The Success of Regulation–Salmon in the Willamette!
This morning on my commute into work I looked over the Willamette River and saw what to many Portlanders isn’t such an unusual sight–people fishing for salmon. And soaring above them a pair of ospreys, or fish hawks.
Yet, only 40 years ago this river and most others in the United States were dead zones, maybe supporting the odd carp or catfish that can thrive in low oxygen, polluted waters but empty of most other life. In the case of the Willamette River, untreated sewage and outfalls from pulp mills overloaded the river with nutrients, turning it into a stinky mess. (a fairly long film from the 1940s Oregon State University archives Update below).
Years of activism and citizen effort, beginning in the 1930s as shown here with the Mayor of Portland leading a kid’s crusade, led to state and federal laws regulating municipal sewer systems as well as industrial waste. The Clean Water and Clean Air Acts were signed into law by President Richard Nixon and the world began to change.
I remember still my Boy Scout canoe trips that included floating sewage but no ospreys or eagles. I didn’t see my first bald eagle until I was 16 on my first trip to the ocean where we saw both along the unpolluted Outer Banks of North Carolina.
Its a great success to see our rivers supporting life and recreation again. Can’t wait til it warms up a bit more and its swimming season on the Willamette!
There is still work to be done, of course. 150 years of abuse left long-lived toxins in the sediments, especially near Oregon City and in the Portland Harbor. The Willamette RiverKeeper and others keep on eye on things and lead fun trips to engage people with this incredible resource.
UPDATE: From Jim Swenson: This film was produced by the Isaak Walton League of Oregon (the late Connie McCready’s dad, an Ike leader, can be seen to the right of the big drum wearing the hat.) It was one of the first uses of color Kodachrome locally to bring out the color of the pollution plumes. It moved Oregon voters to by-pass a reluctant legislature in creating the State Sanitary Authority, precursor to DEQ.