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The Once & Future River

The Once & Future River header image
A consortium of scientists helps residents in Oregon’s most populated region plot their shared future.

They say you can’t step into the same river twice. Things change; the water that flowed past this point has moved on. I think about this as I watch the Willamette flow past me. It’s winter. It’s raining. The big river churns the color of chocolate milk, spreading into a shallow lake over a low-lying field. Uprooted trees bob in the swift channel, surfing their way north past some of Oregon’s busiest cities, to where the Willamette meets the Columbia at Portland.

A few years ago, a group of scientists waded into the history of the Willamette Basin to document how things have changed in the last 150 years and to project the direction of change in the future. The Pacific Northwest Ecosystem Research Consortium included Stan Gregory of Oregon State University, Dave Hulse of the University of Oregon, and 32 other scientists from around the Pacific Northwest. They took a broad look at the entire Willamette River watershed, covering everything from vegetation and channel history to population trends and land use.

Fed through veins of nearly 11,000 miles of wetlands, creeks, and rivers, the Willamette River pulses through the heart of Oregon’s most populous region. The Willamette Valley glimpsed by Lewis and Clark in 1806 was called the land of the “long grass,” the land of the Kalapuya. The river meandered over a broad marshy tangle of braided channels, past grasslands blanketed with purple camas in spring and oak foothills charred by late summer fires. The Oregon Trail opened up this rich valley to settlers, who began to drain the wetlands and channel the river to create places to farm and waterways to carry their products to the bustling port of Portland and beyond.

Paul Kane Painting © ROM Portland. Photo by Bob Rost

Pictured in 1847, the Willamette River winds through wooded marshland; 150 years later, the river flows through Oregon's largest metropolitan area. ("The Walhamette River From a Mountain," by Paul Kane, 1847, printed with permission of the Royal Ontario Museum © ROM.)

This is where the consortium scientists began their story, at a point in 1850 when Willamette Basin settlers were just beginning to carve livelihoods from the land and river. The scientists pored over old documents and land survey records to create maps that showed how the basin had changed over the last 150 years, creating a time-lapse portrait that showed a progression of people, roads, and buildings populating the landscape over time. Using 150 years of documented change, the scientists then mapped what the basin might look like 50 years into the future.

“Our challenge was to look at trajectories of ecosystem change from 1850 to the present, then look at alternative scenarios for the future to 2050,” Gregory explained. The result was the Willamette River Basin Planning Atlas, a primer for predicting the ecological consequences of possible policies and decisions related to changes in the human population, published by Oregon State University Press in 2002.

The future is a difficult country to map. The scientific team did not try to predict the future, but instead they used the past as a compass and engaged people in the basin, residents representing a wide range of interests, to plot alternative paths into their future. They mapped the river basin as it would look 50 years from now under three different scenarios: if current land management continued; if more development was encouraged; and if more conservation was encouraged.

“The people of the Willamette Basin have reached a pivotal point in our history,” opens the Willamette River Basin Planning Atlas. “The rich soils, snowcapped peaks, abundant rain, teeming rivers and picturesque views that nurtured the Kalapuya people and dazzled the Oregon Trail immigrants arriving in the Willamette Basin in the 1800s continue to entice newcomers. By 2050 an additional 1.7 million people are expected to live here.”

The Atlas showed how farms had replaced wetlands and cities had replaced farms; how multiple braided river channels had been slowly funneled into a single waterway and marshy woodlands were reduced to a thin fringe along the riverbank. Their analysis of alternative futures indicated that current land management in the basin could slow the rate of habitat loss and degradation; and they found that by implementing some new conservation measures as much as 20 percent of the ecosystem function lost in the last century could be replaced.

“The biggest challenge to Oregon’s water is in the future,” Gregory told me. “It’s what’s coming at us, not what’s already happened. The water problems we face today are the result of actions over the last 100 years. Typically, we fi x the things we’ve done in the past without giving enough thought to the consequences of what we’re doing now. We’re mired in our current, pressing problems and rarely take time to consider actions that could create new problems in the future. We need to look at the trajectories of change and consider actions that we can take today that will be meaningful and helpful 50 years from now.”

Trees along Willamette River

Riparian forests, gravel bars, and downed wood still characterize parts of the river's edge in the Willamette Basin. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

The health of the Willamette River has been a roller-coaster ride for the last 150 years, with times of thoughtless abuse followed by concerted action toward clean-up. As settlement continued into the twentieth century, cities, farms, factories, and backyards all dumped chemicals, sediments, and bacteria directly into the river. It’s said that in the 1930s, when biologists placed an open cage of cutthroat trout into the Willamette River, the fish died within two minutes. The river had become a sewer of toxins, made dangerously acidic from waste from pulp mills and dangerously warm from waste from woolen mills.

In 1938, the Oregon legislature responded by creating the State Sanitary Authority that required cities along the river to build water treatment facilities. Dams were built on the river’s main tributaries in the 1940s to help flush the pollution in the mainstem and to control floods. Engineers built revetments and removed woody debris to protect navigation along the river. While these activities helped reduce the impacts of sewage disposal and flooding, they also reduced the ability of the river to cool and cleanse its water and impacted habitat for fish and wildlife.

It seemed like every time the river was fixed, new problems appeared. By the 1960s, the Willamette was considered to be one of the nation’s most polluted rivers. Legislator (and later, governor) Tom McCall took up the cause of the river’s future and helped marshal a public effort to clean the river and protect parts of the river’s edge as a greenway. In 1972, the cover of National Geographic declared the Willamette “a river restored” and praised the cooperation of the people, industries, and government of Oregon. The Willamette success was one of the models that led to the Clean Water Act of 1972.

But over the years, new problems emerged, more difficult to pinpoint. Earlier problems could be traced to an open sewer pipe or stretches of riverbank hardened by rock and concrete. New problems were now emerging from nonpoint source pollutants whose origins are nearly impossible to pin down. In another reversal of fortune, in 2000, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency listed five and a half miles of the Portland Harbor as a Superfund site, an action the Los Angeles Times described as “a stunning blow to a state that prides itself on its ecological conscience.”

What happened? And how can people in the Willamette Basin change this roller-coaster pattern of environmental ups and downs?

The consortium scientists and basin stakeholders looked far into the past and out into the future to answer four basic questions: how have things changed? how are things likely to continue to change? what are the longterm consequences? and what can we do about it? They took on the challenge to accommodate a near doubling of the region’s population in the next 50 years without losing the characteristics that drew people to live here. The challenge is great, particularly with the basin’s water. At least 1,400 miles of streams in the basin do not meet water quality standards, according to the Atlas, and water rights claim every drop of surface water in the basin, sucking dry about 60 miles of streams most summers. Seventeen species of plants and animals in the basin are listed under the Endangered Species Act.

This and much more information is plotted in the Atlas. “Municipalities are beginning to use this information to look at population trends and development patterns and decide where their urban growth boundaries should go,” Gregory explained. “They can consider water, urban space, agricultural and timber lands, urban green space, and plan where they want them.”

A companion to the Atlas, the Willamette Basin Explorer, is an interactive website that compiles information from the Pacific Northwest Ecosystem Research Consortium to help people learn more about the basin. Its search functions help people identify restoration opportunities and coordinate local initiatives so they have a better chance of making a positive cumulative difference in years to come. Currently, Gregory is helping municipalities use the information to meet temperature requirements for the effluent they return to the river from water treatment facilities. The result could be a series of cold-water pockets to allow refuge for salmon and other cold-water species along the length of the river.

The big flowing river reminds us that we cannot go back in time, we cannot recover a past moment because the events that flowed into that moment have moved on.

“As they say, nothing is more constant than change,” Gregory said, “and universities can help society prepare for change.”


Willamette River Basin Planning Atlas

Willamette Basin Explorer

Published in: Ecosystems, Water