Archive for category 1930s

On the Siting of Portland’s Wastewater Treatment Plant: Environmental Racism, or Not?

I heard a statement recently suggesting that one of the reasons the City of Portland built its wastewater treatment plant where it did–at the far north of the city–was that this was where people of color lived. The decision was, therefore, an example of environmental racism, whereby white civic leaders burdened communities of color with urban infrastructure that wouldn’t have been tolerated in white, affluent neighborhoods.

Having read sanitary engineer Dr. Abel Wolman’s 1939 report on the Portland’s sewer system, I knew first-hand the engineering logic behind this decision. I didn’t know enough about the area in which the treatment plant was built to have a perspective on the question of whether or not its siting was an example of environmental racism. With help from the experts at the City of Portland Archives, it was time for some research!

Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant ca. 2018 (Google Maps)

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Portland Harbor Death Zone: V. 2, with a bonus!

Hillegas-Elting Final Project Map

My final project for the Geographic Information Systems (GIS) course I took during the Fall 2013 quarter offered me the opportunity to build upon an earlier project and posit a qualitative and somewhat whimsical question: Where could I have lived in Portland in the 1930s and have been far enough from the river not to smell the stench (say, five blocks) yet close enough to walk to it (say, up to 1.25 miles) during the rest of the year when it didn’t stink? The darker green areas in the map to the right generally show where this would have been possible.

Read the rest of this post for more information about how I created this map and to see the full map with accompanying images and text. Read the rest of this entry »

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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 . . . Read the rest of this entry »


Portland Harbor Death Zone


In September 1934, average levels of dissolved oxygen in the stretch of Willamette River through the core of Portland Harbor was functionally zero.

So what?

Healthy aquatic ecosystems require certain base amounts of oxygen available in the water column—otherwise fish, plants, and other organisms start to die off. If the water gets too low in dissolved oxygen it turns anaerobic and supports only organisms like those that thrive in swamps and produce methane and other odorous gases. This is the kind of stench that this guy was complaining about.

Euro American society succeeded in turning the vibrant and dissolved-oxygen-rich lower Willamette River into a smelly, filthy, functionally anaerobic environment in relatively short time. It only took them about seventy years: from the 1850s, when large-scale White settlement began, until the early 1930s. A river system that had been evolving over millennia to support a diverse array of plants, benthic life, and fish life—including the anadromous salmonids—had been converted into a stinking sewer over the span of just one human lifetime.

The image above illustrates clearly how unhealthy Portland Harbor was to aquatic life during the Willamette River’s annual low-flow period (July-October). Read the rest of this entry »


It couldn’t possibly get any more exciting than this!

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on March 13, 2011. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary.]

Of late I’ve been extremely focused on my book project. Today I’ve been immersed in archival sources relating to the City of Portland’s attempts to design, fund, and build a comprehensive sewer interceptor and primary treatment system in the 1920s and 1930s. The story is fantastically complex and I’ve been piecing together the chronology, learning about the motivations and personalities of the key players, trying to condense the key events at the local, state, and national levels in a way that will convey the complexity in an intelligible way.

One of the key elements my book will stress is that while the Willamette River pollution abatement movement was centered in this region and abatement advocates worked within a specific set of technological, political, economic, and ecological systems, the movement at every stage relied upon public and private input. For example, in the 1930s Portland city officials benefited from the expertise of two of the foremost professionals in their field, Harrison P. Eddy of Boston, and Abel Wolman of Baltimore. In 1943, Portland city leaders benefited from the clout of renowned New York City planner Robert Moses to jump-start the sewage system plans that Eddy and Wolman had proposed.

Oregon’s abatement advocates also relied upon funds and research assistance from such federal agencies as the National Resources Planning Board and the Public Works Administration, and regional organizations such as the Pacific Northwest Regional Planning Commission.

As part of my research process, I’ve also discovered an interesting Internet resource:

    ** A collection of materials “related to the history of sewage conveyance systems. Many of these have been displayed in a traveling exhibit entitled “The Collection Systems Historical Photo and Artifacts Display.” The overall collection of sewer history materials covers the era from approximately 3500 BCE through the 1930s CE.”

It’s hard to have more fun with one’s clothes on, let me tell you!

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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:
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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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