one fails, it'll take the other out." He also noted a seismic fault sites in the area, and that a late-summer visit shows green vegetation watered by leaks from the current pipes.

But Councilor Doug Knight -- an engineer of the civil variety -- grilled Willis, saying he'd seen nothing but anecdotal evidence of the pipes' poor condition, and urged Willis to stick to "evidentiary issues. Leave the political discussion to us."

At that point, Ramsay told Knight that "90 percent of the information we've heard tonight was misinformation propagated" by water project foes.

"With all due respect," Knight replied, "the public is allowed to give anecdotal information."

But Willis stuck to his guns, saying the current 12-inch-wide pipes are too small to get into and put in concrete casing or other stopgap repairs that he compared to "putting more money down a rat hole."

Russell said she'd skied the entire length of the pipe and found evidence of a leak in just one area, commending city staff for maintaining the area along the pipelines and keeping them free of vegetation that could cause problems.

Before the vote, Mayor Clinton said there's a practical reason to "engage the community in a careful reconsideration" of the project -- to "reduce the likelihood of further delays" by opponents. He noted that the revised Forest Service permit isn't expected until mid to late summer anyway."

And Knight said he still believes his alternative, laid out at the last meeting, of delaying the piping and intake facility "has merit."

Well after the vote, in councilor comments, Knight offered praise for the community members who spoke and for his colleagues as well, saying they were not as split as the vote indicated.

A public hearing on the city's water Public Facilities Plan, returned by the state for more details, was postponed for two weeks. So the hot water debate isn't over.

What happens later on in the courts -- or just maybe, at the ballot box -- is anyone's guess.

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