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

Swimming in the Willamette River in and near Portland

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on March 26, 2010. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary.]

For quite a number of weeks now I’ve intended to finalize this post about swimming in the Willamette River in and near Portland Harbor. Two discussions about swimming in the river can be found at this Portland Mercury Blogtown post, and at this archived “Think Out Loud” program from Oregon Public Radio.

Now, for some historical context . . . Read the rest of this entry »


1 Comment

Industry threats in the face of environmental regulation: Crying wolf, or worth heeding?

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on March 26, 2010. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary. There are three comments at the original post.]

A few preliminary thoughts on the most recent discussion related to the Portland River Plan (sources cited below):

T. Alan Sprott wrote an OpEd on March 26. He’s the vice president of Vigor Industrial LLC in Portland and chair of the Working Waterfront Coalition. Reflecting on a lack of consensus with the Portland River Plan, he argues that Read the rest of this entry »

Leave a comment

Construction of Portland Harbor wall, 1927-1929

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on April 22, 2010. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary.]

I recently discovered a source detailing the planning and construction of Portland’s west-side harbor wall, written by the city engineer who planned and implemented the project, Olaf Laurgaard.[1] There will be a short section of one chapter in my book that will provide an overview of the construction of Portland’s sewage infrastructure up to the 1930s, and Laurgaard’s source will help me immensely in describing the construction of the west-side harbor wall–which also included an intercepting sewer.

Laurgaard first proposed the project in February 1920 as a way to re-develop this portion of the harbor and protect a large section of downtown that was prone to seasonal flooding. This part of Portland Harbor was a center of waterfront warehousing, commerce, and transportation through the first years of the twentieth century. By the 1910s, however, the area became increasingly run-down, and by 1920 the area from Clay Street on the south to Flanders on the North was marked by abandoned buildings, empty lots, and derelict wharves.

Twenty-eight gravity-fed raw sewage outfalls lined this portion of the waterfront, a number of which were exposed during low-flow periods of the Willamette River. These gravity-fed lines backed-up during seasonal freshets, causing raw sewage to fill the basements of downtown buildings.

Decrepit infrastructure, crumbling buildings, vacant lots, and periodic inundations of sewage appreciably reduced the real estate values within a 425-acre swath of the downtown business district. The Portland City Council requested plans of City Engineer Laurgaard to clean-up this area and resolve the flooding issue. Laurgaard submitted his plans in May 1925, and City Commissioners awarded the J. F. Shea Company the $2,135,000 contract in November 1926.[2] On May 1, 1929, Laurgaard and his team ran an official pump test for the entire interceptor and pump station to check the quality of the contractor’s work.

Below are a selection of images and diagrams from Laurgaard’s 1933 treatise on the Portland Harbor wall project, supplemented by a few images from the City of Portland Auditor’s Office Historic Photos website (as indicated)
Read the rest of this entry »

, ,

1 Comment

Columbia Slough resources

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on April 29, 2010. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary. There are two comments at the original post.]

Back in December 2009, I took a bike trek along a portion of Columbia Slough. In this post I wanted to provide references to some resources about the history of development and restoration efforts in the watershed to serve as a repository in my continued work on the Willamette River pollution book. I welcome other references in the comments.
Read the rest of this entry »

, ,

Leave a comment

wálamt, wallamat, wolamat, wolamut, Willamette

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on May 14, 2010. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary. There are three comments at the original post.]

In doing research for my book, I recently came across Urban Scout’s discussion of the origin of the word “Willamette”. He debunks some myths about the meaning of this word, and concludes:

In remembrance of the Kalapuyan and Clackamas (lower Columbia Chinook) [I]ndians who lived and died here, and in honor of those who still live here; please stop saying “no one lived here.” Please stop saying that Willamette means “the valley of sickness and death.”[1] Please know that if the natives later refered to this valley as one of “sickness and death,” it came from the biological genicide inflicted on the natives by this [i.e., Euro American] civilization. Please go to the library, or better yet find a living native, and learn the real history of this place.

Urban Scout does a great job of sleuthing that includes critiquing “explanations” of the name that do not cite a source and then referencing scholarly works on the topic, particularly Henry Zenk’s essay in the Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 7: Northwest Coast (1990). To add a little to this . . .

Lewis and Clark identified the river we now know as the Willamette as the Multnomah in their journal entries of early April 1806, though the Chinookan word that served as their source refers only to a village on Sauvie Island (/máånumaå/, “those towards the water”).

Henry Zenk finds that trappers and Indians extended the name “Willamette” (also spelled wálamt, wallamat, wolamat, and wolamut) to the entire river and watershed by the time the Pacific Fur Company founded Fort Astoria in 1811. Zenk posits that this is most most likely by way of the lingua franca of the Columbia basin, Chinuk Wawa. Previously, the name appears to have only applied to the name of a Chinook village on the west side of Willamette Falls that had long served as an important center of trading, at least until the large-scale depopulations from malaria outbreaks between 1830 and 1834. Zenk states that we have no definitive record of what the name “Willamette” meant to the Chinooks.[2]
[1] I hadn’t heard this explanation before reading this Urban Scout’s blog.

[2] Henry Zenk, “Notes on Native American Place-names of the Willamette Valley Region,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 109: 1 (Spring 2008), 25-26. See entries for April 2-6, 1806, in Gary E. Moulton, ed., The Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1983-2001), http://lewisandclarkjournals.unl.edu, accessed May 3, 2010.


1 Comment

Recent news about the North Reach, Portland Harbor (March-May 2010)

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on June 7, 2010. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary.]

Below are a string of articles from March-May 2010 on the North Reach plan (documented for my own future reference):

Read the rest of this entry »

Leave a comment

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 »


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