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Portland's Willamette, Once Heavily Polluted, Now Home To A Swim Team

This summer the River Huggers Swim team has been crossing the Willamette River three times a week in the name of fun and awareness.

Crossing Portland’s Hawthorne Bridge around sunrise this summer, you might spot something slicing through the water below: dozens of swimmers in matching green swim caps.

A group called the River Huggers has been swimming the Willamette three times a week, and they say the water is cleaner than you think.

At 7 a.m. on a recent morning, about 20 men and women gather on the Portland Boathouse dock southeast of the bridge, pulling off their towels and sliding their goggles into place.

“I do it because it’s a great way to start my day,“ said Kathy Sheppard, a regular member of the River Huggers swim team.

“The hardest part for me is jumping off the dock and making contact with the river, but once I’m in it’s just fantastic. It tastes good, smells good, feels good,” she said.

Joining the River Huggers is easy. The group meets Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays to swim from the dock to Tom MCall Park and back, a half-mile in all. Anyone who’s an intermediate swimmer or above is welcome, and a pair of safety kayakers follows the group in case anyone gets in trouble. Recently, a few swimmers donned flippers for a little extra help making it across.

Willie Levenson, the founder of the River Huggers, said the swim is more about advocacy for the river than competition or speed.

“There’s no shame in fins,” he said. “It’s all about getting in the water, and if it’s helpful for you to keep up with the pod, all the better.”

Human Access Project founder Willie Levenson. 

Human Access Project founder Willie Levenson. 

John Rosman/OPB

Levenson has dark hair and wears a shell necklace. He’s the co-owner of Popina, a swim shop in town, but his mission in life is changing the reputation of the Willamette River.

Levenson is the founder of the Human Access Project, the nonprofit behind the Big Float, an inner tube parade that gets thousands into the river every July. Where other people see a scuzzy, urban waterway, Levenson sees a buoyant playground.

“I’m not going to quit fighting and having fun until Portland loves the Willamette River like I do,” he said.

The River Huggers swim team is his latest project. 

Levenson figures getting people to swim in the river is a good way to turn them into environmental stewards. But first, he has to convince Portlanders the water is clean. He’s surrounded by skeptics.

Back at the dock, a crew of four rowers glides up in a narrow boat. “Hands on, up and over heads and up,” Celia Heron cried as they lift the quad over their shoulders.

Heron has been rowing on the Willamette for years. But would she swim in it?

“Ick!” she said. “I know there’s a lot of heavy metals in the bottom. It’s just not a clean river.”

But while the river has a bad reputation, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the Oregon Health Authority both say the Willamette is clean enough to swim in, though they suggest you might want to shower afterward.

Doug Drake has worked at DEQ on restoring the lower Willamette and monitoring water quality there for more than 20 years. He said swimming is safe.

“We do see pesticides. We do see heavy metals and some organic pollutants, but generally at really low levels,” he said.

Drake said one 10-mile stretch of the Willamette is a Superfund site: the reach between the Broadway Bridge and the confluence with the Columbia River. But even there, the Oregon Health Authority concluded it’s safe to swim. That’s because the toxic pollutants aren’t floating in the water, but lying in the sediment at the bottom of the river.

“The water column contaminants just aren’t a threat to people playing in the water,” Drake said.

He added that exposure to bacteria like E. coli is the greatest health concern to people swimming in the river. The main source of bacteria used to be sewage that overflowed into the river almost every time it rained. Now, Drake said a billion-dollar pipe project prevents most of those overflows.

“We can see noticeably in the last 10 years how much the big pipe has done to improve water quality. That really in particular helped with bacteria,” he said.

The city monitors bacteria at eight sites and posts the results online, according to Drake. The counts have been low all summer long, at a level that doesn’t pose a risk to human health.

Within half an hour of when they set out, the River Huggers are arriving back on the dock. Willie Levenson’s head popped up out of the water.

“So, there it is, another up and back completed,” he said. “It’s the new Portland rite of passage. How can you live in this town and not have swum across the river?”

Levenson thinks part of the Willamette’s problem is that it just doesn’t look appealing. He points out a sea wall he’d like to see a mural painted on.

“It takes a tremendous amount of creativity to remember that the Willamette River is a river in downtown Portland, because it’s so heavily urbanized,” he said.

All summer long, Levenson has been excavating a beach on the east bank of the river near the Hawthorne Bridge. He said volunteers and inmate work crews have removed 160 tons of broken concrete by hand. Underneath the concrete, there’s sand.

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River Huggers Swim Team

This summer the River Huggers Swim team has been crossing the Willamette River three times a week in the name of fun and awareness.