Please respect the outdoors by practicing Leave No Trace. Learn more about how to apply the principles of Leave No Trace on your next outdoor adventure here.
Sam Owens | 10.07.2019

If you’re ever exploring the streets of downtown Portland, Oregon, and find yourself wandering farther and farther north, it won’t take long for the rows of food trucks, book stores and indie boutiques to transform into rusty warehouses, tattered steel shipping containers, and endless lots full of cracked concrete and barbed wire.

Although these streets have a ghostly feel to them these days, this worn-down neighborhood is evidence of the industrial powerhouse that Portland was throughout the 20th century. By 1900, Portland had grown from the tiny frontier town it was in 1850 to the largest city in the Northwest.


Portland is a river city, but it wasn't always kind to its biggest riverway. Halvor Tweto.

A River Town

Similar to many cities, the early expansion and industrialization of Portland was made possible thanks to a key environmental feature: the Willamette River. The river presented many opportunities for economic gain and growth. Its water supplied fertile soil for crops and natural energy for mills and factories. Its abundant supply of salmon provided food and revenue for fisherman. Its proximity to the Pacific Ocean gave maritime ships a place to dock 100 miles inland. With the promise of monetary gain, merchants, investors, and anyone else looking for a fresh start flocked to the region.


Riverside factories once lined the shores of the Willamette and dumped freely into its waters. Halvor Tweto.

A City's Waste

This was a time of American conquest, and the common mindset recommended that nature be subdued and used in any way that humans saw fit. As a result, little thought was given to the long-term consequences of pollution.

As Portland grew, so did the city’s impact on the Willamette. Human waste and polluted stormwater flowed directly into the river alongside hazardous chemical byproducts, which were produced in huge quantities by riverside factories, and toxic pesticides that were sprayed onto crops. This type of pollution increased in intensity for nearly a decade, and by the mid-1900s the Willamette River had transformed into a fuming toxic wasteland.


An early 1940's silent documentary demonstrating the toxicity of the Willamette. Oregon State University.

Like Fish in a Barrel

Between the late 1930s and early 1940s, early conservationists sought to raise awareness on the gruesome state of the river. In a documentary film that they shot, researchers dunked adolescent fish into the Willamette and left them there for a short period of time. When the basket was pulled out of the water, the fish were dead, indicating that the river was so polluted it lacked enough oxygen for them to survive.

The film inspired greater public awareness regarding the state of the Willamette, and by the 1950s the city began to clean up the river.


Overlooking Portland's northwest industrial district and Forest Park (far shore), the Willamette, and Swan Island (near shore) from Mocks Crest. Tyson Gillard.

Persistent Pollution and the EPA

Since then, thanks to a crackdown on industrial dumping and re-routing sewage lines, the Willamette has made a huge turnaround. Water quality has immensely improved, and now it is safe to swim.

However, some of the damage done is not as easily reversed. High levels of toxins still remain lodged in sediments that lay on the riverbed. Many of these chemicals take a very long time to decay naturally, and the fish that live in the river spend their lives absorbing these toxins.

Those fish that eventually end up on dinner tables present a very real danger to those who consume them. As a result, in 2000 the Environmental Protection Agency designated Portland Harbor, the 10-mile span of the Willamette River from Portland’s Broadway Bridge to the river’s mouth at the Columbia River, as a national priority within their Superfund Program.

Superfunded Efforts

The EPA’s Superfund Program is a United States federal program designed to clean up sites that are polluted and dangerous to the environment and people around them. Within this program, the National Priority List contains sites that have been identified as dangerous and are a national priority to clean. There are 1,341 sites like these throughout the U.S.

After 16 years of remedial investigation and data collection to assess the state of the Willamette River, in January of 2017 the EPA, with aid from the Portland community, released a Record of Decision, which states how the agency will go about cleaning the river.

Active cleanup work is expected to last 13 years and cost $1.2 billion.

The primary method of cleanup will include the process of dredging, which involves the use of machinery to scrape the contaminated top layer of river-bottom sediments and remove it from the site.

A New Administration

Although dredging is common and should be relatively easy to execute, getting one billion dollars to fund the cleanup is a little more complicated. The money is supposed to come from a combination of government funds and parties that are determined to be responsible for the contamination.

Pinpointing where such widespread pollution originates is extremely difficult, and many of the companies, who are thought to have dumped hazardous waste, no longer exist. Right now, over 150 responsible parties have been identified, but there will likely be a long process of legal battles and investigations to determine who pays what.3

To make things even more complicated, an EPA run by the Trump administration has led to doubt that the government will follow through on the cleanup that was promised by the Obama administration. Between legal battles and a national administration that isn’t too keen on environmental management, there is a very likely possibility that this cleanup process will take more than 13 years.


Swimming at Poets Beach is perfectly safe. Tyson Gillard.

The Silver Lining

There is clearly still work to be done, but it's nice to know that the Willamette River is moving in the right direction and has come a long way from the fish-killing, toxic dump that it once was.

Once winter is over, and Oregon starts to heat up, don't be afraid to head over to Poet's Beach or Sellwood Park and take a dip in the Willamette River.


1. MacColl, E. Kimbark (1979). The Growth of a City: Power and Politics in Portland, Oregon 1915-1950. Portland, OregonThe Georgian PressISBN 0-9603408-1-5.
2. McGowan, Jack. “One River Many Voices: Episode One.” Port of Portland, Jan. 2017.
3. United States, Congress, Region 10. “Record of Decision: Portland Harbor.” Record of Decision: Portland Harbor, 2017, pp. 1–137. Find a copy of the EPA's Record of Decision at


Interesting article- thanks.
Have updates, photos, alerts, or just want to leave a comment?
Sign In and share them.

You May Also Enjoy

Death Valley National Park, California
Death Valley National Park, California