Trucks carrying 11-foot-diameter segments of high-density polyethylene pipe began arriving in Bend on Thursday, a sign that an ambitious Central Oregon Irrigation District canal piping project in southwest Bend is well underway.

However, some residents living in the area are upset, saying their voices weren’t included in the district’s planning process.

“They don’t want to be good neighbors in this,” said Robert Kieta, a Bend resident living on Rock Bluff Lane, near the edge of the project.

The irrigation district, which diverts water from the Deschutes River to serve about 45,000 acres across Central Oregon, has been eyeing this project for nearly two years, according to Craig Horrell, district manager for COID. The project, which will cost approximately $5 million, will pipe a 3,000-foot section of open-air canal near the Brookswood Boulevard bridge.

Horrell said the project will conserve water in a leaky section of canal and allow the district to return 5 cubic feet per second to the river. Ultimately, it could be a test case for other piping projects in and around Bend.

“We have to do what’s best for the overall community,” Horrell said.

However, residents of the neighborhood immediately adjacent to the piping project, many of whom are accustomed to walking dogs and biking along the canal, were frustrated, feeling that the irrigation district cut corners and ignored input to get the project complete by April 1, the beginning of COID’s irrigation season.

“There’s public processes in place for a reason,” said Shannon Ostendorff, another concerned neighbor.

Because about $1.4 million of the project’s $5 million price tag came from a grant from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the project was subject to a federal review, in conjunction with the National Environmental Policy Act. If the project was determined to have significant impacts to the environment, cultural resources, or animals protected under the Endangered Species Act, it could have triggered a longer environmental process that would have delayed the project.

Carolyn Chad, deputy area manager for the Columbia-Cascades Area Office of the Bureau of Reclamation, said the project met requirements for a categorical exclusion — the least invasive of the three processes — but the bureau opted to complete an environmental assessment, based on significant opposition to the project from neighbors. The environmental assessment, released earlier this month to the public, determined that the project will not have a significant environmental or cultural impact.

Chad said environmental assessments do not require a public comment period, and added that the proposal did not rise to a level of controversy that would have triggered one.

“It depends on complexity and staff capacity,” Chad said.

However, Kieta and Ostendorff were concerned about several elements of the assessment and believed it was put together hastily to get the project completed by the beginning of April.

For example, the assessment notes there are no wetlands within the project area, which affects whether the project will impact vegetation as well as the Oregon spotted frog, which is protected under the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan. Ostendorff, who lives next to the canal, argued that there are pockets of wetlands along the canal.

“It seems like they checked a box without looking,” she said.

Chad acknowledged that the Bureau of Reclamation relies on maps to determine wetland delineations, but added that the wetlands in the area could be caused by water loss from the canal.

“We also know that canal leaked like a sieve,” Chad said.

Additionally, Ostendorff pointed to the district’s outreach to three local and state-level historical organizations as evidence that the project was rushed. Of the three organizations contacted to review a document designed to mitigate the project’s impact on historical development, only one — the Deschutes County Historical Society — responded.

Kieta added that outreach on the project was poor, with only a handful of neighbors near the canal being notified that blasting would take place as part of the project.

Kieta accused the district of attempting to rush the process in order to sell the 154-acre parcel on the project area for development.

“It strikes me as strange that COID can do what they want, when they want,” Kieta said.

Horrell said the district is looking to sell part of the property, which would free up money for the district to pursue other projects. However, he said, getting the project done in time to provide water for the district’s customers is the only factor affecting the timeline.

Horrell emphasized that the irrigation district followed the federal process on this project and sent around 25 letters to neighbors that would be disproportionately impacted by construction in the area.

“I think it comes as a shock to people who think they own these big, open spaces,” Horrell said.

The project is expected to take a little under three months to complete, and the district will work with the Bend Park & Recreation District to build a trail once the piping is complete.

“We’re excited to do it,” Horrell said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7818, shamway@bendbulletin.com

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