Archive for category Willamette River watershed

Not the End, but the End of the Beginning

The OSU Press Blog site recently published a post they invited me to write providing background on my motivations in writing Speaking for the RiverNot the End, but the End of the Beginning.

There isn’t a place for constructive comments and questions on that blog, so I welcome them here.


Leave a comment

“what we’re doing to it on its way to the sea . . .”

Thanks to a chance introduction to Anne Richardson of the Oregon Cartoon Institute during the Western History Association conference this past Thursday, I learned about a fun 1974 film by Homer Groening (yes, Matt’s dad), The New Willamette. I’ve viewed the ~26-minute film a couple of times today, and, in the spirit of my analyses of other Willamette River films (such as here and here), below the jump are some of my initial thoughts . . .

Groening, New Willamette, 1974 - Portland Harbor still

Portland Harbor, 1974. Still from Homer Groening, The New Willamette, 1974.

Read the rest of this entry »

Leave a comment

Complex problems require multiple and coordinated approaches

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on Dec. 6, 2009. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary.]

As Willamette River Keepers’ Travis Williams writes in Sunday’s Oregonian, “in order to make the Willamette function more naturally and to make it cleaner, multiple actions, involving a variety of approaches, must be taken.” These include the restoration efforts outlined in Joe Whitworth’s recent article.

Additionally, Williams observes that “Given enough teamwork, patience and persistence, we can help create a healthy, naturally functioning and clean river for people and wildlife.” I appreciate this positive attitude. David Charlton, Tom McCall, Ed Averill, William Joy Smith, and many other clean streams advocates held this same view as they worked toward alleviating Willamette River pollution beginning in the 1920s.

Leave a comment

“Rivers and streams are nature’s sewer systems”

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on Dec. 4, 2009. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary.]

Below you’ll find the text of an interesting Letter to the Editor from John Beau in response to the Oregonian article “Evolve or die? It’s crunch time for the Willamette” (that I posted an entry about a few days ago), and a response to Mr. Beau by “dtroutma.”

Considering this Letter to the Editor and the comment to it, I want to discuss four points:

Read the rest of this entry »

1 Comment

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 »


Willamette River hydrologic & geographic changes over time

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on Dec. 16, 2009. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary.]

The image above came from p. 4 of Portland’s Willamette River Atlas, and it shows a fascinating comparison of the lower Willamette River in 1888 (left) and 2001. This map shows the significant hydrologic and topographic changes to the river over the past 130 years or so.

Compare these two images and you’ll see how we have filled-in lakes, covered-over streams, and channelized the main stem of the river. Check out all of the former lakes at the northern limits of Portland and on the north Portland peninsula, most of which have disappeared since the late nineteenth century. Also note that Swan Island (in the center of each map) is no longer an island.

Leave a comment

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.”


Leave a comment

“Polluting Paradise: The Formative Years of Willamette River Pollution Abatement, 1920s-1960s”

My colleagues at the Oregon Encyclopedia invited me to give a presentation on the topic of Willamette River water pollution as part of their History Night series. On Monday, January 14, I gave this talk at McMenamins Mission Theater here in Portland. I supplemented my presentation by showing short clips of Tom McCall’s 1962 documentary Pollution in Paradise and William J. Smith’s 1940 film Pollution in the Willamette. There was a great turnout and I extend my thanks to everyone who attended and to those who asked probing questions in response to my talk.

The McMenamins team did an excellent job on the poster:

Polluting Paradise poster Jan 14 2013

The press release for this event that Tania Hyatt-Evenson of the Oregon Encyclopedia and I collaborated on reads:

    Fifty years ago, Portland’s KGW-TV aired a gripping documentary – Pollution in Paradise – that succinctly summarized the deplorable condition of Oregon’s air and water that had become degraded as a result of more than a century of intensive resource extraction, industrialization, and urbanization. Revered journalist (and soon-to-be governor) Tom McCall produced and narrated the hour-long color film. Appearing during the same era as Edward R. Murrow’s pioneering television documentaries and just a few months after Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, McCall’s film helped convince Oregon citizens and legislators that much more could be done to balance environmental and economic considerations. McCall has rightly been lauded for helping to clean up the Willamette River and, more generally, helping to conserve and preserve Oregon’s environmental treasures. Though an important milestone in the evolving narrative of Oregonians’ relationship to their natural surroundings, McCall’s 1962 documentary came after nearly forty years of sustained efforts to abate Willamette River pollution.
    This presentation will begin with Pollution in Paradise and progress backwards in time to identify the key moments and give voice to some of the many other people who made important contributions to cleaning-up the Willamette. Just as the river’s water quality was not degraded by one person alone, it was not improved solely by one person.

1 Comment

Not Seeing the River for the Trees

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on July 2, 2010. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary. There is one comment at the original post.]

Below is the text of my presentation proposal for the American Society of Environmental History’s 2011 conference in Phoenix, April 12-17:

    “Not Seeing the River for the Trees: How Place Fostered and Constrained Human Actions Along Oregon’s Willamette River”

Read the rest of this entry »

Leave a comment

Blogging the ASEH 2010 (pt. 1): Willamette River Cruise

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on March 23, 2010. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary. There are also comments to the original post at this link.]

Hawthorne Bridge. 
Image taken while descending gangplank to the tour boat.

This is my first post discussing my experience at the 2010 American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) conference, held here in Portland from March 10-14. This post will focus on the Willamette River cruise on on Wednesday, March 10, from noon to about 4:00 p.m.

I’ll commence with an admission: I spent about two years writing a thesis on the topic of Willamette River pollution, and I grew up on the Oregon coast, but until this river cruise I had not been on the river! Scandalous!! In some sense, however, this doesn’t really mean anything — after all, how many present-day historians of the Civil War were on the field at Gettysburg in the midst of the battle? Nonetheless, there is something to be said for experiencing the actual site(s) upon which unfolded aspects of one’s historical research.

Read the rest of this entry »

1 Comment