By Dylan J. Darling and Ted Shorack • The Bulletin

A proposed transfer of water from Upper Tumalo Reservoir to reservoirs at a potential development site has become a contentious issue in the last few months.

Neighbors have filed code enforcement complaints and appealed a Deschutes County decision from August that approved the water transfer. The two new ponds off Johnson Road about 5 miles northwest of Bend, first filled late this summer, provide storage for irrigation water. One also could be home to water skiing, making it controversial to some of the people living nearby.

KC Development Group LLC, which owns the property where the reservoirs sit, and the Tumalo Irrigation District view the transfer as a mutually beneficial arrangement. Their attorney argues that neighbors are missing the point and raising land use issues that do not apply at this point.

“The primary purpose is for the irrigation district to use those systems as part of their storage,” said Elizabeth Dickson , the attorney for the developers and the district.

A Deschutes County hearings officer is scheduled to decide in late December whether the reservoirs are allowed under the rural residential zoning assigned to the property. On Oct. 7, a public hearing was held to consider the issue of water storage at the reservoirs.

For the Tumalo Irrigation District, the new storage ponds offer two benefits, providing the district with some extra cash flow while helping address the ongoing issue of water seeping out of Upper Tumalo Reservoir, said Kenneth Rieck, manager of the irrigation district.

Water in the ponds comes from Tumalo Creek, which also feeds Upper Tumalo Reservoir. Flows along the creek can fluctuate greatly during summer, Rieck wrote in an email, so the district uses Upper Tumalo Reservoir to make up for a short supply of water when flows are down and to store water when flows are high. The new storage ponds will serve the same purpose, he wrote, and although they are smaller they will do it more efficiently than the reservoir.

KC Development is set to pay the district $50 per acre foot of water, or enough water to submerge an acre of ground a foot deep in water, per year, he said. The two ponds would hold about 125 acre feet, which is enough to irrigate 22 acres of farmland. Developers would be paying the district $6,250 per year to store water in the ponds.

“They are just paying us to store our water on their property,” Rieck said.

Late this summer, the district put water from Tumalo Creek into the ponds via the district’s feed canal system for the first time and Rieck said it should be a permanent arrangement if everything goes smoothly.

Water in the ponds would have traditionally been sent by the district to Upper Tumalo Reservoir, about 4 miles away. The district uses the 1,100 acre-foot reservoir to regulate flows coming into its system, but the reservoir has a problem. About 10 percent of the water that goes into the reservoir comes out, due to water disappearing into the ground. The issue is decades old and sunk grander plans for a much larger reservoir.

“So far, we have been unsuccessful in stopping the leaking,” Rieck said.

As planned about a century ago, a larger reservoir, to be called Tumalo Reservoir, would have held about 60,000 to 70,000 acre feet of water, said Kyle Gorman, region manager for the Oregon Water Resources Department. Volume-wise, the reservoir would have held more than Crane Prairie Reservoir.

A dam, which still stands today along Sisemore Road, was completed in 1915, but the reservoir did not hold water, according to the Tumalo Irrigation District website.

Fractures and lava tubes swallowed what water irrigators tried to store in the ill-fated Tumalo Reservoir, Gorman said. They tried putting down hay bales and plugging holes with horse manure, but the reservoir failed. They then built a much smaller dam to create Upper Tumalo Reservoir, which was leaky but at least held some water.

In contrast to Upper Tumalo Reservoir’s natural earth bottom, the new ponds have liners, Gorman said, keeping water from seeping into the ground.

“(The ponds have) no leaks, so whatever we put in there we can get out,” Rieck said. He noted some water is lost to evaporation, but said the amount is small compared to how much water goes into the ground at Upper Tumalo Reservoir.

Neighbors who live near the KC Development reservoirs are concerned about what they will be used for in the future, and are convinced they will one day be a place for water skiing and other possible recreation.

Although the developers have talked about a water ski lake in the past, Dickson said they have yet to make a final decision.

“We’ve talked about a lot of different ideas about what they could do up there, but they haven’t settled on one,” she said.

In September, the county received a code enforcement complaint alleging that, on multiple occasions, a motorized boat and water skiing were observed at the reservoirs. The county sent a notice to KC Development about the complaint and requested compliance with county code forbidding that type of recreational use.

Concerns prompted a group of neighbors to get in touch with Paul Dewey, executive director for Central Oregon LandWatch. As planned, the pond would bring the roar of powerboats to a serene, rural setting, he said.

“This would essentially do away with all the peace and quiet,” Dewey said.

Along with the noise bothering people, he questions how water skiing at the lake could affect deer and other wildlife.

Dickson said there will come a time to address land use issues, but now is not the time.

“I really would like to deal with it for what is and not argue for something that hasn’t happened yet,” she said.

Tom and Dorbina Bishop, who live next to the reservoirs, filed the appeal that has hung up approval of the water transfer. The Tumalo Irrigation District submitted a Land Use Compatibility Statement requesting the water be allowed to be stored at the reservoirs.

The Bishops, through their attorney, have argued that the reservoirs are subject to land use regulations.

But Dickson contends that it is a water use issue that has already been resolved and simply needed to be acknowledged by the county’s community development department.

“They’re trying to make this a land use matter,” Dickson said.

The developer would have to get land use approvals for residential housing and other potential uses on the property, which is a former mining site for construction company Taylor Northwest.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812,

— Reporter: 541-617-7820,