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Willamette could be our natural asset

Our Opinion
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Travis Williams (right), executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper, is organizing a Big Float event on the Willamette River July 31, hoping 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.

The Willamette River - much abused by sewer discharges and much maligned as dangerously polluted - is poised to occupy a more central role in Portland life.

With the completion of the Big Pipe project just months away, the river is about to become a lot cleaner. Sewage overflows will be uncommon in the future, thanks to the improvements brought about by the $1.4 billion project. And in turn, that means the water will be more consistently safe for swimmers and others who might like to immerse their bodies in the Willamette.

To mark this moment, a local businessman and the Willamette Riverkeeper group are planning a mass invasion of the river - appropriately called The Big Float. Will Levenson, co-owner of a Portland bathing suit company, will paddle his inner tube across the Willamette on July 31, along with a couple thousand other people.

Levenson's goal is to bring attention back to the Willamette - and we agree this is an appropriate time to do so.

The Willamette, despite all previous efforts to make it accessible, remains an underutilized asset for Portland. Levenson envisions eventual development of a public swimming beach on the river - something Portland really doesn't have.

We would argue that Portland hasn't turned its back on the river. But it also hasn't made either of its major waterways the center of attention in the same way that other cities, such as San Antonio, Milwaukee and Chattanooga, have been able to do.

Ending the sewer overflows is certainly one way to get people more interested in the river. Also drawing more attention, and development along the river, will be TriMet's new light-rail bridge crossing the river between the South Waterfront neighborhood and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. This is the first Willamette River bridge built since 1973, and it will transport only MAX trains, streetcars, pedestrians and bicyclists.

The new Sellwood Bridge also brings yet another chance to create new river access and river-focused economic development. The combination of the Big Pipe completion and prospect of a new bridge being finished in three years should get more Portlanders, from city leaders on down, thinking about how the Willamette can be enjoyed in more ways and by more people.

Perhaps because Portland has an abundance of natural assets beyond mere rivers, this city has fallen behind others in taking full advantage of its waterfront for business, recreational and leisurely purposes. Now, as Levenson suggests, is the perfect time to take another look at the Willamette's possibilities.