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Northwest Environmental Defense Council Sues Oregon DEQ for Ross Island Lagoon Water Quality Violation!

April 10, 2023

DEQ fails to protect Willamette River water quality for people, fish and wildlife


Monday, April 10, 2023 Northwest Environmental Defense Center filed a suit in Multnomah County Court against Oregon Department of Environmental Quality in an effort to protect water quality of the Willamette River.




From 1926-2001, Ross Island Sand and Gravel Co. (RISG) mined the Ross Island lagoon—a critically important location for fish and wildlife in the heart of Portland. These mining activities significantly degraded the island and lagoon habitat. Since 1979, RISG has been required to perform restoration activities at the site—including the re-creation of upland forest, wetlands, and shallow water habitat important for threatened salmon and steelhead. Reclamation progress has slowed in recent years, and now, over 40 years since reclamation activities began, it is unclear when these activities will be completed. In the meantime, water quality in the lagoon has become dangerous for people, dogs, salmon, steelhead, and other sensitive aquatic species. The principal driver of this health risk is a Harmful Algae Bloom (HAB) that has unfortunately become a frequent visitor to the Ross Island Lagoon in the summertime.


HABs thrive when three key characteristics are found in a water body: warm temperature, nitrogen, and little to no water circulation. These conditions occur at Ross Island Lagoon, which is essentially a pond inside a river. The mining of Ross Island hollowed out the inside of the island, creating a lagoon that has close to no water circulation, a perfect environment for Harmful Algae Bloom (HAB) to form.


Once HABs form in the Lagoon and become dense, tides and winds carry them into the mainstream (see drone video link) of the Willamette River, restricting recreation and imperiling dogs, wildlife, and fish. The problem will likely get worse as river levels decrease in coming years. Oregon Department of Environmental Quality projects a 50% decrease in Oregon’s snowpack by 2050 due to climate change. 

Human Access Project has been partnering with Oregon State University since 2017 to fundraise for science and engineering work to mitigate the HABs. Work is progressing.  Adding a circulation channel and engineering other means to foster circulation is the key. “It is not an option to let this problem continue and get worse. Do we want to live in a city where people are afraid to swim, afraid to bring their dogs to the river? The good news is that this is a solvable problem. We are committed to find and implement a solution.” said Willie Levenson, Ringleader of Human Access Project.


The Lawsuit

Because the reclamation activities involve depositing large amounts of fill material in the Willamette River, RISG must obtain a Clean Water Act permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to perform the work. A necessary component of this re-licensing process is obtaining a certification from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality that these operations will comply with all applicable state water quality standards.


In October 2022, DEQ issued this certification, despite significant concern from the Northwest Environmental Defense Center and other local conservation groups. On Monday, NEDC filed a lawsuit challenging the certification. The lawsuit argues that DEQ’s certification must include more robust conditions to ensure reclamation activities do not further degrade water quality in the lagoon.


“It’s important that these reclamation activities are completed quickly and successfully,” said Jonah Sandford, NEDC’s Executive Director. “But we cannot sacrifice water quality in this important habitat while the restoration activities are ongoing. DEQ has a key opportunity here to throw a lifeline to threatened salmon and steelhead, and make sure that the restoration work doesn’t further degrade this sensitive area.”


In the lawsuit, NEDC points to several water quality parameters that are impacted by reclamation activities, including dangerously high temperatures, increased turbidity, and the presence of Harmful Algal Blooms. NEDC argues that DEQ has failed to ensure, through its certification, that RISG will comply with these important standards.



The Northwest Environmental Defense Center (NEDC) is an independent nonprofit organization with offices at Lewis & Clark Law School. For over 50 years, NEDC has fought to protect the environment and natural resources of the Pacific Northwest, and has secured important victories for the region’s clean air, water, and threatened species. Since its founding in 1969, a central focus of NEDC’s mission has been developing the next generation of environmental advocates. Each year, NEDC staff oversee a network of dozens of law student volunteers, providing unique legal training and opportunities for engaged students. Lean more about NEDC at