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Willamette Waters Generally Safe For Swimmers

Daniela Brod takes her paddle boat out on the Willamette River, April 18th, 2014.

Daniela Brod takes her paddle boat out on the Willamette River, April 18th, 2014.

Katelyn Black/OPB

As temperatures rise this summer, plenty of people are taking a dip in local waters.

But swimming can be risky. Drownings have continued through the summer. On Monday rescue crews pulled the body of an 18-year-old swimmer from the Willamette River, near the Sellwood Bridge.

Not long ago, few would have ventured into the Willamette. That’s because a stretch of the urban river was declared a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2000. And, before the East Side Big Pipe Project was completed in 2011, sewage overflow into the river was not uncommon.

But in recent years, recreational swimmers have returned.

The Human Access Project is the organization behind the Big Float where participants float along the Willamette river.

Willie Levenson, whose official title is “Ringleader” of the project, calls himself a “river evangelist.” He says that despite perceptions, the river is safe to swim in.

“I did my own research before I swam in the water. And I was really relieved to find out it was safe to swim in the Willamette,” Levenson said.

Mark MacIntyre is a Seattle-based spokesman for the EPA. He says the sediments in the river are the main risks to the public health and environment.

“We see the primary risks to public health in the Willamette River coming from fish that people catch and eat from the river. Because after about 100 years of use there in the harbor, there’s been an accumulation of toxic chemicals and metals at the bottom of the river,” MacIntyre said.

Information on the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality website says it is safe to swim in the Willamette most of the year. However the DEQ cautions against swimming after heavy rainstorms or in cloudy water, swallowing river water and recommends showering after a swim.



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