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Battle for Willamette River is not over yet

MY VIEW

Portland and Oregon have long enjoyed a reputation for cutting-edge environmental protection and restoration.

In 1938, concerned citizens and children marched on City Hall, carrying signs that read 'The Youth of Portland Demand Clean Rivers.'

In 1967, Gov. Tom McCall launched his heralded campaign to 'clean up the Willamette River.'

In 1972, National Geographic published a cover story on the 'cleanup' of the Willamette.

But from those years to the early 1990s, many issues regarding the Willamette received little attention, few so little as the 'combined sewage overflows' of raw sewage into the river.

In the past decade, Portland responded with the nationally renowned Clean River Plan. It is a series of proposals matching Portland's reputation for excellence in environmental protection to actual conditions in the river, its tributaries and the surrounding landscape, the entire urban watershed in Portland.

Portland's sewage overflows into the Willamette are down 53 percent since 1990 and are 100 percent eliminated in the Columbia Slough in North Portland. The city is on track to complete the entire CSO project in approximately eight more years (by 2011) at an agreed-upon 94 percent level of pollution control, a level of control agreed by court order in excess of the 85 percent federal guideline.

Key to this urban watershed effort is the ecological reality that river protection and water quality restoration are as much about land use and management as they are about the river itself. Effectively protecting and restoring rivers means addressing pollution and wildlife habitat problems in the entire urban land area that drains to tributary streams, including Johnson, Fanno, Tryon, Balch and Stephens creeks Ñ as well as the 99 percent of the Willamette watershed upstream from Portland.

Portland is speedily and effectively addressing the complicated and extensive CSO problems in the urban area. The effort comes at great cost to local businesses disrupted by CSO cleanup construction activities, and great cost to local ratepayers who now pay one of the highest monthly sewer rates in the United States.

Urban CSOs are only one small part of restoring the Willamette to health. The federal Clean Water Act has been hammered by industry lobbying efforts and recent actions by the Bush administration to weaken the law. We also need to address vast quantities of legally discharged poisons from industry and the pesticides, fertilizers and heavy metals entering the Willamette upstream from Portland.

I write as one who grew up working on small rural family farms and who greatly misses the rhythms and benefits of rural life. However, chances for our children to enjoy their fundamental human right to clean, safe, healthy water are in deep trouble.

The nationwide weakness of rural economics andÊcontinued rural-urban deadlock in the Oregon Legislature, combined withÊweak environmental regulation and enforcement by the Department of Environmental Quality, leave many water quantity, quality and human health issues unsolved.

Our bodies are approximately 70 percent water, and access to clean water is a necessity for life and a fundamental human right. Does it really make sense to encourage the poisoning of water through careless and wasteful actions? We all have a responsibility to do our part to clean up our country's waters, to provide safe and healthy water for our children and all of the Earth's living things.

We do not need to wait for enforcement of vitally important federal laws to take action. Our large corporations, small businesses, agricultural operations and all other water users and polluters can voluntarily take action to make good on the promise of clean and safe water to our communities: that all people deserve and have a fundamental human right to clean water.

Peter Lavigne is president of the Rivers Foundation of the Americas,

a public foundation working on clean water, biodiversity protection and human health (www.riversfoundation.org). He lives in Southeast Portland.