The Changing Willamette River

We swim in it and fish it, paddle on it and picnic beside it.

Flowing from just southeast of Eugene north to the Columbia River, the Willamette River also irrigates crops, transports barges and becomes our drinking water. Along the way, we share it with beavers, turtles, salmon and other wildlife that call the river home.

Helping to assure the health of Oregon’s treasured watercourse, in 2008 Meyer Memorial Trust spearheaded the ten-year Willamette River Initiative. Over the last seven years, Meyer has made $10 million in strategic grants and worked to better align efforts to improve the health of the Willamette River. In 2014, Meyer gathered experts from more than 20 scientific and resource management organizations. Together with researchers from the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, we created the first-ever Willamette River Report Card, giving the river an overall B-. Based on measurable data for 15 indicators — regarding water quality, fish and wildlife, habitat, flow and people and the river — the report card gives a current view of the Willamette to compare against in the future.

Fifty years ago, the river was lethal for fish and avoided by the public. Cleanup efforts have made a big difference, and today it’s healthier than many people think. Data from the Oregon Health Authority and the Department of Environmental Quality show that the Willamette is clean enough for swimming. Bald eagle populations are doing well, and native fish species far outnumber non-natives throughout the river. But there are still problem areas and significant room for improvement.

Loss of forests that used to line the river, declining snowpack, and discharges by cities and industry have made the Willamette too warm for sensitive fish like Chinook salmon. When water temperatures rise, salmon become more susceptible to disease and stress, and they are more likely to die before they have a chance to spawn.

The Willamette also scored very poorly for fish consumption advisories. Because of mercury contamination throughout the river, authorities warn against eating resident fish such as carp, bass and catfish more than a few times per month. In the Portland Harbor, the advisory is even stricter due to cancer-causing toxins in river sediment.

A big, complex river like the Willamette calls for solutions on a large scale, such as restoring floodplain forests and cleaning up Portland Harbor. But achieving a clean, healthy Willamette takes individual action, too. All of us can avoid toxic cleaning and garden chemicals, dispose of hazardous products and unused medications properly, pick up pet waste and use less water. In the city, rain gardens can help absorb stormwater that would otherwise carry pollution into the Willamette. Rural landowners can plant trees and shrubs along streambanks to provide shade and filter runoff before it reaches the river.

Together, we can protect the Willamette and help raise the grade.

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