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Water | Ecotrope

What's So Great About This Swim Warning Sign?

It might not seem like it at first, but this sign represents an optimistic vision of the Willamette River – as a swimming hole.

It might not seem like it at first, but this sign represents an optimistic vision of the Willamette River – as a swimming hole.

Will Levenson, who runs Popina Swim in Northwest Portland, is thrilled.

Levenson wants to banish the stigma of swimming in the Willamette – largely a result of countless sewer overflow events that have contaminated the river in the past – and create beaches that welcome city swimmers. He thinks the warning signs will help.

Right now, there are no such signs at Portland’s waterfront parks, said Levenson. But the city has decided to install them at four locations: the Tom McCall waterfront bowl, the Sellwood riverfront, Cathedral Park, and “no swimming” signs at Kelley Point Park.

“I’m super excited to have them going up and I’m happy with the design,” he said “I think it does a good job of communicating that you need to be prudent about being safe but that the river is also something that can be fun.”

Levenson is the organizer of a new phenomenon in Portland: The Big Float. On Sunday, thousands of people are scheduled to float across the Willamette in downtown Portland in a celebration of cleaner water. The event launched for the first time last year following the completion of Portland’s west side big pipe, which was designed to keep the city’s sewage out of the river.

The river has become noticeably cleaner as the city has spent $1.4 billion creating a combined sewer overflow system to avoid spilling sewage into the river during big rain events.

Mark Ross, media relations officer for Portland Parks & Recreation, said the city is reviewing Levenson’s proposal to create a waterfront swimming beach downtown at Tom McCall Waterfront Park. In the meantime, with The Big Float drawing attention to the river and inviting people to wade in, Ross said the city decided it would be a good idea to put up some warning signs.

“We don’t have jurisdiction over the river, though we do own some properties along the waterfront,” he said. “We acknowledge people do sometimes swim in the Willamette, and will do so with or without our signs. We thought this would be a way to alert people to our top priority, which is safety.”

After The Big Float, Levenson is planning a volunteer event Aug. 25 to move riprap off the beach and expose more sand at the Tom McCall waterfront to encourage people to take a dip.

“The water is safe to swim in, but where do you do it?” Levenson said. “People who like having birds visit their yards put up bird feeders and bird baths to create good bird habitat. We need to create a human habitat. People like hanging out on sandy beaches – not on riprap that looks like it’s part of a construction site.”

And if you’re not convinced you should jump in yet, he said, take a guess what the water temperature is right now: A balmy 73 degrees.

Willamette River

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