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Massive river project could be only one step

Portland's biggest public works project is all about raw sewage spills and the Willamette River.

The city is investing $1 billion to eliminate the 'combined sewage overflows,' or CSOs, that have been polluting the river for more than a century.

The problem is that when it rains in Portland, the excess storm water mixes with sewage in the same pipes, flooding the system and sending excess combined sewage into the river instead of the treatment plant.

The city and its contractors already have started working on a big pipe that will increase the system's carrying capacity on the west side of the river. After that, they will focus on the east side. Already, work on the Columbia Slough is finished, and sewage spills there have been virtually eliminated.

Nevertheless, the Environmental Protection Agency has informed city officials that they may not be doing enough to comply with the Clean Water Act. That admonition has rankled local environmentalists, who argue that Portland is doing the right thing and could use a little help from industries and farmers upstream, as well as bureaucrats in the nation's capital, to 'clean up' the Willamette.

The Tribune asked Peter Lavigne, president of an international public foundation devoted to rivers, to offer his perspective on the state of Portland's river.