February 18, 2017
Portland is entering a new age in how it relates to the Willamette River. It is an awakening, the forming of a relationship that is sacred and personal.
Once upon a time when Portland was first settled, the Willamette River was viewed as a jewel, an asset, a natural treasure. There were swimming houses, swimming clubs and active bathing in our city’s river.
As Portland’s industry slowly but surely began to foul the Willamette, people fought back. At one point, a City Hall rally was held by citizens under the banner: “Youth of Portland Demand Clean Rivers”. But it was too late. The water quality of our river got so degraded that fish would literally suffocate and die because oxygen levels were so low.
Governor Tom McCall helped reverse the tide in the 1960s and established the Department of Environmental Quality. At the time it must have seemed to many as an unwinnable, crazy battle, impossible to undo the damage done. I imagine if Tom McCall was alive today and seeing people swimming in Portland it would delight him beyond words.
Tom McCall set the stage and made it possible for us to celebrate that our river is now safe for swimming from a human health perspective. Many government agencies, not for profit organizations, and activists contributed to bring us to this heartening moment.
There is a lot of work to do to fully restore the ecological health of the Willamette River. But today we can use swimmability as a platform for hope and connecting people to our resilient river. People protect what they love. The stronger the connection, the more we can do for our river.
Many people deny the science that the Willamette River is swimmable. But every summer, more and more independently thinking people are doing some basic research on Willamette River water quality, learning the facts, and jumping in. Thank you for being part of this fun, transformative movement!
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