Science & Environment

Group petitions Oregon agency to regulate trash along Willamette River

By Bradley W. Parks (OPB)
June 4, 2022 12 p.m.

The environmental group Willamette Riverkeeper says garbage and debris are fouling the waterway that weaves through Portland, Salem and Eugene.

A volunteer clears trash from the banks of the Willamette River. Advocacy group Willamette Riverkeeper says the state needs to do more to clean up the riverbanks.

A volunteer clears trash from the banks of the Willamette River. Advocacy group Willamette Riverkeeper says the state needs to do more to clean up the riverbanks.

Courtesy of Willamette Riverkeeper

An Oregon environmental group has petitioned the state Department of Environmental Quality to regulate trash and debris on the Willamette River and its tributaries.

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In a statement released on Friday, Willamette Riverkeeper said urban riverbanks in Portland, Eugene and Salem have been so overwhelmed with garbage that it’s polluting more remote stretches of the Willamette, causing problems for water quality and wildlife.

Travis Williams, Willamette Riverkeeper’s executive director, said his group has done hundreds of riverside cleanups in the past decade, but the problem has gotten worse.

“We certainly make a dent, but it’s our belief today that there’s a systemic issue that’s not being dealt with appropriately,” Williams said.

Trash on the Willamette is a long-standing problem, as it is with many rivers winding through major population centers. Because the Willamette charts a course through multiple jurisdictions in Oregon, no one state, local or federal agency is responsible for regulating trash and debris.

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Riverkeeper is urging the Environmental Quality Commission, DEQ’s rulemaking body, to create enforceable standards that would limit the amount of trash and debris on the river at any given time, known as a total maximum daily load.

Similar measures authorized under the Clean Water Act have been implemented on the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C., and the Los Angeles River.

“We share Willamette Riverkeeper’s concerns about trash in Oregon’s waterways,” said Lauren Wirtis, a DEQ spokesperson. “No one likes to see garbage when they are visiting or recreating in one of our rivers.”

DEQ limits pollutants in Oregon waterways such as nitrate and mercury. It submits a report every two years to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency laying out which waterways are polluted and by what, but trash is not captured in that report.

Willamette Riverkeeper attributes at least some of the increase in trash on the Willamette to the growing number of people living along the river and its tributaries.

Williams said he hopes new rules for trash on the Willamette will spur state and local agencies and private businesses to provide adequate housing and services for people experiencing homelessness.

“We have to be creative, we have to be compassionate and we have to provide real services for those who are living in our natural areas,” Williams said.

Wirtis said DEQ is reviewing the group’s petition and evaluating its authority to act.

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