Is Bend Gambling on its Surface Water Project?

Risky Business?: Just how big a gamble is the city taking in starting construction on its surface water project?

The Source Weekly – by: Erin Foote Marlowe

By Wednesday, the city of Bend hopes a construction crew will begin the heavy work needed to lay a 30-inch pipe across two channels of Tumalo Creek and down Skyliners Road.

It will be the first step in completing the city’s controversial surface water improvement project, and one that opponents and many city council candidates running for election this fall say is reckless and could end up costing the city millions of dollars.

City leaders say opponents are wrong.

But in starting the project next week, Bend city councilors and city staff are, indeed, gambling that the two remaining legal challenges to the project will fail. They are gambling that courts won’t halt the project while they make a decision on those challenges. They are gambling that the November election won’t pack the Bend City Council with people who’ve said they would stop the nearly $68 million project.

“Regardless of what your position is on whether they ought to build this project, the timing is irresponsible,” said Bill Buchanan, a Bend attorney who is opposed to the water project. “Why would you take a 40 percent chance that you are going to win?”

To opponents and numerous city council candidates, the city’s decision to move forward now when there are still so many unknowns appears to be a deliberate attempt to prevent a rollback of the project by a new group of city leaders that will take office just months from now.

“From the beginning, council made the decisions they made knowing it was going to be more difficult to [stop the project] if more spikes were driven in the ground,” said Doug Knight, who is running for position two on the council this November. “If I get elected, there’s a good chance that this pipeline will be a pipeline to nowhere. And it will be a result of [the current city council] not proceeding cautiously and making the decisions that they should have made.”

Bend City Manager Eric King said the city is absolutely not attempting to block future councils and, indeed, future councils will still make decisions about what kind of filtration system to build to ensure the city’s surface water is clean. Future councils will also decide on whether to build a hydropower plant to capture the energy of water flowing through the pipe.

King added that the city council made the decision to move forward with installing the pipe several months ago but was unable to obtain a special use permit from the Forest Service to begin work until now because of appeals to the project.

“The election cycle is not driving this,” said King. “We are not rushing to complete [the project].”

He said that the city has weighed the risks and determined that it could be more expensive to wait to do the project because the city has a contract with a company named Mortenson Construction to lay the pipe for a maximum price now, he said. That maximum price is $23.3 million according to court documents.

“Our job as staff is to analyze risk and present that to council,” said King. “If we as staff felt that it was risky, we would say that we felt there was a lot of risk.”

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