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Marchs downpours still threaten landslides along Oaks Bottoms bluff

by: Eric Norberg From the Oaks Bottom Springwater Connector Trail, looking upward, the denuded slope was apparent, on March 1st. The volume of mud wiped out a Cyclone fence at the bottom, and brought down with it what appeared to be someone’s drainage hose, now coiled at the bottom of the slope.

Over two inches of rain fell on the last day of February - and consequently several landslides were apparent along the bluff overlooking Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge in Westmoreland and Sellwood on the first of March. It's an area not unknown to experience landslides in wet weather.

One slide in particular endangered a home, and closed the Oaks Bottom bluff trail and the Springwater Trail's paved access path for Brooklyn and Westmoreland from the parking lot at S.E. Milwaukie Avenue at McLoughlin Boulevard.

In the 4 am hour of March 1st a loud noise awoke residents on the west side of S.E. 15th between Ellis and Reedway - as the entire slope behind the home at 1433 S.E. Reedway slid down to, and partly over, the paved Springwater access path. Along with the mud came a few trees, which toppled across the path.

Adding to the problem was over a foot of floodwater submerging the path from that point south to beyond the junction with the bluff trail. That trail, which runs south around the lagoon to Sellwood Park, was closed by the Parks Department at the south end because of the flooding at its north terminus, and because of smaller additional slides along the way.

As Parks Department personnel inspected the damage later that morning, rocks and mud were still periodically slipping down the now-barren slide area; a city inspector was at the home above, posting a 'Limited Entry' placard barring occupancy of the rear deck, the supports for which were right at the top edge of the slide, and warning those reading the sign to 'monitor for changing conditions'.

Directly adjacent to the slide area were at least two cracks in the muddy soil, suggesting that more mud and debris was still at risk of sliding further. And, Beth Sorensen at the Portland Parks Department reported that there were indeed a few other sizeable slides blocking the bluff trail between there and Sellwood Park, including a substantial one below the intersection of Sellwood Boulevard and S.E. 7th.

In the meantime Ruth Williams, whose historic one-time farmhouse at 1433 S.E. Reedway remained threatened after the largest slide, was left simply to hope that no further significant earth movement would occur behind her home. Although she told reporters at the time that she hoped to remain in the house, by the end of March some of the remaining trees near the slope had been removed, tarps and stabilizing devices had been place over the top of the steep slope, and she had posted the house for sale.

Sorensen told THE BEE that the trails had been reopened on Friday, March 11th, but ongoing wet weather kept the slopes above Oaks Bottom unstable, and debris, including a downed tree, again closed the paved connector trail between the parking lot on S.E. Milwaukie and the Springwater Trail on the Willamette on Tuesday, March 15th.

That prompted another general closure of the Bluff Trail around Oaks Bottom, and the Parks Department is now inspecting the saturated soils of the bluff surrounding Oaks Bottom nearly every day.

But, says Sorensen, the trails will not reopen until there is no further immediate danger of landslides. And, as the April BEE was going to press, the trails were still closed, and looked to stay that way for a while.