By Elon Glucklich
Dozens of residents in a scenic northeast Bend neighborhood don’t think highly of the Central Oregon Irrigation District, and they weren’t shy about it during a marathon hearing in front of Deschutes County commissioners Wednesday night.
The hearing came as commissioners try to decide whether to give irrigation districts outright permission to replace their open canals with closed pipes to reduce water leakage.
The irrigation district last year proposed a change in the county’s code, which would streamline the process of piping canals in low-density residential areas.
The district says it needs to replace the canal to prevent water from seeping into the soil before it can reach farmers and other water users.
Neighbors who live along the Central Oregon district’s Pilot Butte Canal, off NE 18th Street and Old Deschutes Road, have loudly protested the district’s plan to pipe about 4,500 feet of the canal along their homes since the plan became public.
The protests continued Wednesday, as some neighbors launched allegations of lies and intimidation by the district to get people to sign on to the plan.
“You’re going to hear from some angry people,” Mike Knoell, a property owner along the canal, told commissioners as opponents lined up to speak against the irrigation district proposal. “The anger comes from the arrogance, deceit, backroom deal-making and a total lack of effort to make this process public.”
The Pilot Butte Canal winds through about 38 properties in the stretch the district wants to pipe.
Wednesday’s meeting was scheduled for three hours but lasted nearly five, with dozens of people — for and against — speaking about the proposal. Commissioners didn’t jump into the debate, and they didn’t make any ruling after the meeting. A decision is probably several weeks out.
“Everybody wants to conserve water,” Jeff Hatch, a property owner along the canal, testified. “But if you look at parts (of the canal) that aren’t in people’s backyards, where people aren’t upset about it, my belief is you could still save a heck of a lot of water to put back into the Deschutes.”
Liz Dickson, an attorney representing the irrigation district, pushed back against claims neighbors have made in previous meetings in front of Deschutes County planning commissioners. Chief among them is that their property values could be reduced as much as $150,000 by taking out the canal.
“There’s no home value depreciation” from piping canals, Dickson said. “This is not simply a construction project. It’s for the benefit of the Deschutes River.”
Irrigation district officials repeatedly emphasized they intend to move forward with the piping project in the next year.
But irrigation district Manager Craig Horrell, who joined the district last month, said he’d like to reach a compromise with neighbors on what a replacement for the canal would look like. The pipe replacing the canal would be buried under ground but is large enough that it would form a berm — unless the district paid about $1 million more to lower it. Horrell said the district is ready to pay the extra cost.
“I understand this is a change. They have beautiful homes,” Horrell said. “What we’d like to be able to do is work with the neighbors to lower the pipe. … We’d take the cost.” He added the district plans to line the area with native plants over the next three years to further conceal the pipe.
After three meetings earlier this year, county planning commissioners recommended against granting the code change. But their vote isn’t binding. And even without the code change, the district could try to move the piping project forward with a conditional-use permit.
At the planning commission meetings, several neighbors criticized the city of Bend for staying out of the debate. Late last month, the City Council voted 7-0 in support of the piping plan. Councilor Mark Capell pushed for the vote and spoke at Wednesday’s hearing to highlight the need for water preservation.
That didn’t sit well with Jim Curl, a homeowner along the canal who spoke, shortly after Capell, against the pipe plan Wednesday.
“It is unfortunate the city has not weighed in in a serious manner on this issue,” Curl said. “There’s been no serious attempt to understand the complex issues or the neighbors’ views. I think the council testimony should be discounted.”
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