Metolius resort may face water snag

Metolius resort may face water snag

By Nick Budnick
Bend Bulletin
February 14, 2009

Talks are under way on Ponderosa’s well plan, but it may go to a judge

SALEM — The Ponderosa Land and Cattle Co. wants to drill as many as 10 wells 1,000 feet into the earth to draw water for the company’s proposed 2,500-unit destination resort on the edge of the Metolius River Basin.

And in December, the Oregon Water Resources Department issued a proposed permit that tentatively approved the plan.

But the department now appears to be having second thoughts after four environmental groups, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, and some state and federal officials raised objections, saying the plan would damage the Metolius and the creeks that feed it.

Dwight French, a water rights administrator with OWRD, said there are talks under way to try and improve the Ponderosa well plan.

“We’re trying to see where we’re at, what the next step is,” he said.

The talks are intended to overcome some of the objections. And the company’s lobbyist, Rick Allen, a former Madras mayor, said his client welcomes the opportunity to address the concerns. “We’ll follow all requirements,” he added.

Environmentalists are less sanguine. They say their objections go to the heart of the Deschutes Groundwater Mitigation Program, a state-approved water-rights transfer system designed to protect rivers while supporting Central Oregon’s economy.

“The program has serious shortcomings, and we’re going to see that play out in the Metolius basin,” said John DeVoe, head of the group Water Watch. “It may boil down to a question of law that has to be litigated.”

The issue is more simple than it sounds.

The Deschutes groundwater program requires that for every gallon of water you pump out of the Deschutes basin, you must pump another gallon into the waterways to make up for what you use.

The catch? The program doesn’t require that you replace the water in the area of where it was taken out.

The proposed resort’s wells would use more groundwater in a year than the city of Sisters. According to a federal study, and to OWRD itself, those wells could eventually affect the levels of the Metolius River and its tributaries.

The groundwater program’s rules, however, allow the impacts on flows in the Metolius basin to be offset by purchasing water rights far downstream, in the Deschutes River.

DeVoe and the other critics of Ponderosa’s water plan say that is not sufficient.

This aspect of the state program has bugged environmentalists for years, but letters submitted by the U.S. Forest Service and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife suggest that the greens’ ideas are gaining traction.

John Allen, the Forest Service manager who oversees the Deschutes National Forest, wrote in a Jan. 14 letter that by failing to protect the Metolius and its tributaries, the plan would have significant impacts on fish spawning grounds.

Similarly, on Jan. 27, Brett Hodgson, a Bend-based fish biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, warned the water department that the Ponderosa plan appears likely to hurt rare and endangered species, including bull trout, redband trout, kokanee, spring chinook and sockeye salmon.

The water resources department in the past has rejected the idea of changing the Deschutes groundwater program in the way environmentalists want. Requiring that impacts of new water permits be offset in the immediate area of those impacts could do serious damage to Central Oregon’s economy, state officials say.

For instance, such a rule would “seriously constrict” new development in the Sisters area, according to an Oct. 31, 2007, letter sent to Gov. Ted Kulongoski by state Water Resources Director Phillip Ward. That’s because new wells near Sisters would hurt the Metolius basin water flows, and the regional water bank has no water rights for sale in that area to offset any impacts as such a rule would call for.

To shepherd through its water application, Ponderosa has retained attorney Martha Pagel of the firm Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt, who spent eight years in the top state water post now held by Ward.

Asked about environmentalists’ objections, she said that any impact on the Metolius “would be very small and not measurable in relation to the amount of flow in the river.”

DeVoe, however, scoffs at her argument.

“That’s the problem with these issues is we are often dealing with the death by a thousand cuts,” he said. “The Metolius is one of Oregon’s crown jewels; we wouldn’t let someone come in and cut a couple of hundred feet off the top of Mt. Hood, and we shouldn’t let someone have an incremental impact on the Metolius, either.”

The department has one month to try to improve Ponderosa’s plan before deciding on whether to issue a permit or send the dispute to an administrative judge.