By Travis Williams
For several years, Willamette Riverkeeper developed a State of the Willamette River Report. We are reviving this in 2011 with a series of talks and reports related to the river. The following is a short discussion of some of the key issues, both good and bad.
If we think about the Willamette River and its health, the story is an old one. People were concerned about water quality going back to the 1930s, and that story continued as our waste went into the river, and people sought to grapple with the issue. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a big effort went into improvements at wastewater treatment plants that ultimately yielded big results thanks to Governor Tom McCall and many others. Of course, during this time we also saw the introduction of toxics that still plague the river today.
The impact of the U.S. Army Corps dams was seen, as they decimated the population of native spring Chinook, as the dams block the passage of fish both downstream and upstream. Today the population of spring Chinook is propped up by hatcheries, an artificial arrangement instituted to make up for the inability of these fish to maintain their populations naturally due to the impact of the dams. All along habitat had been modified as well, with side channels blocked and the river separated from its floodplain in many areas - further impacting water quality, natural river function and more.
Today, we have a mix of issues that remain, from persistent toxics that pose big issues that continue to demand research and resources, and the destruction of habitat that needs to be remedied. While big strides were taken in the past few decades, we are at another point where another big step must be taken to ensure the river’s long-term health.
- A Growing Corps of Support - This river has been on the mind of Oregonians for many decades and has seen a rise and fall in terms of interest over the years. Today though, there is wide recognition that the river has key issues to address - such as toxic pollution and habitat restoration. Many citizens are involved in water quality monitoring in urban and rural areas. They are also involved in efforts to reduce the presence of toxics, and to enable habitat restoration in the Willamette Basin. People are also traveling the river more often than ever, due to the Willamette Water Trail and more. Such interest has spurred multiple cities in the basin to do more, and the State of Oregon is doing more as well to protect water quality and restore habitat. The connection by people to this river is likely is strongest asset, and this connection will help continue the work to reach a more healthy, naturally functioning river.
- Improved Water Quality and Pollution Reduction - The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has become more able to enforce existing laws that aid water quality. This agency has also worked to reduce toxic contamination, from a variety of sources - from our own backyards, to agricultural and industrial sources. Many organizations and citizens have joined this effort as well, working to end the use of problematic contaminants, and to act in ways that decrease their imprint on the river’s water quality. Efforts to make people conversant in relation to the presence of toxics has been an important factor in reducing such contamination - though certainly the problem still exists.
- An Abundance of Wildlife - Today you can travel the Willamette River by canoe or kayak, or simply visit one of the river’s natural areas by foot, and see a significant array of wildlife along its extent from Eugene to Portland. For birds it is common to see Bald Eagle, Green Heron, Great Blue Heron, Mergansers, Northern Harriers, Belted Kingfisher, Canada Geese and more. You can also witness Beaver, River Otter, Deer, coyote and other mammals along the river. One need only take a few minutes along the river, and typically these species can be seen. Over the years people have reacted in a surprised fashion in some cases when they see such species - which can help to establish their connection to the river and their interest in its well-being.
- Easy Access to Experience the River - The Willamette has some very nice Natural Areas owned by the Oregon State Parks Department, as well as some unofficial natural areas owned by the Department of State Lands that are suitable for day hikes and overnight camping. Because the river is mainly flatwater with only a few rapids in its most southward miles in Eugene, it is appropriate for a range of river travelers and the Willamette Water Trail has helped to facilitate this.
- Funding for Habitat Restoration - There is increased funding for the restoration of Habitat along the River these days, and an increase in interested landowners in conducting restoration on their lands. Cities like Portland have taken huge steps in conducting restoration in the tributaries to the Willamette, with watershed councils in the area stepping up significantly as well. Other cities have pushed restoration efforts too. Federal and State funds have come into the system to support habitat restoration as well. While there are still many people with influence who feel the river needs to be “controlled” there are also those who have learned that we must get away from traditional, harmful approaches to the river.
- Dams that Block Native Fish - The Willamette has 13 major U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dams that block the natural migration of Spring Chinook. These dams greatly decrease the natural reproduction of these fish, and led to the demise of many of those that seek to migrate to the ocean. For those who are able to return upstream, seeking to spawn in the Upper Tributaries to the Willamette, these dams make that upstream passage very difficult, which also results in the demise of many fish. The dams also have other negative impacts on the river - from altering natural river flows that fish are best adapted to, to the change of temperature of the water downstream of the dams. As of now, under the Federal Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Army Corps must make changes to their dams to greatly decrease the impact of their structures on native fish.
- Portland’s Superfund Site - The stretch of the Willamette River known as Portland Harbor, just downstream of downtown Portland, is a highly contaminated Superfund site. Under the Federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), or “Superfund” as it is commonly known, the parties who created the pollution must clean it up. The Portland Harbor site was listed under the law in 2000. The area contains a slurry of contaminants, from PCBs, DDE, PAH, to heavy metals. While there are some sites with relatively minor amounts of contamination, there are others that are truly heinous. The river is contaminated in the river bottom, typically in the near-shore area, and also has multiple riverside “upland” areas that need to be cleaned up. Over the past decade the Environmental Protection Agecy has led this effort and has overseen the work of the parties responsible for the damage. The EPA has also overseen the work of the Oregon DEQ, which is working to control future pollution from the riverside sites. 2011 will be a big year for the cleanup effort as the actual methods to cleanup various sites are vetted, eventually leading to a final Record of Decision which will be the Cleanup Plan for the Harbor. With all of the Upstream investment in curbing the impacts of the Corps Dams, and restoring habitat, getting the Harbor Cleanup river is essential given all the of the migratory fish that pass through the area on the way to the Ocean and back upstream (see US EPA Region 10 site, or Oregon DEQ Portland Harbor site).
- Toxic Pollution throughout River System - While good strides have been made and continue to be made to reduce persistent toxics in the Willamette system, a big problem still remains. Persistent toxics are found in river sediments, in the water itself in some cases, and in wildlife that live along the river. There are a combination of emerging contaminants, such as Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers, and legacy contaminants such as DDE, PCBs, and Mercury. With such a large basin with a good portion of Oregon’s population, continuing to decrease toxics is a big and continuing need, given the very real potential impacts on human health and wildlife. Reports and sampling completed in just the past two years continue to make this issue clear.
- Floodplain Habitat Impaired - Historically the Willamette was a meandering river that connected regularly with its floodplain, those lowland areas adjacent to the river. Over the years, the floodplains were developed, farmed, or simply cut-off from the river to put toward another use. Unfortunately, these floodplains provide benefits for wildlife and people, from offering refuge and feeding areas for fish, making excellent habitat for birds, to curbing flood heights that benefit people. There is a great need to re-establish the connection between the Willamette and its floodplain. Much of this will rest on the openness of agricultural landowners to work with restoration organizations where it makes sense to allow spring flows onto the floodplain, or to open up old side channels. Unfortunately, while some agricultural landowners are stepping up and engaging in this work, many others are still caught up in the notion that the Willamette is simply something to be used and controlled. It is likely that a generational shift will provide more openness to restoration. Global climate change must also be integrated into this restoration need, as restoration efforts can help accommodate for such change. The Willamette Basin Atlas is a good resource on this issue.
- Stormwater from Urban Areas and Agricultural Areas - There is a very real issue related to stormwater from urban areas, from Springfield and Eugene to Portland. When it rains too often stormwater permits across a range of permit holders are not in compliance, resulting in increased pollution in the Willamette. While some of these permits may not yield impairment on their own, together they can be a huge force in decreasing the amount of pollution to the Willamette River and its tributaries.
While there are certainly more issues that could be addressed and highlighted, and additional good things that are found along the Willamette, these make a good start.