Archive for April, 2013

Chemical analysis of Willamette River water quality in 1910?

I had a blog & email exchange on the topic of Willamette River water quality that I wanted to bring to everyone’s attention . . .

I recently approved what is called in blogspeak a “pingback”—a link in a post or comment from one blog referring to another blog. This pingback came from author Ruth Tenzer Feldman who referred to Speaking for the River to provide some context about Willamette River water quality in 1912 for her book Blue Thread about life in Portland in 1912, the year that the state’s voters finally approved woman suffrage.

In her post Ruth referenced 1910 as the year of the first chemical analysis of Willamette River water quality. I had not come across such an early date for this so I replied in a comment:

“You write above that ‘the first chemical analysis of Willamette River water was made in 1910.’ I’m curious where you found this information cited because in my research I have not found such an early date for the first analyses of dissolved oxygen or biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) in the Willamette; I have, however, found references to bacteriological analyses of Willamette River water during the 1900s and 1910s (and beyond) that detected typhoid, fecal coliform, and other bacteria.

“The BOD analysis method was not developed until the early 1910s and from my understanding the first application of this method (or something similar) in the Willamette was in the early-mid 1920s. (Sources: Martin Melosi, _The Sanitary City_, Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2000, pp. 228-229; George Gleeson, _The Return of a River_, Oregon State Univ. Press, 1972, p. 11.)”

She replied via email with her reference for the 1910 date, to which I replied:

“I have done extensive research in the scientific analyses produced on Willamette River water quality from the earliest years into the late 1960s as well as the ‘grey literature’ during these decades — ‘grey literature’ referring to government reports and analyses that are not themselves actual scientific research but summaries, compilations, and updates that make use of previous government reports and scientific analyses. As you can imagine, as environmental management and regulation became an increasingly more important aspect of state and federal governance in the 1960s, 1970s, and beyond, both scientific analyses and grey literature were produced at ever-increasing rates. Beyond the late 1960s or so I have done less-thorough research into the vast pile of scientific research and grey literature that was produced, simply because there’s so much of it available!

“I had not, for example, read the EPA’s 1976 report Restoring the Willamette that you alerted me to. With the link you provided I found mention on page 27 of this report that ‘Chemical analyses of Willamette River water were first made in 1910.’ The report’s authors cite George Gleeson’s 1972 The Return of a River as their source for this piece of information, but nowhere in his work does Gleeson state this. From this discovery and the information found in the Melosi book that I cited in a comment on your blog, my conclusion is that the EPA’s authors made an error either in their transcription of the date or in not including whatever citation they found that provided that specific piece of information. My educated hunch is the former since I have never seen any reference to a 1910 date for the first chemical analysis of the Willamette River and, as I commented on your blog, the biochemical oxygen demand test was not developed until about 1913.

“Regarding the quality of the Willamette during the first half of the twentieth century, you’ll find some very interesting and entertaining items for context in the attached thesis [I attached a PDF of my 2009 MA thesis “Working for the ‘Working River’: Willamette River Pollution, 1926-1929”]. For example, the baptisms and swimming events of the 1910s and 1920s and the reports of extreme stench in the river and Columbia Slough in the 1940s. Also, there’s this image from the Oregonian in 1936 that’s one of may all-time favorite images on this topic: “There is almost criminal negligence of city officials to permit this.”

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