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A Brief Guide To Swimming In Portland’s Willamette River


A man jumps into the Willamette River in Portland. City officials expect more people to take to the water this summer.

A man jumps into the Willamette River in Portland. City officials expect more people to take to the water this summer.

Christina Belasco/OPB

City officials in Portland say they’re preparing for more boaters, paddlers and swimmers in the Willamette River this summer.

Water quality testing consistently shows it’s safe to swim in the water, thanks to a $1.4 billion public works project that has reduced combined sewer overflows into the water.  

“Yes, the Willamette River in Portland is clean enough to boat, swim, kayak and otherwise enjoy,” said Diane Dulken, spokeswoman for the city’s Bureau of Environmental Services. The agency tests bacteria levels weekly at five popular recreational sites in the city during the summer.   

Portland’s Mayor Ted Wheeler has been promoting urban swimming, diving in a few times himself and putting money in the city’s budget to develop a beach near the Ross Island Bridge.  

Here are a few things to keep in mind before you decide to take a dip.

Know your ability.

Rich Chatman, a spokesman with Portland Fire and Rescue, says the key to safe swimming in the Willamette is knowing your ability. He calls the river “an advanced swimming environment.”

Swimmers should expect to encounter boat traffic, sudden changes in river depth, and current. Visibility in the water is often low.

Chatman says people should always swim with a partner, and less confident swimmers should use a life jacket.

“The amount of time you have, if you truly are not able to keep afloat, is very short,” he said. “We have jet skis with rescue swimmers, that are equipped to rescue people out in the river. But we know, unfortunately, that in most of these cases we’re not going to get there in time.”

Swimming advocacy group The Human Access Project recommends that people should be able to swim a half-mile in a pool without stopping to safely swim in the Willamette. Otherwise, wear a life jacket or flotation device.

Check the temperature and water quality.  

The Bureau of Environmental Services tests for E. coli bacteria and records the water temperature at five popular recreation sites on the Willamette weekly during the summer. They are Cathedral Park, the Portland Boathouse dock, Poet’s Beach, Willamette Park and Sellwood Park.

The testing happens on Wednesdays and the results get posted every Friday.   

People should be particularly mindful of the river temperature. Even moderately cold water can rapidly decrease a person’s body temperature and increase the risk of drowning or difficulty.

At present, bacteria levels are well within safety levels. The temperature, 62 degrees Fahrenheit, is still too cold for many people to comfortably swim.

Find a beach.

After a wet winter, the water level in the Willamette is high and several of Portland’s urban beaches remain submerged. Expect them to become more visible as the water level drops over the summer.  

Next month, the city plans to transform one site, a sandy spot under the Marquam Bridge — known as Poet’s Beach — into a “pop-up” summer swimming beach. The city has promised a swimming area buoy line, signage, trash cans, bicycle parking, lifeguards and life vests. Poet’s Beach will be open to the public from July to September.

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