Fans of the Willamette work toward a cleaner river
by: JIM CLARK, Members of the Willamette Rowing Club go out for a practice session on the Willamette, a river that has improved much since 1937 but still needs more attention – especially when it comes to an average of 50 sewage overflows a year and documented high levels of mercury and PCBs.

The Willamette River has come a long way since the day in 1937 when state Treasurer Rufus Holman held a dramatic demonstration of the river's sordid state.

Holman led a group down to the river's edge, where he lowered a cage full of salmon into the water. He pulled it out just a few minutes later to find the fish dead or gagging. 'The fish would live longer in a frying pan,' one member of the group purportedly said.

Today fishermen cast for spring chinook or steelhead trout in the river's 187 miles, and kayakers and jet skiers skim across its surface. But the river is still not in the condition it should be - in April, the Willamette was named the third most endangered river in the U.S. by the environmental group American Rivers.

The group primarily cites a loophole in state law that permits industries to dump millions of pounds of pollution into the river in excess of what water quality standards allow.

'In general, the Willamette water quality is better than how it was historically,' said Travis Williams, executive director of the 1,500-strong group Willamette Riverkeeper. 'The river is certainly safe to use for recreation but needs additional toxics monitoring. The trend is better, and improving, but there are key needs in terms of data.'

Despite its status as the third most endangered river, the Willamette doesn't test strongly for most chemicals. 'The biggest risk to swimming in the Willamette is drowning, and it always will be,' said David Stone, a public health toxicologist with Oregon State Public Health. The second greatest risk, he said, is bacterial. 'If you were to sample the water of the Willamette, you would not find high levels of harmful chemicals at all - there would be trace amounts.'

Dirty water is the greatest concern of rowers like Anita Bigelow, a member of the Willamette Rowing Club and Portland Boat Club who works as a systems administrator for Con-way.

Bigelow sees more trash in the river than she did 20 years ago, especially water bottles, beer bottles and cups. Besides lots of dead fish, she's seen dead dogs, a dead cow and, once, a human corpse.

But what bothers her most are the iridescent sheens of oil from motorized watercraft.

'I'm wary of being in the water,' she said. 'I always wash my hands after being on the river, and make a shower a first priority. I know people go water-skiing on it, and I think they're kind of nuts.'

Not everyone is afraid of Willamette water. 'A growing number' have an urge to swim across the river, says Jay Boss Rubin, founder of the Portland Challenge, an annual swim across the Willamette that began in 2003. This year's swim will take place Aug. 20, when Rubin's fellow adventurers will gather at the Goose Hollow Inn at noon.

'I think, as helpless individuals, a lot of Portlanders have concerns or fears about swimming in the Willamette,' Rubin said. 'It is a dirty river.' Despite the river's condition, Rubin expects more than 100 swimmers this year.

E-mail list warns of overflow

Rowers and swimmers like Bigelow and Rubin pay close attention to the Combined Sewage Overflow cautions issued by Portland's Bureau of Environmental Services. Sent by e-mail to anyone who subscribes via the city's Web site,, the CSO reports warn against recreational activities on the river for 48 hours after an overflow event.

CSOs contain about 80 percent storm-water runoff and 20 percent sanitary sewage - the latter consisting of disease-causing bacteria such as E. coli. There are about 50 CSO events a year.

Last summer saw 10 CSO events, said Linc Mann of the Bureau of Environmental Services. When the new West Side Big Pipe goes into service this winter it will reduce CSO volume as fewer pipes overflow into the river.

When the East Side Big Pipe project is finished in 2011, CSO events will be reduced to only about three in the winter and one every other summer, based on average rainfall projections.

From a high of 6 billion gallons 15 years ago, average annual CSO volume to the Columbia Slough and Willamette River is now under 2.8 billion gallons. After 2011, the initial amount will be reduced on average by 94 percent Mann said. This should make the river consistently safer for swimmers, but anglers have another problem.

Fish deformities studied

Aquatic life in the river has rebounded since 1937's disastrous demonstration, but the problems today are not with dissolved oxygen caused by untreated sewage pouring into the river - which is what choked the fish - but with a few certain chemicals.

The problems are high mercury levels, which is a neurotoxin, and high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls - or PCBs - chlorinated chemicals that are no longer produced in the U.S. but that are known to cause cancer in animals.

The state still issues advisories for eating fish caught in the river. Children under 6 should eat no more than one 4-ounce meal of fish from the Willamette every two months, says the state. Healthy adults can eat up to one 8-ounce meal every two weeks.

Reports of skeletal deformities of fish in the Willamette River go back at least a decade. Scientists at Oregon State University began a study in 2002, X-raying 'crooked fish' that had a break or fuse in their backbone vertebrae, and published the results last year in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Northern pike minnows and chiselmouths had the highest rates of deformities, said Larry Curtis of OSU's Environmental and Molecular Toxicology Department, with progressively worse results as one went down the river.

The researchers measured heavy metals, PCBs, dioxins, organophosphate insecticides or organochorine compounds like DDT, and found ambient concentrations of only a few parts per trillion, well below what would be expected to cause skeletal deformities.

In fact, the study pinned the blame for the deformities on a natural threat, a flatworm called a 'fluke.' Only about one-10,000ths of an inch long, the creature attaches to the skin of fish and infects them. It's a disease similar to the human blood-infecting schistosomiasis, but it can be prevented by cooking affected fish.

Curtis came to know the Willamette well during his study.

As he sees it, there's still a problem with high concentrations of organic compounds such as from sewage.

'You have that kind of problem all the way to Willamette Falls,' he said, 'and then when you get down to the harbor you've got toxic chemical problems that are significant' near the 6-mile-long Portland Harbor Superfund site.

It's this small iconic stretch of the river, running through Portland's downtown, that's the most photographed and the most endangered, thanks to lax rules on industrial pollutants.

Next month we'll look at the industrial waste that affects the area.

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