River deemed healthy as progress made on sewers
By Mindy Cooper/ The Portland Observer
Warm-weather days are finally arriving within Portland, and residents throughout the metro-area are looking for healthy places to swim within the city.
According to the state of Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, despite historically high-levels of bacteria present within its waters, the portion of the Willamette River in Portland that runs under the Hawthorne Bridge is safe for residents to swim in.
The Department of environmental Quality, which monitors bacteria levels and water quality monthly, said fewer than three percent of water samples in the past decade have shown unhealthy levels of bacteria under the Hawthorne Bridge, downtown.
“I think there are a lot of misconceptions that it isn’t safe,” said Doug Drake, the Lower Willamette River Coordinator for the DEQ.
Historically, concerns circled around the high bacteria levels from sewer overflows and rain run offs. Drake said this is because pipes laid several years ago were designed to combine both rainwater and sewer water and overflow when the area received too much rain.
“In most of Portland there is a combined sewer system because it is more economical,” said Linc Mann, the Bureau of environmental Services Spokesperson. “It combines two kinds of sewage.”
According to the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services, Portland’s combined sewers overflow into the Willamette River on an average of 100 days per year during wet weather—and any Portlander knows rain in the city is not a rare occurrence.
The combined system, explained Mann, includes sanitary sewage, which is anything that goes down a drain, and rainwater run-off. “The catch basins in some parts of Portland are connected to each other,” he said. “This is why it is called a combined system.”
Because the combined sewer overflows carry raw sewage that pollutes water and threatens quality of life, the city’s environmental services said controlling the runoffs and CSOs is an important part of efforts to improve the Willamette River water quality.
“What happens is if you get enough rain, then the systems become completely full and then overflow into the river,” said Mann.
Drake said this catalyzed the City of Portland to begin construction, mandated by the DEQ, for the Big Pipe Project, which began almost two decades ago.
Mann, who has worked with the city’s environmental services for 14-years, said he believes it is the right thing to do to get sewage out of the Willamette River.
“We signed an agreement with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality 20 years ago, and since then we have spelled out several guidelines and reached several milestones,” he said.
The City of Portland broke ground on the last of the East Side Big Pipe project, the largest sewer construction project in Portland history, in 2006. The $464 million East Side Big Pipe is the last in a series of projects dating back to 1991 to control combined sewer overflows to the Columbia Slough and Willamette River. “We have to finish the program by December 2011, and we are on track to that,” said Mann, who added, the completion will make it safer for people to swim.
An annual report presented by the City of Portland’s Environmental Services in January said the projects completed to date have already reduced Combined Sewage Overflow volume into the Willamette River by about two thirds.
“Even though we still have about 50 CSOs per year, the volume has been reduced dramatically by our projects,” he said. “So that means bacteria levels in the rivers are lower than they used to be.”
According to Mann, once the project is complete there is expected to be just four sewer overflows every winter, and one every third summer.
The project has included the construction of seven tunnel access shafts, new connecting pipelines and the Portsmouth Force Main, which will channel sewage from the Swan Island Pump Station to the Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant.
According to the agency, exposure to the bacteria is the greatest health risk and concern for people who swim within the Willamette’s waters.
Drake said, however, after looking at the data collected from the site there is a minimal health risk by merely swimming within its depths.
“Our data suggests it is very safe to swim in the river in the summer months,” he said.
According to Mann, the city of Portland both historically exists and has a bright outlook for the future because of the Willamette River. He said, however, the portion of the Willamette River that flows through the city was misused for a long time.
“When Portland was first built, all of the sewers were designed to drain into the river from houses and streets,” he said.
Nearly 70 percent of Oregonians live within 20 miles of the river, which with its tributaries, form the Willamette Valley and basin that contains two-thirds of Oregon’s population, including residents of both Salem and Oregon’s most populated city, Portland.
Mann said the sewage dumps went unabated for 100 years before the city built a treatment plant in 1951. “So it was decades of just funneling pollution into the river, and the river got pretty nasty for a while,” he said.
Mann said one detail of the program, which includes dozens of projects, is the estimated cost throughout the 20 years is $1.4 billion dollars. “That’s a lot of money,” he said. “But the community benefits because the projects employ a lot of people, and there was a lot of money spent in the local area from a project like this.”
Throughout the years, a big portion of sewer rates, paid by residents quarterly, was dedicated to going towards CSO projects. Last month, the sewer rates were raised by 6 percent. Mann said, however, the rates have been increasing since they began the program.
“It has been a burden on sewer rate payers,” he said. “But we like to look at this as an investment in a cleaner river, which is an investment in the whole livability for the community.”
While there are several portions of the project, including the main project on the east side of the river, yet to be completed, Mann said it has been really gratifying to see the plan come into fruition.
“We are finally at a point where we are going to wrap this up and move on into the future,” he said. “We finished tunneling last October, and now we are connecting all of the combined sewers to the tunnel, which should be completed this fall.”
Although during the wet season the propensity for CSOs become higher, the City of Portland has a River Alert Program, which issues a public advisory each time there is overflow into the river. The warning, which extends for 48 hours after the rain has stopped, the city said they recommend avoiding activities that during which, people could swallow the water.
For information regarding the River Alert Program or CSO advisory warnings, visit the city of Portland website or call 503-823-2479.