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Ross Island, courtesy of Mike Houck

The greatest cities in America are river towns.

New York City is a river town. Hurricane Sandy explained the details.

Chicago has their name river like LA has the Los Angeles river.

Portland Baby Boomer might ask what’s the difference between those and the Willamette?

Their’s look like man-made culverts, cement lined ditches made for drainage.

They look like dead rivers.

Legend has it that NY’s East River might not be dead, but has had plenty of swimmers in cement shoes.

The Willamette River is still alive. Why? Less population pressure. When millions and millions of people live on a flood plain they vote for water control. And who blames them.

Imagine a sign advertising ‘Exclusive River Front Property.’ You buy it for the exclusive, not the flood, and once the river jumps it’s banks and doesn’t drown you, you petition for safety. Fortunately for the Willamette, there’s not that many people jamming its banks.

Portland has had floods, some with water reaching six blocks up the west side. That’s the side with the sea wall rising out of the water to prevent spectacular flooding. Unlike the big cities, the Willamette isn’t wedged between two sea walls.

It isn’t a canal, yet.

The question asked before an overflow crowd inside the Oregon Historical Society on a dry Tuesday night was, ‘what does a river mean?’ Professors Carl Abbott and William Lang delivered the questions, along with possible answers.

It’s a way of getting goods to market? A recreational playground? A self-cleaning sewer?

With eight sewage lines flowing to the river from the West Hills in the past, it worked for waste disposal. It worked just as well upstream for Eugene, Salem, and Albany.

Early floods dropped smelly ‘silt’ on Portland streets, and inside businesses. The idea of a sewer river changed.

Paper mills, metal making, and ship building used river water for their processes. The water they took out wasn’t the same water they returned.

If some fish are deemed inedible from pollutants, do you really want to swim in the same water?

Still, since the Willamette isn’t completely cement in, the natural beauty of the past remains.

For some it is a haunting reminder of how Oregon once looked. In places, you can imagine Pettygrove and Lovejoy pitching the Portland Penny for naming rights.

For others it is a threat of potential disaster.

The four rivers on a scale of worst to best:

  1. A good view of the Los Angeles River. A bad view shows a dry bottom and too much smog to see the buildings. How far do you drive to see a river rivering? Further than Olvera Street.

  1. The Chicago River is nice and narrow with building right to the edge.

  1. The East River has the works. The population pressure fills the roads, the river, and the bridges across. What chance does it have?

  1. The Willamette River might look like any other urban waterway with defined borders, but the environment of what it was, and could be again, is a short drive away from downtown Portland.

Does the Willamette stand a chance of avoiding the fate of other urban rivers?

Take a walk on Waterfront Park for an answer. A city that celebrates public values enough to preserve that much property says, ‘We love the Willamette.’

Who else feels the same way? Who else carries Oregon? Who makes the Willamette a priority?

When Executive Director Kerry Tymchuk of the Oregon Historical Society joins PSU professors Carl Abbott and William Lang and over two hundred Willamette River fans for a SRO event at the Oregon History Museum, the future of the river looks clear.

About David Gillaspie
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