Any time I see a body of water, I have an interest in swimming in it. With summer around the corner, I get even more excited about splashing around somewhere. Since I’ve lived in Portland I have known one truth; it isn’t safe to swim in the Willamette River. Each day I cross the river and get angry that it looks disgusting, and that no one who is sane is able to swim in it (I’m not sure what those Red Bull Flugtag people are thinking when they go flying into that water). So for this week’s blog, I’m going to take a brief look at the Willamette and the effort to make it swimmable.
Cleaning up the Willamette is a beast of a task. People have been impacting the ecology of the Willamette almost as soon as they saw it. Right off the bat in 1869 there was already federal funding coming in to make sure the river’s waterways were cleared for boats, followed by the implementation of several dams, followed by the arrival of bigger cities along the river which more or less used it as a sewer. In the last century the river has hosted lead processing industries, paper mills, petroleum transfer stations, as well as having collected dangerous heavy metals and all the pesticide run-off from Willamette Valley farms. As far as meeting standards for a healthy river, the Willamette violates federal standards for mercury levels, temperature, and of course, bacteria. Resident fish species have been found with serious deformities in nearly half of their juvenile populations.
In 2000 the Willamette was declared not just a superfund site, but a mega-superfund site because it is such a large area, ranging from the Steel Bridge to Sauvie Island. More than ten years later the superfund process has only really been able to start measuring accurately, what, how, and who is polluting the river. It has only been able to tell people how much fish they shouldn’t eat from the river, when the river is not safe for recreation, and when sewers are spewing waste into it. So in other words, scientists are literally still sizing up the problem. On the other hand, with people keeping a closer eye on the health of the river, many river-based companies have cleaned up their act to some extent. That seems like a nice thought, but my feeling is that until citizens pressure politicians to actually start cracking heads to clean this river, it may be a long time before anyone can call it swimmable.