Winding its way through Corvallis, the Willamette River is an environmental treasure, a place where residents can boat, fish, and enjoy wildlife. But follow the river north, and you’ll encounter a toxic slew of industrial waste in Portland Harbor–the site of a Superfund federal cleanup that could cost upwards of a billion dollars. Between 1990 and 1994, more than a million pounds of toxins were discharged directly into the river. From 1995 to 1997, the amount increased to 4.1 million pounds. That collection of toxic chemicals, pesticides, and heavy metals isn’t limited toPortland. Today, the Willamette River is one of the 50 most polluted rivers in the United States–even here in Corvallis.
During heavy rains and floods, sewers overflow and raw sewage ends up in the Willamette River. One of the major offenders,Portland, last year instituted a system to reduce sewage overflow by 94 percent. The situation has also improved in Corvallis. In 2001, the city completed a project that captures sewage overflows during times of flooding. The untreated overflow is stored inside lagoons for later processing at the wastewater treatment plant. However, heavy rainfall and flooding can still cause some sewage to enter the river. The levels of fecal bacteria in the Willamette River are acceptable during the summer months–but the increase in E. coli during the rainy winter months should make residents doubly glad that it’s not swimming season.
Over the past 150 years, more than a hundred different companies dumped industrial waste into Portland Harbor.
“It’s a pretty significant stretch of river that’s contaminated with PCBs and heavy metals and other toxic contaminants,” said Travis Williams, executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper. “It’s undergoing a really long federal process to get the parties responsible to clean it up.”
The DDT in the river has broken down over the years, but “it breaks down into products that are equally bad,” said Williams.
A feasibility study was conducted at the end of March this year to determine a plan of action for the harbor. Dredging removes part of the waste–but it also stirs it up from the bottom, which causes more problems.
Pesticides, Herbicides, and Fertilizers
Agricultural areas in the Willamette Valley use large amounts of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, all which end up in the river after a rain shower. Any chemicals used on lawns inCorvallisalso end up in the Willamette River after it rains, as storm drains lead to the river and streams. The City ofCorvallishas created a storm water management plan that reduces the amount of waste that ends up in the river, but its success depends on residents caring for their yards and homes in an eco-friendly manner.
Pharmaceuticals, Personal Care Products, and Flame Retardants
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) is finding higher levels of pharmaceuticals, personal care products, and flame retardants throughout the Willamette River, especially in urbanized areas. These materials have unknown effects on wildlife, and cannot be removed by wastewater treatment plants.
“We’ve found an uptick in the amount of flame retardants in the Willamette and the entire Columbia basin,” said Williams.
These chemicals share a similar structure with PCBs, and could have some of the same effects.
In the Willamette River, near the Route 34 bridge into town, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, pharmaceuticals, and personal care products, such as shampoo, all appear in the water.
“We find them pretty widely wherever we look,” said Mike Mulvey of the ODEQ, who noted that they detected more than 20 different compounds nearCorvallis. Many of these compounds show up in fish as well, making them a less than ideal meal choice.
Flood plains and riparian forest used to surround the Willamette River and cool its waters. These areas provided a refuge from hot temperatures for fish such as salmon and cutthroat trout. Today, the trees and vegetation that provided shade have been cut down, warming the river. Warm water holds less oxygen, which makes the river a poorer habitat for fish.
“If we could get shade on the streams to a large extent and natural vegetation, almost all the other problems would go away,” said Pamela Wright of ODEQ.
The lack of stabilizing roots alongside the river also causes erosion, which worsens the problem. Some efforts are underway to restore flood plain habitat surrounding the Willamette River–it won’t be as easy to remove pharmaceuticals, flame retardants, or mercury from its contaminated waters.