River contamination turned grassroots energy Struggles and victories of Portland's fight for the environment.

Geared up with a wetsuit to keep warm, Travis Williams and a crew of Willamette Riverkeeper volunteers dove into the part of the Willamette River near Corvallis, Oregon. Snorkeling a total of 120 miles over the summer, they were in search of the freshwater mussels sprinkled along the river bed. While these western pearlshells are one of the most abundant species in the Pacific Northwest, they have remained largely unstudied by ecologists. However, hot button issues like climate change and pollution have stirred more interest in the ecology of the Willamette River and the mussels that lie within it.

Freshwater ecosystems and clean water are codependent: organisms like mussels, which can live more than 100 years, filter the water, reducing the amount of metals, pesticides, and chemicals flowing through. More tolerant of stress, these immobile bottom feeders have a very high bioaccumulation rate for organic and inorganic compounds. This means their knack for absorbing nutrients from the water makes them something of a litmus test for water quality. If the mussel population is healthy, then the water quality is good. If they’re not doing so well, then neither is the water quality. Their resilience, too, only can be stretched so far, as altered nutrient and toxin concentrations in the water can cause drastic reproductive changes within the population.

Willamette Riverkeepers measuring and cataloging mussels in Norwood Island near Corvallis, Oregon in the summer of 2017. Photos courtesy of Willamette Riverkeepers.

The riverkeepers have been monitoring freshwater mussels since 2002, taking note of their size, population, and reproduction. The 2017 expedition found that while the Willamette mussel population was not scarce, the majority were quite old. A healthy mussel population would usually comprise varying ages, ensuring their continuation.

The Willamette Riverkeepers believe industrial pollution, habitat alteration, and the absence of host fish that the mussel larvae attach to before developing into a mussel have caused destructive changes in the reproductivity of the mussel population there, indicating a need for more protection for the river and its watershed.

Looking back, the Willamette Valley had lots to offer when the first settlers arrived in 1841. With a diverse array of treetops and a river always full of fish, the land provided everything needed. But while the natives were mostly hunters and gatherers, many of the settlers were merchants and farmers. Their vision of the valley sprouted crops and cities. And soon, the river was no longer a source of fish but rather a highway to bring in goods, and along with them, more people. Within a century, humans had altered the river beyond recognition as priorities shifted to stopping the natural flooding that threatened farms and towns along the bank and providing more access to incoming trade. By 1906, the river was called the “common sewer for the entire valley” by the Oregonian.

It wasn’t until the 1960s that the community began efforts to help restore the river. Then-Governor Tom McCall initiated a cleanup campaign that stopped sewage and industrial waste deposits into the river. But damage already had been done. Though the sources of pollution were now being controlled, the river’s fundamental ecology already had been significantly altered. Expansion of the river to allow in steamboats for commercial needs took away 85% of the natural floodplain and riparian zone that helped control floods, kept temperatures down, and of course, contained the habitats of many wildlife, according to Portland Environmental Services.

Model of the changing elevation of the Willamette River over 15,000 years using lidar data collection. The bright shading exhibits today’s riverbed that fades into representation of the old channels. The blue shading indicates the elevation with a darker blue indicating a higher elevation. Photo by Daniel Coe/DOGAMI.

Since then, communities around the Willamette Valley have continued the fight to clean and restore the river. Many organizations, like the Willamette Riverkeeper, took political action within the community to make sure the river is protected since it directly impacts the quality of life in the communities surrounding it. Scientific research such as Williams and his teams’ mussel survey worked in conjunction with the Clean Water Act to reduce the pollutants deposited into the river. Other restoration river projects have been directed by the locals themselves, personally working on the river to improve the floodplain and riparian habitats.

Eventually, even some contributors to the Willamette’s pollution, collectively known as the Lower Willamette Group, worked with the Environmental Protection Agency to mitigate the hazards to the river. By 2013, more than $100 million was spent to evaluate the health of the river, according to a study by the EPA.

Today, 10,000 acres of nearby land have been established as parks to nurse back the native wildlife. The Willamette River is slowly but surely returning back to healthy standards. You can even see frequent use of the water for recreation. During a warm summer day, many locals dip in to cool off or float along with their canoes, kayaks, and SUPs (stand-up paddleboards).

However, none of that would have been accomplished if not for the persistence of the community to restore the river not only for the environment, but also the communities so closely tied to the tributary.

A United Methodist Women group rallied for clean water and brought to light the environmental racism that comes with polluting the Willamette. As profits were being made by companies exploiting access to natural resources, people who have to rely and interact with the river were exposed to the accumulating toxins and hazardous living conditions. The majority of these people were of course communities of color and of low socioeconomic status who don’t have the means to seek resources elsewhere.

Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS.

Portland Harbor Community Coalition demanded for accountability of polluters and support for those affected by the pollution. Pictured is Superfund Cleanup Official Rose Longoria who stressed that the Willamette is one of major sources of fish contamination of the entire Columbia basin that stretches from Oregon up to the Canadian border. The locality of the pollution is more than just the input point - its impact spreads across ecosystems. And these ecosystems are not only important to the wildlife who take shelter in them, but also many nearby groups like people in the Yakama Indian Reservation who depend on fish for their diet.

Photo by Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group.

If I wasn’t fighting for my life, I’d be fighting for the river

Roy Pascoe’s life never seemed to be separated from the river. Growing up, he worked and played along the waters of the Pacific Northwest. In A People’s View of the Portland Harbor, he tells "We lived on the river for quite a while. It had its many challenges: the river goes up and down with the weather. We had the rain to battle with, the snow; the police, the parks; our stuff being stolen. And then we found out a year or so ago that the river is completely contaminated. There’s a lot of pesticides, lead, mercury. I’ve fished out of these rivers, I’ve eaten out of these rivers. I just recently beat cancer; I don’t know that it (getting cancer) wasn’t because of that…”

Photo by Erin Goodling, Street Roots News.

Portland is famously known as an eco-friendly city. However, as we have seen, even it has struggled for decades with protecting its natural land. The big movement to better care for the river and build a healthier ecosystem started with personal actions that eventually led to a community effort. The personal stories of the Willamette elucidate how entangled we are to our environment and how much we should fight for it to not only protect the natural resource, but also the people living in it.

Community members come together in Portland, Oregon on October 6, 2018 to take part in SOLVE's riverside cleanup. SOLVE is a nonprofit organization founded by Governor Tom McCall and other community leaders that has to date, supported 30,000 volunteers in over 900 projects. Photos by Vicki Deng.

-- Vicki Deng

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