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.


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“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:

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Portland’s ca. 2009 sewer shortcomings echo Portland’s ca. 1958-1961 sewer shortcomings

[Originally published on my blog Historical Threads on Nov. 12, 2009. This version has been refined & corrected, where necessary. There are two comments at the original post.]

Francis Storr, 2007, Creative Commons

An Oregonian article from November 11, 2009, suggests that Portland’s expenditures on infrastructure to keep sewage from the Willamette River and Columbia Slough may be insufficient to achieve environmental standards [Scott Learn, “Portland in potentially costly tussle with EPA over sewer plant.”]. To summarize the main points:

1) Portland’s existing sewage infrastructure is insufficient to achieve environmental standards;

2) A government agency is pushing Portland to expend more money on the city’s sewage infrastructure and will hold a hearing on the topic in a couple of weeks;

3) City officials assert that these stipulations are onerous and threaten to push citizen’s sewage disposal costs to exorbitant levels; and

4) This city official asks of the government agency pushing for these changes whether the agency will give Portland credit for the work they’ve already done, “or are you just going to pick up a different bat to hit us with?”

Hmmmm . . . let us enter the time machine now, and go back to the late 1950s (as documented in my MA thesis, “Working for the ‘Working River’: Willamette River Pollution, 1926-1962,” Portland State University, 2009) . . . 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 »


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.

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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 »


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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 »

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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)
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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.
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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),, accessed May 3, 2010.


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