Life on earth cannot exist without water. Of all the strange and bizarre life forms that we have discovered, not one can live without its presence. Water is not only an essential element to life, it is also an element we share with every other living thing. This may not be mind blowing information but how often do we take this fact for granted? How often do we think about how our life in arid Central Oregon affects the living beings with whom we share our most precious resource? Have you ever wondered what this land looked like before irrigation and human population changed it? Do you often think about where the water in your faucet comes from when you need to quench your thirst? And what kind of earth future generations will inherit?
Our thoughts are particularly open to water issues at this time as we have spent the last two summers running our programs at Skyliner Lodge, where a major water-related construction project is underway. As we did our camouflage games, hunted for faeries, and opened our senses it was clear that there was a major disturbance in “the force of the forest.” We would sing our songs of deep connection with Mother Earth over the loud and abrasive sounds of machinery digging up stones, manipulating the river’s flow, and laying down pavement. The kids understood that what was happening with the construction was not compatible with the ways we were encouraging them to interact with nature. Some of them even asked if the construction workers had asked nature for permission to do what they were doing.
A large portion of Bend’s city water comes from Tumalo Creek, a stream which flows water through the famed Tumalo Falls, beneath Skyliner Lodge, and through Shevlin Park. Several years ago, the city proposed a plan to utilize the flow of this creek for hydroelectric power. This plan called for a significantly larger amount of water to be taken from the creek than is now used for our city drinking water. Fortunately, opponents of the plan, namely LandWatch and WaterWatch (environmental groups located in Bend and Portland), forced the city to reconsider the impacts of such an action. Instead, the city decided to replace the current pipe that drains water from the Tumalo with a much larger one and build a larger more expensive water treatment plant along the creek. The cost of such a plan has been predicted to cost over $70 million (that is the most up to date estimate according to the Bend Bulletin; originally it was expected to be much less).
Construction for this plan began without much public notice. With only a few days warning, it was announced that Skyliner Rd. would be under construction indefinitely until construction was complete. Again, LandWatch and WaterWatch moved in to oppose the action. A lawsuit was filed and construction was halted. Environmentalists claimed that the Forest Service, upon whose land the creek runs, did not fully analyze the impacts of the project to the health of the creek and ecosystem, which is required by federal law. The city claimed that they had properly applied for special permits and a comprehensive analysis was carried out by the Forest Service. Ultimately, the judge would agree with the city and allow construction to continue. LandWatch threatened to file an appeal the 9th District Federal Court, and now both groups are in mediation to settle the issue. At this point, however, the project is nearly complete.
In this debate, there are a few things that are noteworthy to consider. First, the new pipeline is significantly larger than the old one (critics also claimed the old pipe was not as crippled as made out to be). The city of Bend assures us that the same amount of water will be taken as before, which is true for now, at least. Before more water can be taken from the creek, a new analysis must be done to access the impacts. However, the forecasted future use of the pipe is clear: as Bend grows, it will need more water. Why else would they spend millions of dollars more than necessary for a pipe that is bigger than currently needed?
Secondly, the organization doing the analysis is the US Forest Service. They are also the ones issuing the permits to the city. In other words, the group making the money on special use permits is the same one in charge of determining the safety of such permits. That would be similar to putting Monsanto in charge of food safety guidelines. Though it is not the scope of this blog, the Forest Service has had some major debacles of judgment in the past. Many blame their timber management practices for our current problems with yearly forest fires. However, the judge officially stated on record that the Forest Service is allowed to be in charge of its own standards on ecosystem impact. The conflict of interest in this situation is clear.
Finally, I found it most interesting that city representatives repeatedly stated that LandWatch’s goal was not to protect the creek, but rather to set a legal precedent regarding water usage. To make a complex legal issue simple (forgive us for not wanting to weigh you down with legal cases and history on the topic), the city now has a legal ‘right of way’ over a natural watershed’s secondary rights. Put another way, the city gets first dibs on water, the ecosystem gets second. Both are legally protected, but when push comes to shove, the city wins. However, city planners claimed that LandWatch’s ultimate goal was to reverse this relationship. Nature first, city second. Strangely, they made this claim in accusation. As if that was a bad thing. Where have we come as a people when Nature takes a secondary position to our needs? Need we be reminded that everything we have comes from Nature in the first place? How many lives of other beings have been ended in favor of human city growth?
At some point, we will need to face the challenges of human expansion and water usage. Here is a visual that might help you realize the eventual reality of taking water from Tumalo Creek: Imagine the river drying up before it reaches Tumalo Falls. Then which water system will we go after? How long before it, too, dries and becomes a vacant creek bed? How long before our children will not remember when Tumalo Creek once had water? One need look no further than the Southwestern United States to see that this is a reality for many communities. The attitude of our children toward water and conservation may be our only chance in reversing this alarming trend. Do you talk about water with your children? Here are three things that could help expand your family’s knowledge about water issues:
- Visit dams and explore the impact of water table management
- When fish die offs are being reported in the news, go investigate in person
- Visit the river enough to notice the irregular and extreme fluctuations year round
It’s time we collectively begin thinking differently about water. The city of Bend spent 70 million tax dollars on a new pipeline so we could secure enough water for our community. What if that money was put toward rainwater catchment systems? Simple set-ups for rainwater collection can cost only a couple hundred dollars. More advanced systems, however, can range as high $10,000. For estimation purposes, let’s use a conservative figure of $5,000 for an average home to have an advanced water catchment system installed and operating. With the amount we spent on the controversial new pipeline project, we could have outfitted 14,000 Bend homes with rainwater collection systems. How much would that save us in the long run? How much less water would need to be taken from the river at that point?
This brings up a root issue, however, because the city would not likely subsidize rainwater catchment any time soon. Why? One of the main revenue sources for the city is charging for water. If people are collecting it from the air, the city isn’t making a profit from it. Instead, they spend tax money to collect river water, purify it, then pump it to us for a cost. The river is the one actually paying a price for this operation, as it has no say in the matter. The river’s caretaker and protector is the Forest Service, which incidentally charges cities for permits to take water. Nowhere in this equation is there motivation to come up with creative solutions, like rainwater collection, to our water usage problem.
All of us are caretakers of the land but some of us actually have a physical piece of Earth to call our own. What a privilege and responsibility! There are so many ways that we use water on a daily basis but we want to highlight one in particular for this blog. Most of us rely on water taken from the river to keep our gardens and lawns healthy, but did you know there are alternatives? First of all, choosing what plants are growing in your yard will play a big role in how much water you need to sustain them. Native plants to Central Oregon will need less water than plants native to moister regions. Lawns consume a large amount of water and there is a growing sentiment in some regions (i.e. Portland) that says “Food not Lawns!”
However, ripping up the lawn and replacing it with food is not always a realistic option, so at least there is rainwater catchment! There are three people in Bend we know who do landscaping specifically geared toward native and edible landscapes and rainwater collection. Their information is at the bottom of this blog. Did you know that if you were to simply collect the rainwater that falls on your property you would have more than enough to have a green and healthy lawn and garden? You may need some slight adjustments in landscaping but it is completely possible. There is an author named Brad Lancaster from Tuscon, Arizona who has a plethora of resources on shifting from water scarcity to water abundance all through simple landscaping techniques and rainwater collection systems.
The purpose of this blog is not to be depressing or accusatory but rather to encourage awareness of these issues and an ability to think outside the box. We will touch back on this topic of water in Central Oregon in future articles but for now we encourage you to pick at least one action item from this blog and do it. Most importantly, don’t do it alone; include a young person in the process so that they learn the importance of this as well.
Along the lines of awareness, we were asked by LandWatch to share a survey with you all about the recent plans to expand Bend’s Urban Growth Boundary. The proposed plan would greatly affect not only our water usage as a city, but also the riparian zones where the boundary will be expanded into, like Shevlin Park. If you are interested in being a part of this important discussion, please send your comments to email@example.com and ask for your comments to be included in the public record.
May we learn to live in balance with the flowing waters that give life to this piece of Earth we call Central Oregon. May we let go of ignorance and greed and instead act from love and awareness. Let’s imagine the kind of earth we want to leave for our children and do everything in our power to create it.
Dreamer and Amara
Sustainable and Creative Landscapers in Central Oregon:
Sundog Gardenworks LLC
Native & Edible Landscapes
Ephemeral Designs- Innovative Design Solutions
Rainwater Collection. Permaculture Garden Design. Creative Composting. Upcycled Material.
Horticultural consulting, labor, and small scale design for residential and commercial clients specializing in perennials, native plants, wildlife gardens, cut flower gardens, specific color combinations, easy care/low maintenance, xeriscaping (low water use) and year-round interest gardens. I’m great at specialty pruning.
Resource for Rainwater Catchment and Water Abundance Landscaping:
Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond by Brad Lancaster
Send your comments on urban growth in Bend to: