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Let's jump in and transform our river, city

MyView • Its time for us to stop worrying and learn to love the Willamette


by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT/TRIBUNE PHOTO  - Marisa Frieder swims across the Willamette River toward the Hawthorne Bowl. Volunteers hope to convert the area north of RiverPlace into a more swimmer-friendly beach, by removing the rocks and installing buoys to keep people away from motorized vessels. 
After graduating from college, I moved to Boise, where I lived for three years.

Boise set a very high bar for livability in the summertime for me. The Boise River flows through the middle of town and is the lifeblood of the city. Not only do people swim in the river, they kayak, inner-tube and fish. Recognizing the energy and value that a beloved river provides to their citizenry, Boise has made great efforts to cultivate greatness and innovation with its river. Earlier this spring, Boise opened a whitewater park north of downtown.

When I moved from Boise to Portland 15 years ago, Portland was becoming known for its “green, fresh-thinking” culture. Almost immediately upon arrival, I was put on notice that “nobody swims in the Willamette . . . it is a toilet . . . a Superfund site.”

My initial reaction was outrage, then disappointment. It made no sense that a city that purports itself as the “greenest city in the U.S.” could have a river running through the center of town that is polluted.

It baffled me why people were making jokes about it and doing little to change it. I realized I both naively overestimated Portland and underestimated Boise.

Fifteen years later, I see that Boise has the Paris of urban river park systems.

In November 2011, the city of Portland completed its sewage overflow prevention system, a $1.44 billion, 20-year project, 100 percent funded by ratepayers, called The Big Pipe.

A lot of people in Portland have heard about The Big Pipe. Many more know that it has been completed. Few understand what this project meant to accomplish, and how successful this engineering marvel has been. Very simply, The Big Pipe was built to control raw sewage overflows into the Willamette River. Before The Big Pipe project was completed, it would only take one-tenth of an inch of rain to cause sewage to overflow into the Willamette River.

This disgusting occurrence would occur 100 times or more every year.

It did not take very long for The Big Pipe to be severely tested. This year, Portland experienced the wettest March in recorded city history. The result: not one sewage overflow the entire month.

Passing this test, it’s likely that Portland will not experience a sewage overflow in the Willamette River, in the summer, ever again.

Now that the threat of summertime sewage overflows has been removed, from a scientific perspective it is safe to swim in the Willamette River.

You may find that hard to believe. I encourage you to do some simple research and develop your own opinion. Don’t just accept carte blanche the words of someone who told you our river was polluted when you moved here.

Or, for Portland natives, I challenge you to consider the notion that we the people can change a river. We can reclaim it, restore it and develop it wisely for recreational use. The Willamette is not the same river it was 20 years ago.

In Portland, enjoying our short but sublime summer is something we embrace with an artist’s intensity. But there is one important ingredient missing from Portland summers. Something right under our noses that will transform our city forever, make Portland the world-class city we all want it to be, and exponentially increase our quality of life. That’s right, the Willamette River.

So, grab some friends and go take a dip, we paid a lot of money to clean up the Willamette, it is now time to collect our river dividend.


Will Levenson of Northeast Portland is an organizer of The Big Float on the Willamette River.