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Big Float kicks up a wave of interest in river use

Entrepreneur dips toes in challenge to make Willamette accessible
by: Christopher Onstott Will Levenson (left) and Travis Williams, executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper, organized July 31’s Big Float event on the Willamette River. They hope to change the way Portlanders relate to the river, which could be safer for swimming once the city’s Big Pipe sewer project is completed.

Will Levenson plans to paddle his inner tube across the Willamette River on July 31, with a thousand or two other Portlanders.

He's calling it The Big Float.

Levenson, co-owner of Portland women's bathing suit company Popina Sportswear, hopes The Big Float launches new awareness of the Willamette River as a safe place to swim, and sparks a campaign to create a more accessible swimming beach in downtown Portland.

Portlanders who pride themselves on being green, Levenson says, often wrongly dismiss the Willamette as hopelessly polluted, or they just ignore it.

'There's more focus on the bridges than the river,' he says. 

But with the city Bureau of Environmental Services putting the finishing touches on its $1.4 billion Big Pipe project in coming months, Levenson figures it's a good time for Portlanders to get an attitude adjustment about the river running through the heart of their city.

'This is going to be the beginning of a big change for Portland,' he says.

Levenson says he was inspired by 'awesome hippie dude' Jay Boss Rubin, who organized The Portland Challenge some years back. In that guerrilla-style event, perhaps a few hundred people paraded through town in bathing suits, stopping traffic on their way, then swam across the Willamette.

The annual event, a fundraiser for a Tanzania orphanage, ended in 2007 and Rubin moved to New York.

Levenson wanted to have a much bigger, officially sanctioned event, that is geared to the health of the river. So he teamed up with Willamette Riverkeeper, a river watchdog group that also organizes canoe and kayak trips bringing some 1,500 people onto the river each year.

Levenson hopes to get that many people in one day swimming in the river.

Fear factor

In the past, there's been a well-deserved 'fear factor' about swimming in the river, says Travis Williams, Willamette Riverkeeper executive director. For years, the city's combined sanitary and storm sewer system got overwhelmed when big storms dumped torrents of water onto the streets, sending untreated raw sewage into the river.

'Nobody wants to swim in sewage,' Williams says. 'That's the thing that has tainted the river, and deservedly so.'

But the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality says the river is safe to swim now, except for those days when the sewer system is overloaded. On those occasions public warnings are issued to stay out of the water for a day or two.

Once the Big Pipe project is completed in December, such incidents will be uncommon, and won't ordinarily occur during the period when the river is warm enough for swimming. Sewer overflows are projected to drop to an average of four times each winter and once every three summers, instead of an average of 50 times per year.

'In those winter months, it would take an extreme storm event to overflow the system, which makes it highly unlikely it would occur in the summer months,' Williams says.

As a result, he says, The Big Float is 'absolutely timely.' 

Willamette Riverkeeper regularly tests the river for ecoli bacteria, and the city and DEQ test it more frequently. Lately there's been more problem from goose droppings causing ecoli than sewage, Williams says, and the problems from geese are fairly limited.

Safe passage

To assure safe crossings of the river, and assure that other boats can continue using the river, people participating in The Big Float will cross in pods of 50 people, in a plan approved by the U.S. Coast Guard, Levenson says. There'll be security provided by the Coast Guard, the Portland Fire Bureau, a Multnomah County river patrol boat and teams of water monitors on kayaks organized by Willamette Riverkeeper. Motorboats will be available in case any one experiences a problem and needs a quick lift to shore. 

Participants will be encouraged to get creative in decorating their inner tubes or rafts. 'Anything you can sit, stand or lay on is acceptable,' Levenson says. 

Folks are asked to make a $5 donation to Willamette Riverkeeper, and preregistration is advised. 

Inner tubers will assemble at 9:30 a.m. at the southeast base of the Hawthorne Bridge, at 1515 S.E. Water Ave. At 11 a.m., they'll parade with inner tubes across the Hawthorne Bridge. 

Takeoffs will be from the Marquam Bridge Beach, near the West Esplanade. Levenson, who's been taking test runs on his inner tube, figures it'll take about a half-hour to paddle across. Once people make that trip, the after-party begins, around noon, with a series of live bands and, of course, microbrewed beer.

The Willamette River in Portland has been considered a 'working river' since the early days of European-American settlement here.

There's a polluted Superfund site downstream from downtown due to industrial operations dating back as much as a century ago.

A 39-minute film about the river, released around 1940, shows blood flowing in the river from a slaughterhouse operation, says Rick Bastasch, program coordinator for the city's Office of Healthy Working Rivers.

But times are changing, as evidenced by the recent creation of that office, more dragon boaters and other self-propelled craft on the river, and the addition several years back of a boathouse on the east side, as a hub for canoeing and rowing activities.

Beach talks beginning

Levenson expects the spectacle of up to 2,000 people on inner tubes will convince other Portlanders that the water is safe to swim in these days. He's already in discussions with Bastasch about prospects to create a more inviting swimming beach downtown, perhaps at the Tom McCall Waterfront Park bowl north of RiverPlace. 'Right now, there's a bunch of boulders down there,' Bastasch says. 'It's big stuff, hard to clamber over.'

A sandy beach is not in the cards because of erosion and other issues, but it may be possible to have a beach lined with small pebbles. Brainstorming sessions will be held in a couple months among engineers, landscape architects and biologists, to discuss how a beach could be designed, and if it can be compatible with fish in the river, among other concerns. One key question, Bastasch says, is: 'Just because we think it's a good idea, would nature think it's a good idea?' 

Despite being a city built on two rivers, Portland's downtown waterfront is largely closed off to swimmers because of the seawall and, on the other side, the East Bank Esplanade. Yet other cities up and down the Willamette are taking steps to improve their waterfront, Bastasch says, including Milwaukie, Oregon City, Salem, Albany, Eugene and Corvallis.

Levenson hopes Portland is next, spurred in part by The Big Float. 'I really feel like Portland has no idea of what's about to hit it,' he says.


Willamette River facts:

• Willamette River's main stem is 187 miles long, starting at the confluence of its Middle and Coast forks near Springfield

• There are 13 tributaries flowing into the river, including the Tualatin and Clackamas rivers

•The river falls 428 feet in elevation from its source to its mouth at the Columbia River

• 70 percent of Oregon's population lives within 20 miles of the river.

• Enough water flows through the river each year to cover the entire city 250 feet deep.

Find out more

• The Big Float: www.thebigfloat.com/

• Willamette Riverkeeper: www.willamette-riverkeeper.org/WRK/index.html

• City of Portland Office of Healthy Working Rivers: www.portlandonline.com/ohwr/index.cfm?c=51667

• DEQ fact sheet: Is it safe to swim in the Willamette River in Portland?: www.deq.state.or.us/wq/willamette/docs/09NWR003.pdf

• Combined Sewer Overflows: www.portlandonline.com/bes/index.cfm?c=31030 and a=316721

• 39-minute film on pollution in the Willamette River, made circa 1940: oregonstate.edu/media/cbnnp