Willamette River solutions, version 2009

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on Nov. 30, 2009. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary.]

Image from National Resources Committee Special Advisory Committee on Water Pollution, Water Pollution in the United States (Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1939).

There were two noteworthy pieces on efforts to restore the Willamette River in the Sunday Oregonian, both by Joe Whitworth.

The first is titled “Evolve or Die: It’s Crunch Time for the Willamette.” This article begins by noting the rate of snow pack loss in the Cascades since 1955, which directly impacts the flow of the tributaries of the Willamette River and, therefore, the flow of the Willamette, which, in turn, degrades habitat and concentrates pollution. Whitworth concludes the article by describing a new system of managing and fast-tracking stream enhancement projects that could help us rectify stream quality issues in a wide-ranging and coordinated manner. He writes:

the consequences of how we’ve used our watersheds and waterways have come into focus: Runoff of pollutants, erosion and overheated streams mean degraded water quality and impaired aquatic habitat. Because tributaries and rivers operate like veins and arteries, good spots here and there cannot correct accumulated negative impacts. We need contiguous, functioning stream zones that sweep across whole basins if we hope to correct current downward trajectories for fish, water quality and even economic prosperity.

Whitworth’s second article is titled “An Oregon Roadmap for Healthier Rivers.” This shorter article outlines how new technologies and approaches introduced in Oregon to improve water quality can become a national model.

Whitworth describes a watershed-level approach to water quality that has its roots in the efforts of the New Deal National Resources Committee (NRC) from the 1930s.[1] After reviewing below highlights from some of these efforts between the 1930s and early 1960s, a cynic could say that the process that Whitworth outlines and advocates for is just another in a long line of efforts, and yet the river continues to degrade. An optimist might say that our approaches are getting increasingly more refined and, therefore, perhaps we’re finally getting closer to a lasting solution. Based on the historical evidence below, I’ll let the reader decide . . .

President Franklin Roosevelt established the NRC in 1933 to coordinate all natural resources management efforts on a regional scale.[2] The NRC had a group focused on water quality issues, the Special Advisory Committee on Water Pollution, headed by leading sanitary engineer Abel Wolman. This committee was within a larger group overseeing water resources in general.

The work of this group is notable for at least a couple of reasons. This group was the first federal-level body to approach water quality as a water quantity issue. The second is that this sub-committee produced the first comprehensive national water quality report in 1939.[3] A notable finding if this report was that the Willamette and lower Columbia River watersheds were determined to have degraded water quality on par with the industrialized Great Lakes and Northeast regions of the country [see image above, from p. 41 of this report].

President Harry Truman established his National Water Pollution Control Advisory Board in early 1950. This group of experts toured the country to gather data on regional water resource issues to help realize the goals of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948. This advisory board included Carl D. Shoemaker, former Oregon State Game Warden, who represented wildlife conservation interests, and held sessions in Portland in Summer 1950.[4]

Spurred by the 1956 Federal Water Pollution Control Act, the federal government began to apply systems/ecological approaches to the water quality issue in the late 1950s. Viewing water quality through an ecological lens meant that scientists, engineers, and policy makers expanded their understanding beyond a regional water resource issue to include the Willamette and its tributaries as complex systems. For example, rather than perceiving the health of the river in terms of broad public health considerations or the need to sustain populations of salmon and trout for commercial and sports fisheries, scientists conducted research into the interrelationship of microscopic organisms negatively impacted by pollutants, and policy makers sought to coordinate metropolitan, industrial, public, and private abatement efforts.

The U.S. Public Health Service sponsored at least eleven regional water pollution research symposia about every six months between 1957 and 1963. The topics of these meetings included addressing the Sphaerotilus fungus (“slime”) problem on the lower Columbia and funding municipal treatment facilities. The U.S. Public Health Service opened up a research station in Portland about 1960, headed by Edward Eldridge. In this capacity, Eldridge was engaged in a “constant soap-box campaign” pushing for more research at regional universities; he also sponsored the bi-annual regional symposia. He was finding the issue to be increasingly more complex, particularly because of the wide variety of new chemicals being developed. Reflecting a growing understanding of the lessons of ecological science to issues of water quality, Eldridge’s scientific and technological challenges included “discover[ing] means of permitting man to progress in his environment without destroying the natural organisms that make that environment possible.”[6]

The efforts to abate Willamette River water pollution at the regional level became more complex and comprehensive after the early 1960s, with the passage of amendments to the Water Pollution Control Act, the Clean Water Act of 1972, and other state and federal environmental legislation since this time. These changes will be addressed in subsequent posts.


[1] The examples in this blog post are described in my MA thesis, “Working for the ‘Working River’: Willamette River Pollution, 1926-1962,” Portland State University, 2009

[2] Roosevelt established this national planning approach soon after taking office. The NRC was first known as the National Planning Board, and Congress abolished this group entirely in 1943; see K. Dziewonski, “U.S. National Resources Planning Board, 1934-1943: A Bibliography of its Reports and Publications,” The Town Planning Review, 19:2 (Spring 1946), 69-90, http://www.jstor.org/pss/40101877.

[3] National Resources Committee Special Advisory Committee on Water Pollution, Water Pollution in the United States (Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1939).

[4] “National Pollution Control Meetings Slated in Portland,” Oregonian, May 23, 1950, sec. 1, p. 13; “Adviser Board to Tour Area,” Oregonian, July 7, 1950, sec. 2, p. 7; “State’s Water Draws Study,” Oregonian, April 28, 1950, sec. 3, p. 8; “Pollution Board May Ask Congress for Funds for Columbia Research,” Oregonian, July 12, 1950, sec. 2, p. 12; “Local, Federal Officials Discuss Northwest River Pollution Puzzle,” Oregon Journal, July 11, 1950, sec. 1, p. 7; Oregon State Sanitary Authority Meeting Minutes May 9, 1950, vol. 2, pp. 230-234, Oregon State Department of Environmental Quality, Portland, Oreg.

[5] Bob Boxberger, “Scientist Preaches Clean Stream Doctrine,” Oregon Journal, May 25, 1960, p. 7; Boxberger, “Pollutants Gradually Stifling Many Forms of Aquatic Life,” Oregon Journal, May 26, 1960, part 1, p. 6; Boxberger, “63 Research Projects Seek Key to Cause-Effect of Pollution,” Oregon Journal, May 17, 1960, part 1, p. 6.

  1. “Rivers and streams are nature’s sewer systems” | Speaking for the River
  2. Complex problems require multiple and coordinated approaches | Speaking for the River

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