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Restoring the river

Author guides readers to Willamette's beauty, history
by: L.E. BASKOW, Travis Williams of Willamette Riverkeepers examines the river just below the Hawthorne Bridge, where some bank restoration work is needed.

Before dams were built on its tributaries, and before pollution contaminated it, the Willamette River was vast, clean and bountiful.

And, while it may never be restored to its past condition, a lot of effort has been made to curb pollution, restore habitat and raise dialogue about the effect of dams on the river, says Travis Williams, Willamette Riverkeeper executive director and author of the new book, 'Willamette River Field Guide' ($24.95, Timber Press).

'It can make you hopeful about the future,' says Williams, 38, a Milwaukie native and graduate of Putnam High School and Portland State University.

Williams, who got his master's degree from Johns Hopkins University and worked for American River and Conservation International, has held the high post at Willamette Riverkeeper since 1999.

When he looked around for comprehensive books on the Willamette River and could not find one, it motivated him to write his own book to examine the Willamette's history, wildlife, recreation, ecological issues and conservation.

Of course, his interests lie mainly in conservation, as Willamette Riverkeeper, a nonprofit advocacy organization, focuses on habitat restoration, clean water and low-impact recreation. Williams also was fascinated by the river's history and beauty. He's an active canoeist, and the book offers insights into areas to paddle along the river's 200 miles.

'I don't go into depth on every issue - there's a lot to talk about, the book could have been easily 10 times its size, if you looked at every conceivable notion and aspect of Willamette's history,' Williams says.

Clearly, Williams wants to see the Willamette cleaned up. And an array of federal and state agencies presumably have the same goal.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers controls the flow, operating 13 dams on tributaries, with a major effect on fish migration. The state Department of Environmental Quality monitors cleanliness, with runoff and toxins being major issues. The state Water Resources Department manages withdrawal, an area of concern because of less volume.

All three areas affect the Willamette, Williams says, but strides have been made in river restoration. The biggest pollution issues remain toxins in the Portland harbor and Newberg pool.

Semi-positive result

The federal Superfund cleanup, involving government agencies and private companies, likely will be enacted in coming years to clean up the stretch between Swan Island and Multnomah Channel.

'It is happening,' Williams says. 'They should have a cleanup plan in the next couple years, then it's just a matter of appropriating the level of responsibility to each party, and getting it done.'

The presence of DDT (dischlorodiphenyltri- chloroethane), PCB (polychlorinate biphenyl), heavy metals and oil-based pollutants - 'a whole variety of stuff,' Williams says - still exists in Portland harbor.

'You're not only talking about cleaning up what's in the water, but upland sites that have contributed to pollution,' he says. 'That's where it gets complicated,' with negotiations and court fights expected.

Storm sewage runoff in the downtown Portland area of the Willamette also remains a concern, although a recent DEQ study showed 'that levels of pollution were reduced, a semi-positive result,' Williams says. A big pipe has been installed on the westside to handle overflow, and another planned on the eastside will do the same thing - both going to a treatment plant on Swan Island.

'It'll be a much more improved system,' Williams says. 'But the treatment plant doesn't catch everything,' and concern centers around not only legacy chemicals, but new pollutants such as flame retardants. A new DEQ testing system has helped, he adds.

The Newberg pool, from river mile 26 to 50, has historically been contaminated with mills and farm runoff.

The water is (mostly) safe

Williams' book examines the effect of dams, water withdrawal and pollution. For the ordinary person, Williams would like to point out two things:

• Unless the Willamette's in a Combined Sewage Overflow (CSO) situation, it is safe to swim in. In an overflow situation, it's advisable to wait 48 hours before diving in.

'You don't want to drink the water, necessarily,' Williams says, of swimming, 'but there are more threats to human health through eating contaminated (with mercury) fish or ingesting goose droppings on a beach, or from CSO pipe (with E coli).'

• Fish caught from the Willamette are safe to eat, although the Department of Health and Human Services advises eating in small portions. 'Mercury, found in the muscle tissue of fish, you can't cook it out,' Williams says. 'And PCBs are found in fatty tissue; reduce the fatty tissue, and cook it out.'

As far as flow, short of removing dams, Williams would like to see the Corps of Engineers open up more flood plains and side channels for fish habitat and to deal with ecological function. 'There's great work going on with public properties and private landowners to make (them) available, and literally excavate out to allow water to go back in,' Williams says.

Through his research, Williams marveled at how vast the Willamette used to be, before the dams.

'Literally, the physical function of the river is not the same,' says Williams, who wanted to point out the evolution of the river in the book 'without getting too preachy.'

Roar of the river

Williams' book touches on lighter topics.

Birds along the Willamette include bald eagles (heavy in some areas), kingfisher, green heron, northern harrier (on Sauvie Island), sandpiper and willet.

Williams says, if you see nothing else, visit Waldo Lake, one of the three main sources of the Willamette River, to the southeast of Eugene. 'It's an incredible place to go,' he says. 'There's car camping, as well as remote camping with canoes and kayaks.' Williams' book highlights 12 river trips to take.

Nearly the entire river is available for motorized boats. A recent effort to make the east side of Ross Island and its lagoon a no-wake zone, benefiting paddling clubs, has not succeeded, yet. The Ross Island lagoon remains a popular area for wakeboarders.

'If that habitat is restored, that won't be an activity suitable for that area,' Williams says.

The Willamette used to be a somewhat tranquil river, he says. Before bridges, ferries transported people and vehicles across the river; three are still in operation, at Wheatland, Buena Vista and Canby. Williams enjoys the photo in his book of George Rogers Park in Lake Oswego, showing cows, fishing nets, a log raft and other things on the beach.

More than anything, Williams says it's interesting to study the Willamette before the dams on its tributaries built in the early 1900s took away its flow. The rationale for building them was flood control, Williams contends, with benefits being for recreation, irrigation and hydro power.

There have been floods - the 1861 and 1864 floods created widespread devastation, while the 1996 flood is emblazoned in memory of Portlanders. Williams says the 1964 and 1996 floods, and what he remembers from high waters in 2005 and 2006 'gave you an appreciation of the power of water … downright scary.'

Standing on Highway 99E at Oregon City, and overlooking high water at Willamette Falls, can be awe-inspiring, he adds.

'It's amazing, the roar and the site of all that brown water and what it carries with it.'