Archive for April, 2012

Native salmon threatened with extinction from a cleaner Willamette River

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on Sep. 8, 2011. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary.]

Detroit Dam, Marion County, Oregon, July 1990. Photo Bob Heims, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Scott Learn has a very interesting article in today’s Oregonian about the negative impacts that Willamette River tributary dams are having on native salmon runs (“Getting salmon past daunting Willamette Basin dams could have a big price tag — and a big payoff“). This is a clear example of unintended consequences resulting from large-scale infrastructure projects.

When the Willamette Valley Project was first being proposed and planned in the 1930s and 1940s, advocates asserted that the dams would bring a great many benefits. Impounding tributary waters would help modulate the seasonal flow of the Willamette River which would, in turn, decrease the likelihood of downstream floods. The dams would also facilitate reclamation, irrigation, hydroelectric power production, and navigation improvements.[1] By storing water during the rainy months and metering its release during the dry months, Willamette Valley Project dams would modulate significant seasonal variations in the flow of the main stem, which would greatly help flush the river of industrial wastes and municipal sewage.[2]

Historian William G. Robbins has found that by at least the late 1930s there was significant opposition to Willamette Valley Project dams (and also dams along the Columbia, Rogue, Umpqua, and Deschutes rivers) based upon the projected negative impacts these dams would have on anadromous fish runs. These opponents included commercial and sports fishing groups, Columbia River treaty tribes, and wildlife conservationists in groups such as the Izaak Walton League, including renowned naturalist William L. Finley. Robbins quotes U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Paul Needham’s reference to these dams as “large-scale experiments” that did not sufficiently take the needs of fish into account.[3] It certainly cannot be said that Willamette Valley Project planners were entirely unaware of the likelihood of harm to salmon runs.

As Scott Learn writes in his article, in terms of healthy native anadromous fish runs, the Willamette Valley Project has certainly been a failed experiment. In terms of pollution abatement and flood control, however, the experiment has been quite successful. Therein lies the conundrum: How might we achieve the goals of healthy fish runs, a cleaner river, and a low incidence of catastrophic floods? Whatever the specific answers turn out to be, my hunch is that it will take both a fundamental shift in cultural values & priorities and a significant financial investment to achieve such mutually beneficial ends.


[1] William G. Robbins, “The Willamette Valley Project of Oregon: A Study in the Political Economy of Water Resource Development,” Pacific Historical Review 47:4 (Nov. 1978), 585-605; William G. Robbins, Landscapes of Conflict: The Oregon Story, 1940-2000 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004), 47-76.

[2] For more on Willamette River pollution generally, see James V. Hillegas, “Working for the ‘Working River’: Willamette River Pollution, 1926-1962,” MA thesis, Portland State University, 2009.

[3] Robbins, Landscapes of Conflict, 48-53.


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Sixty years later, a prediction comes true . . . sort of.

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on Sep. 27, 2011. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary.]

Willamette Falls, looking north. Blue Heron paper mill on right, in Oregon City, which operated as the Hawley Pulp and Paper Mill, 1908-1948, operated under the Publishers’ Paper Company from 1948-1986, and under the Jefferson Smurfit Corporation 1986-2000. On the left is the West Linn Paper Company mill, which opened as Willamette Pulp & Paper in 1889, and after mergers was operated by the Crown Willamette Paper Company (1914-1928),  Crown Zellerbach Paper Company (1928-1986), and the James River Corporation (1986-1997). Oregonian photo.

This is fascinating: Metro is considering bidding for the recently-closed Blue Heron paper mill site in Oregon City at the base of Willamette Falls.[1] It would be great to have public access to this part of the river.

On another note, it appears that mill officials might have been correct when they predicted in 1949 that more stringent Willamette River water quality standards would run them out of business. However, does it count that the prediction was sixty years in coming to fruition, or that more stringent water quality standards do not entirely explain the demise of the mill?

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Smelling One’s Way to Cleaner Water? Comparing pollution abatement in Oregon and Maine

In the most recent issue of Environmental History there is an informative article on mid-twentieth century water pollution abatement in Maine’s Androscoggin River watershed. Author Wallace Scot McFarlane completed an undergraduate thesis at Bowdoin College in 2009, from which he drew the core of his 2012 article. McFarlane “explores how people’s views of science and the environment were reshaped during the transition from localized nuisance control to concerted environmental action, from the 1940s to the 1970s,” and he does so predominately by focusing on the work of a (if not the) prominent abatement figure in the watershed from the 1940s through the 1960s, Dr. Walter A. Lawrance.[1]

McFarlane’s article provides a valuable point of reference to compare and contrast water pollution abatement efforts in Oregon with those in other states and provinces. There are at least two other works that offer a state-to-state comparison of the history of environmental legislation generally, and water quality specifically, in Oregon and Maine.[2] McFarlane’s work effectively builds upon these other sources by focusing on the efforts of a single person intimately involved in the science and administration of water quality; therefore, his article provides details that the other works on Maine do not. McFarlane’s article is also a welcome addition to journal-length studies on water pollution in Washington State, Illinois, British Columbia, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, and Connecticut.[3]

From the second half of the nineteenth century well into the second half of the twentieth, the economies of both Maine and Oregon were heavily reliant upon the heavily-polluting pulp and paper industry, which is another reason why studies of Maine are relevant to the situation in Oregon. Maine’s Androscoggin and Oregon’s Willamette were both impacted significantly for decades from the effects of untreated pulp and paper wastes. (Historian Gregory Summers has written a study of water pollution in another watershed with long connections to the pulp and paper industry, Wisconsin’s Fox River, which I mention here in passing for reference. [4])

Comparing and contrasting events in Maine and Oregon brings to light important details that illustrate, in practical terms, the ways in which people’s values in North America relative to the environment changed over the course of the twentieth century, and how these changes happened differently in different cultural and political settings. Within the realm of water pollution, one can observe that Oregonians were relatively more progressive and proactive than Mainers in that they created their state water quality agency earlier than in Maine, they did so through citizen initiative, and they granted it stronger powers. Further, water quality oversight in Oregon from 1938 through 1967 involved a board of seven that included the head of the State Health Officer, State Engineer, State Sanitary Engineer, and State Fish Commission Chair (in addition to a staff of on-the-ground engineers and technicians) who were financed from the State General Fund and tasked with abating a wide array of industrial and municipal pollutants; oversight in the Androscoggin watershed, in contrast, appears to have been centered on one man whose work was constrained to sulfite pulping wastes only and who was funded to a significant degree by the very industries that produced these wastes. As a result, the Willamette River was significantly cleaner than it had been for decades (in terms of pulp and paper wastes) by the time Congress enacted the Clean Water Act in 1972, and the Androscoggin was not.

Below the fold I’ll provide a brief overview of Walter Lawrance’s work in the Androscoggin watershed and specify the evidence I’ve used to draw my conclusions. Read the rest of this entry »


A Graphic Post

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on Oct. 27, 2011. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary. There are six comments at the original post location,, as of April 29, 2012.]

I must warn you: This is a graphic post. Below the fold you will see images of line graphs and bar charts that provide visual representations of data across time. They look something like this:

Image 1: Oregon State Biennial Appropriation to the OSSA, 1939 through 1965.

If this seems like something that might cause your stomach to turn, perhaps you dare read no further; if, on the other hand, you have courage, stamina, and are sure that the kids won’t be peeking over your shoulder, please do read on, because I’m seeking your input.

I would like any and all readers to weigh-in with comments and questions about the graphs below, and the conclusions I’m drawing from them, and to let me know if both of these are clear (or not). For those readers who have specialized training or experience in history, statistics, social science, mathematics, etc., I have some specific questions below that I would like help answering.

A common refrain I come across in both primary and secondary sources discussing the efforts and results of the Oregon State Sanitary Authority (OSSA) in addressing water pollution is that the Authority was not funded adequately. Authority members and historians have concluded that this lack of funding handicapped the OSSA between the time it commenced its work in early 1939 and the time that Governor Tom McCall restructured it and the Oregon Air Pollution Authority into the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality in 1969.

Perhaps the OSSA was underfunded, but that brings up at least two important points. First, it seems that the majority of government agencies, non-profits, for-profits, and individual households would prefer more money; I know I certainly would, and I also would prefer it if all of the non-profits that I support had much more funding. Therefore, it is quite common to hear complaints about a lack of money . . . but does that make it a pointless refrain, a case of “crying wolf?”

Second, is there some kind of objective reference point that one can call upon to gauge whether or not a given entity is “underfunded,” “adequately funded,” or “over-funded?” Maybe there are such metrics in some instances, but what might these be? In the case of the OSSA specifically, I suppose this metric would be whether or not the Authority was achieving it’s legal mandate: Was the OSSA making substantive progress in abating water pollution? If not, to what extent does lack of progress correlate with a shortage of funds?

Asking these kinds of questions is important in a democracy. It’s important for taxpayers to know where their money is going, and if the agency is using the money as effectively as possible. When voters turn-out overwhelmingly in favor of the creation of a new government agency — as was the case with the OSSA in 1938 — it’s important for citizens to know that the agency is doing the work that they authorized it to do. Of course, there is at least one important dynamic that confounds this straightforward logic: Are citizens willing to pay for achieving the purported goal of a given piece of legislation or citizen’s initiative?

The pattern of my pursuit of these answers regarding the OSSA can just as easily be applied to other local, state, or federal government agencies.

The first graph I want to show you is straightforward:
Read the rest of this entry »


A Sketch of Water Quality-Related Events in the Eugene Area

A staff member at the City of Eugene recently contacted me with a question about events related to water pollution abatement in the Eugene-Springfield area. I replied that my research has largely concentrated on pollution from the valley’s two primary polluters through the 1960s—the pulp and paper industry and the City of Portland—but that I have uncovered some items of note specific to Eugene/Springfield. A typhoid outbreak in 1906, a significant fish kill in 1926, and the annual Commonwealth Conferences held at the University of Oregon were all significant events within the larger context of Oregon’s clean streams movement.

An important dynamic in the early history of Willamette River pollution was the fact that the earliest Euro American settlers to the valley took their potable water supplies from the river. As water quality deteriorated, municipal governments throughout the watershed secured other sources of potable water, beginning with Portland in the 1890s. I wrote the following in my thesis regarding this transition:

Other Willamette Valley cities ceased drawing municipal water from the river from the 1900s through the 1930s. After an outbreak of typhoid fever in 1906, Eugene residents lobbied successfully to have the city take over water treatment responsibilities from private ownership. In 1911, Eugene city engineers completed the Walterville Power Plant, primarily to pump McKenzie River water into the city. The city of Corvallis replaced their Willamette River water supply in 1906 with water drawn from the Mary’s Peak watershed west of town. However, in 1949 city officials did authorize construction of a water treatment plant on the west bank of the Willamette River to augment supply during high demand periods. The city of Albany has drawn its municipal water from the eighteen-mile Santiam-Albany Canal at least as early as 1912. The canal was built in 1872 to serve transportation and power generation purposes by diverting water from the Santiam River to the Willamette River.6 Salem city officials developed the North Santiam River watershed in 1936-1937 in reaction to public pressure since the 1910s for a healthier water supply. Securing new municipal supplies solved one pressing issue, while decreasing the need to address Willamette River pollution directly, contributing in some ways to the continued use of the river as a waste sink.[1]

During the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, public health was a significant motivator—not to clean the Willamette River, but to give the river over to the function of waste disposal:

Representatives of the State Board of Health, newspaper editors, and others were aware of the steadily deteriorating quality of water in Portland and along the entire Willamette River. In February 1906, the Oregonian reacted to a typhoid epidemic linked to Eugene’s Willamette River sewer outfalls by calling the river a “common sewer for the entire valley between the Cascade and Coast Ranges of mountains from Cottage Grove to the Columbia.”11 Later in 1906 the Oregon State Board of Health observed typhoid in the Columbia River for the first time and identified the sources of this contagion as tributary streams in eastern Oregon as well as the Willamette. The Secretary of the Board of Health noted that the “Willamette River has not been free from typhoid germs for years.” In response, an Oregonian reporter concluded that “it evidently behooves the many swimmers about Portland to cultivate the gentle art of keeping their mouths closed while in the water.”[2]

The Oregonian allocated “censure where censure is due” in blaming Eugene city officials for the February 1906 typhoid outbreak. Editors recognized that Eugene’s small size precluded city leaders from investing in costly treatment facilities or in securing water sources from away from the town, but lambasted city officials nonetheless for not providing healthful drinking water and, instead, delivering to its citizens water from “a great open sewer running through the town, and a water system contaminated at its very source.”[3]

Six years later, Read the rest of this entry »

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“There is almost criminal negligence of city officials to permit this”

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on March 19, 2011. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary.]

“River Looks Bad to Two Parties,” Morning Oregonian, Aug. 5, 1936, p. 3.

In August 1936, the Willamette River through Portland’s harbor looked and smelled bad. For decades, Oregonians had come to expect that during the low-flow months of July through October, the lower Willamette River would become a tepid, chunky, and foaming soup thickened with raw human excrement, filamentous cannery wastes, harsh sulfite pulp and paper liquors, and other discharges.

What to do about all of this filth?

Polluting a river is quite easy. Simply route an effluent pipe into the stream, push the refuse over the banks, or allow pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals to drain into the water, and one is well on the way to polluting the river. Abating pollution, however, is difficult.

Abating water pollution requires many complementary and concurrent steps. One must, first, prove that a given pollutant is deleterious to the river’s health, and/or the public’s health. Along with this, one must prove that the harmful effects come from specific sources. Next, one must uncover or suggest technical, administrative, and procedural solutions. It’s easy to critique actions, but does the critic have anything productive to offer in the way of possible solutions?

Solutions cost money, so once it has been determined that pollution exists and that there are possible solutions, one must convince people to pay for abatement options. Payment comes either from private or public sources. In the American system of democracy, neither private nor public sources can be tapped without passing laws. These laws will generally provide for some form of proactive or punitive money generation. Proactive generation includes increasing taxes and fees, authorizing the sale of bonds, securing loans, etc. Punitive generation includes assessing fines for people or companies that do not follow abatement regulations.

What does all this have to do with a guy in a gas mask?

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Notable people remembered on a nondescript moss-covered boulder at the end of a rarely-traveled country road

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on Nov. 21, 2011. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary.]

Izaak Walton League Memorial Plaque, Oak Island Game Management Area, Sauvie Island, Oregon, Nov. 19, 2011. Photo Seth S. Moody.

A few weeks ago, I went a-looking for a plaque in North Portland that was not to be found. A few days ago, my intrepid co-explorer Seth Moody and I braved the wilds of Sauvie Island to find another plaque. I’m proud to report that neither of us were disemboweled by the Sasquatch, and that we achieved our goal (and we have proof!).

The plaque we found was installed by the Oregon Division of the Izaak Walton League on September 14, 1957, to commemorate the life and work of Edgar F. Averill and William L. Finley. Both men were long-time members of the League, long-time active conservationists, and long-time water pollution abatement advocates.

Our trek to discover this plaque was somewhat of a pilgrimage for me. In my ongoing research on Willamette River pollution, I have discovered an extensive amount of information about the in-the-trenches work of men and women like Averill and Finley. With every discovery I am increasingly more appreciative of this work, and conscious of these people’s relevance and resonance to the present day. I locate my spiritual center in nature and human consciousness, so, in my interpretation, Averill and Finley are two notable and fully human figures—among many—who illustrate the ways in which real people can take real actions in the real world to effect real and positive changes to benefit present and future generations. In my interpretation, this is precisely the realm of the highest spiritual practice.

I will explain what I mean and ground these men in the real world. Below you will find some details of the lives of Averill and Finley to help explain why their names are glued to a nondescript moss-covered boulder at the end of a rarely-traveled country road in an out-of-the-way place like Sauvie Island. Follow me after the jump . . .

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The 1940 U.S. Census & Willamette River pollution: What’s the connection?

Recently, there have been a few articles in the Oregonian about the U.S. Census Bureau’s release of details from the 1940 census. The Oregonian‘s David Stabler wrote on April 3, 2012:

The 1940 Census, released Monday after 72 years of confidentiality expired, is like a vast shoebox of old photographs and letters discovered in a cobwebbed attic.
Interest in Oregon is high because the state is among the first of five to make the census searchable by names. Volunteers around the country are working quickly to index all 1,086,000 names in the 1940 Oregon census. They expect to finish indexing names as early as this summer.[1]

There is a direct connection between the 1940 U.S. Census in Oregon and the push for clean streams in the Willamette Valley and throughout the state. I’ll make the connection after the jump . . .

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Migrating Willamette River-related content to this site

I just posted the following at my blog Historical Threads:
I’ve recently created a new blog to showcase my book, Speaking for the River. Fittingly, this new blog is called Speaking for the River, and can be found at I will henceforth be featuring on this site all of my posts that relate to Willamette River pollution, and to water pollution more generally; I will reserve the Historical Threads blog for other history-related topics.

Speaking for the River will also serve as a complement to the book. Depending upon how reviewers and the staff at the press ask me to revise the manuscript, there likely will be opportunities to feature some material on Speaking for the River that didn’t “make the cut” for the book—such as:

  • Extended or annotated bibliographies
  • More expansive biographies of key people
  • In-the-weeds details on certain events or locations

Depending upon how the book is reviewed, I may also have the opportunity to write an article or two for academic journals; if this does happen, I’ll keep you posted at

Over the coming weeks and months will also be migrating all of my water pollution-related posts on Historical Threads over to With the amount of incomplete and inaccurate information out there regarding the water pollution story in the Willamette Valley, I’m looking forward to creating a site dedicated to the topic; I’m looking forward to your comments over there as well!

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