Myths Concerning the City’s Creekwater Project

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Bend voters have spoken. More than three out of four votes for four Council seats were cast for candidates who were highly critical of the Creekwater project, including all four winners. The overwhelming sentiment against the project exists despite the City’s efforts to persuade voters that the project is worthwhile. The City has mounted a serious public relations campaign in support of the project, which harms ratepayers and businesses almost as much as it harms the creek.

The City, through its engineering firm, paid a public relations firm to generate public support for the project. It stuffed utility bills with inserts. It unleashed its communications department to distribute information about subsidies, it flooded cyberspace with YouTube presentations, and it targeted voters and media outlets with press releases and spam emails in support of the project. Armed with ratepayer and taxpayer dollars, the City is a public relations force to be reckoned with.

If only the City were as good at receiving information as it is at spreading it, the unfortunate debacle concerning the creekwater project might have been avoided. The challenge for the newly elected councilors will be to create a culture that engages the community and gets its facts straight before making big decisions. In the meantime, it is important to set the record straight concerning some of the myths that have been perpetuated by the City’s public relations campaign.

PROCESS

Myth No. 1: The City calls its proposed creekwater project the “Surface Water Improvement Project” or “SWIP” because it expands the City’s water supply.

Fact: Although the pricetag for SWIP is expansive, it does not expand the City’s water supply because the amount of water that can be relied on for planning purposes is just 7.4 million gallons per day based upon the City’s limited creekwater rights and the fact that the creek is subject to drought at the same time of year that the City’s water demand is at its highest. This is a small fraction of the City’s peak day demand. Building the $68 million creekwater project does nothing to expand those rights. Nevertheless, the City plans to install a pipe capable of carrying five to ten times the volume allowed by the City’s water rights.

Myth No. 2: The City must complete construction of a new creekwater system by 2014 to meet EPA’s water filtration requirements.

Fact: EPA’s filtration requirements only apply to creekwater, not wells. The City has enough wells to handle all of Bend’s needs for the foreseeable future and has plans to build more, so there is no rush to replace the creekwater system until demand for Bend’s water nearly doubles. The City has higher priorities for spending ratepayers’ money.

Myth No. 3: The City received public input at numerous hearings for years before making a decision on the water project.

Fact: The City’s communications department issued a YouTube video announcing that it would be raising rates to build the creekwater project in May 2009, long before any public meeting on the project and long before any economic or engineering analysis was performed or released to the public. City Council voted to proceed with the project on September 16, 2009, well before the first economic or engineering analysis of the project was published or made available to the public (or even the Council). To date, City Council has refused to schedule a work session where opponents can be allowed more than three minutes to present economic, engineering, and environmental evidence in opposition to the project.

RELIABILITY

Myth No. 4: The City currently “relies” on creekwater for half of its water supply.

Fact: The City does not “rely” or depend on surface water at all. The City’s own master plan reports that the City only has reliable water rights to meet 33 percent of peak use. By contrast, it has sufficient well capacity to provide 150 to 200 percent of its peak use. In fact, during several weeks of peak use this past summer, the City shut off the creekwater system and used wells for all of its water needs. Nobody could tell the difference.

Myth No. 5: Wells are not a safe alternative because the aquifer is at risk of contamination.

Fact: Even if it builds the creekwater project, Bend plans to use wells to provide nearly 90 percent of its peak water needs in the future. Bend’s planning documents recognize that we have a “robust” regional aquifer that is safe and sound. Unlike the aquifers of the arid southwest or the midwest, our regional aquifer recharges at a rate of two billion gallons annually. Fresh water enters the aquifer as rain and snowmelt from the forests and mountains where there is little or no risk of groundwater contamination. To utilize existing reservoirs and lines, any replacement wells could be located near the Outback reservoir facility, located one mile west of town. The City engineer acknowledges there is little risk of contamination at that site.

Myth No. 6: Wells are unreliable because they require power to operate.

Fact: Creekwater and groundwater systems are equally dependent on electricity.

Creekwater must be filtered when it reaches Bend, and the filtration plant runs on electricity. Fortunately, water is stored in elevated reservoirs that pressurize our water by gravity in the event of a power outage. When power is out for an extended period, backup generators provide power to continue treating surface water or pumping groundwater that is used to refill the reservoirs. The City is in the process of updating all of its facilities with backup power.

Myth No. 7: Maintaining dual source is preferable so that we don’t have all of our “eggs in one basket.”

Fact: The term “dual source” has become a political term. The real issue is reliability. According to the City’s own master plan and conservation plan, groundwater is very reliable due to our robust aquifer. Using wells in several areas also helps to prevent bottlenecks throughout town as the City grows because water can be sourced nearer to the locations it is used.

Moreover, with multiple well sites, the City can minimize the risk in the event any of its wells or waterlines fail. By contrast, a single fire, flood, or landslide in the watershed could temporarily or permanently halt use of creekwater by damaging the pipe, by destroying either of the two dams, by damaging either of the two diversion structures, or by clouding the creekwater with mud or silt.

Myth No. 8: The independent value engineering team recommended in 2011 that the City retain its surface water system.

Fact: The City hired a value engineering (Robinson, Stafford & Rude, Inc.) team to review the project design and find ways of saving costs. That team never studied any groundwater alternatives, however, because the City forbade it from doing so. The City laid out the following “project constraints:” (1) the team was forbidden from studying groundwater as an alternative; (2) the team was forbidden from studying any alternative (such as the short-pipe alternative) that changed the point of diversion on the creek; and (3) the team was forbidden from studying any alternatives to membrane technology, which is the most expensive treatment option.

Myth No. 9: The City’s creekwater is better tasting than its groundwater.

Fact: Bend has great tasting groundwater and, when it’s not too muddy, great tasting creekwater. In fact, it was Bend’s groundwater that won the regional contest held May 2-4 in Yakima. Bend had no choice but to enter its groundwater in that contest because its creekwater system was shut down for 47 out of 67 days between April 20th and June 25th (including the 11 days preceding the contest) because the water was too muddy to drink.

Myth No. 10: The Creekwater Project will provide a more reliable water supply than wells in the event of a fire in the watershed.

Fact: Groundwater is more reliable in the event of a forest fire because it is not impacted by forest fire in the watershed. As designed, the Creekwater project will have a membrane treatment plant that cannot treat water with heavy silt or ash.  In the event of a large forest fire, the City would need to construct additions to the treatment plant to settle out or filter and dispose of that silt and ash. Land use approval for such treatment and disposal facilities has not been obtained, nor has the expense of such facilities been included in the City’s cost estimates. Such facilities would also be expensive to operate, resulting in higher operation and maintenance costs for the treatment plant.

Myth 11: Creekwater is not vulnerable to climate change.

Fact: The City has not studied this important matter. Because Tumalo Creek derives some of its flows from snowmelt, including the melting of the glacier located within the Broken Top crater, there is the possibility that climate change could adversely affect flows in Tumalo Creek. A large fire in the watershed would also reduce shade in the watershed, hastening snowmelt in the Spring, which might result in longer periods of drought during the mid to late summer when the City’s water demand is highest.

RECREATION AND ENVIRONMENT

Myth No. 12: The project will improve streamflows because new valves will allow the City to reduce the amount of water it takes when City demand is low.

Fact: Over time, the City plans to take substantially more water from Tumalo Creek. The City’s engineers estimate that the City will increase its creekwater diversions from approximately 2.2 billion gallons annually to 4.6 billion gallons annually. By any reckoning that’s a substantial reduction of instream flows. If that estimate is incorrect (which it most likely is due to the City’s limited creekwater rights), then the financial projections for the project are also incorrect. After all, the City’s financial projections relied on those same flows to justify the project.

Myth No. 13: The creekwater project will not impact Tumalo Falls.

Fact: Several miles upstream from Tumalo Falls, the City has a dam and pipeline that divert water from the Tumalo Creek to Bridge Creek. Bend then diverts that water a second time at the mouth of Bridge Creek. If the City used groundwater instead of creekwater that flow would remain in Tumalo Creek and pass over the falls, noticeably improving the views and fishing for our summer visitors.

Myth No. 14: The City is a good caretaker of Tumalo Creek.

Fact: The City and its engineers placed zero value, whatsoever, on instream flows when evaluating the various alternatives. The City has also discharged 55 million gallons of muddy water into Tumalo Creek for five days during 2010, and contributed to low flows below Shevlin Park that left trout high and dry during 2012. While all other water users in the basin are working cooperatively to reduce their diversions of surface water, only the City of Bend is planning to increase the amount of surface water it takes.

Myth No. 15: The City is willing to voluntarily restrict its creekwater diversions to its current rate of 18.2 cubic feet per second for awhile.

Fact: The City currently diverts at an average rate of just over 9 cubic feet per second. If the City were truly willing to limit its diversion to current levels, it would limit its diversion to that volume and it would not need to spend all that money to buy a much larger pipeline capable of diverting over 50 cubic feet per second.

Myth 16: The City’s decision to build the creekwater project does not impact flows in the lower stretch of Tumalo Creek.

Fact: The lower stretch of Tumalo Creek below Shevlin Park is the most impacted because it is below the diversions of both the City and Tumalo Irrigation District. During summer 2012, flows in that stretch reached a low of just 2.3 cubic feet per second, a flow rate that can be matched—at least for a short while—by a man with a bucket. Had the City been using wells rather than creekwater at that time, flows in that stretch of the creek would have increased by more than 400 percent.

Myth 17: Improving flows in the lower stretch of Tumalo Creek is not a priority because that stretch of creek is bordered by private lands that are not within the City.

Fact: The same City Council that voted to proceed with the creekwater project also voted to expand Bend’s urban growth boundary to the lower stretch of Tumalo Creek. If and when that portion of the creek becomes urbanized, it will likely become a highly valued aesthetic and recreational opportunity for our community with parks, trails, and a blue ribbon trout stream—but only if that stretch of Tumalo Creek has sufficient flows to maintain fish habitat or float an inner tube. At present, summer flows in the lower reach of Tumalo Creek consistently fall to levels where a person can stand with one dry foot on each bank of the creek. Planning to increase creekwater use is shortsighted for Bend’s future.

COST

Myth No. 18: Independent economic studies comparing Bend’s creekwater to groundwater have favored the use of creekwater since the 1980s.

Fact: There are no economic studies comparing Bend’s use of creekwater to groundwater prior to October 2009, when the City’s engineers released the first such study. Unfortunately, that study relied on a number of hydropower assumptions and subsidies that have not materialized and which even the City recognizes are flawed. The City has no other independent analysis comparing the various alternatives for Bend’s future water supply.

Myth No. 19: Wells are more expensive in the long run because of the power required to pull the water out of the ground.

Fact: Each of the alternatives has pros and cons. Piping and ongoing treatment costs are higher for creekwater. Pumping costs are higher for groundwater. All of those costs must be examined over the long term. Over the long run, the $68 million creekwater project is far more expensive. In fact, the interest on the additional loans needed to fund the project would be $2 million more per year than with wells. That interest cost, alone, will exceed the cost to pump

additional groundwater by several hundred percent.

Myth No. 20: The project’s opponents are “no growthers” whose motive for opposing the creekwater project is to prevent Bend from growing.

Fact: The opponents have little in common but their love for Bend. They include eight former mayors, developers and conservationists, Democrats and  Republicans, Occupiers and Teapartiers, engineers, lawyers, hydrologists, economists, and water experts. The City’s 2011 Public Facilities Plan estimates that new wells can supply the same amount of water as the creekwater project for just 1/6 of the capital costs. By choosing such an expensive alternative, rates to families and businesses will skyrocket, thereby discouraging economic growth in Bend. By choosing such an expensive alternative, perhaps it is the proponents of the project that wish to discourage economic growth by forcing higher rates on businesses and families.

Myth No. 21: The City has already received $18 million in grants and subsidies for the creekwater project.

Fact: The City has not received any grants. There is a possibility that the City could receive a subsidized interest rate on some of the loans it will need to build the project, but only if it builds a hydropower project and only if the City pledges its general fund revenues to pay back those loans (thereby risking revenues already committed to police and fire protection).

LEGAL/FINANCIAL RISK

Myth No. 22: Switching entirely to wells could jeopardize our surface water rights.

Fact: Unlike private entities, a municipality does not have to continue using its water rights to preserve those rights under Oregon law. The City could switch to wells for several years and would not have to worry about losing its creekwater rights, thereby preserving the option of building a treatment plant and resuming our use of creekwater at some point in the future. Sisters and Redmond both hold surface water rights that they have placed “instream” on a temporary basis while relying on wells for their water supply.

Myth No. 23: The creekwater project does not jeopardize the City’s credit rating.

Fact: Cities borrow money by selling bonds that must be repaid with interest. Just like ordinary citizens, the interest rates charged to a City go up when the City’s credit rating falls. The City’s finance director warned in 2010 that the additional debt related to the creekwater project would result in a downgrade of the City’s credit rating and would result in higher interest rates on the City’s debt.

Myth No. 24: The creekwater project does not jeopardize funding for police and fire protection because those services are paid from the general fund not the water fund.

Fact: The terms of the subsidized loans referenced in the City’s press releases will require the City to pledge its general fund revenues, thereby jeopardizing police and fire funding and its general obligation bond rating. Even if the creekwater debt and the general fund were kept separate, however, most Bend taxpayers pay them both from the same personal checking account.

Myth 25: There is little or no risk that the City will encounter land use, permitting, or environmental obstacles that might jeopardize the timely construction of the creekwater project.

Fact: According to press reports, City staff represented that there was little or no risk that legal challenges could halt or delay the creekwater project,  notwithstanding the fact that numerous land use and other permits are required to build and then operate such a project.

Accordingly, the City commenced work on the project without those permits. Construction was then halted by a federal injunction due to environmental concerns. More recently, the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals also denied land use approval for the project. The City has not yet filed applications with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for approval of a hydroelectric generating permit, nor has the City sought approval for the additional settling ponds or other pretreatment processes that would be needed to remove silt and ash from the water in the event of a fire, landslide, or flood in the watershed.

CONDITION OF EXISTING PIPES

Myth No. 26: The pipes are failing because “chunks of the pipe are showing up down at the reservoirs.”

Fact: The City has not produced evidence to back up this statement, nor has the City conducted any detailed study of the condition of the existing pipes. Brown & Caldwell recommended that the City conducted a more detailed study of its pipes in 2009, but the City chose not to do so because it considered a larger, more expensive, pipe to be a better choice for generating hydroelectricity due to lower friction loss. Other than Brown & Caldwell, the only study of the existing pipes was by the value engineering team (Robinson, Stafford & Rude, Inc) for the creekwater project in 2011. That team, which was hired to find ways of saving money on the project, recommended that the City continue to use at least one of the existing pipes resulting in savings of more than $10 million. The City declined to follow that recommendation.

Myth No. 27: The existing pipes cannot be shut down or they will collapse.

Fact: There is no scientific or engineering evidence to support this claim. In fact, the City has admitted in response to public records requests that it does shut the pipes down and empties them periodically, and yet the pipes have never failed or collapsed as a result.

Myth No. 28: The pipes must be replaced because a short section of the older pipe recently split and had to be repaired.

Fact: There are two existing steel pipelines. When a six foot section of the older pipe recently split, it was promptly repaired. The City reported that its repair cost for that incident was just $2,000. By comparison, if the City borrows $68 million to build the creekwater project, the interest on that debt alone will accrue at the rate of approximately $270 per hour (24 hours per day/ 365 days per year). In other words, the cost to fix that pipe was the same cost the City will occur to pay just 7 hours of interest on the debt it will if it builds the creekwater project.

Myth No. 29: The pipes are 100 years old.

Fact: There are two steel pipes. One was placed in service in the late 1920s, and the other was placed in service in the late 1950s. The lower section of each pipe is 12-inch diameter steel pipe.

Myth No. 30: The new pipeline will only increase the ability to divert water from the creek by about 3 cubic feet per second.

Fact: A new 30-inch pipe would have more than four times the capacity of the existing two 12-inch steel pipes.

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