A scene from The Big Float V, held in July Human Access Project

Long associated with sewage, Oregon’s Willamette has finally been declared safe for recreation. One activist wants residents to test the waters.

Willie Levenson sat up in his tube and paddled with cupped hands to counteract a swell in the Willamette River, its waters momentarily disrupted by the wake of a passing boat. As little waves lapped against the shore, the surface became calm once again. He leaned back into a lounging position and sploshed his feet in the river.

Levenson may look like a strong contender for the title of laziest activist in America. But don’t mistake him for a do-nothing river rat.

Sure, he admits to having a blast splashing about in the heat of an August afternoon. Yet when he talks about playing in the river, he uses words few would associate with water recreation. Levenson frames swimming as political action and tubers as members of a grassroots movement. He even describes himself as the leader of a revolution—or, as he puts it, a “riverlution.”

Levenson, who co-owns a swimwear store with his wife, has both the résumé and passion to back this unusual claim. In 2010, he founded the Human Access Project, a nonprofit dedicated to transforming Portland, Oregon’s complex relationship with the Willamette, a river whose public image lags behind the considerable ecological improvements made in the last decade.

Despite the city’s reputation for progressive planning and environmental policies, Portland has not kept pace with Seattle or Vancouver, British Columbia, in developing waterfront access for public recreation. This is due, in large part, to lack of demand from citizens, many of whom regard the Willamette as polluted with sewage and industrial waste.

“When I moved to Portland, I was told two things. First, it rains a lot, and, second, you never dip a toe in the Willamette,” Levenson told me, raising his voice to be heard over the boisterous teenagers diving off a nearby dock. “It seemed crazy to me: people would drive miles out of the city to go swimming, neglecting the river that flows right through downtown.”

Five or 10 years ago, this may have been an appropriate response to the river, which flows 187 miles northward from Eugene to meet the Columbia River in Portland, and which used to be plagued with high concentrations of bacteria from human waste. It only took one-tenth of an inch of rain for the sewer to overflow into the Willamette, something that occurred an average of 50 times each year.

But in 2011, the City of Portland completed a 20-year, $1.4 billion public works project, the largest in the city’s history, to address these combined sewer overflows. Known as the Big Pipe Project, it mostly solved the problem—reducing the number of overflows to around four a year and making it unlikely Portland will ever experience another sewer overflow during summer months.

State officials confirm the river is safe for swimming. (There are still pollutants, but they’re at low levels or in the sediment on the river bottom, so don’t pose a threat to swimmers’ health.) The Oregon Health Authority reports that levels of contamination are too low to be considered harmful, even for young children. And the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, an agency that monitors water quality on the river on a monthly basis, has declared that recreation is safe when no overflows occur, which is now the vast majority of the time.

Portlanders cool off in the Willamette during a summer heat wave. (Don Ryan / AP)

But according to Levenson, the work hasn’t been finished yet. “It’s like the city only did half its job,” he contends. “We’ve funded a project that cost more than a billion dollars to make the river safe for human recreation, but we’ve not effectively informed the public or provided attractive access points to coax people into the water.”

He hopes that the Human Access Project can inspire a grassroots movement of swimmers to improve the river’s reputation, through festive events as well as ongoing beach cleanup and habitat restoration.

The Big Float, the project’s now-annual marquee event, draws thousands of swimsuit-clad Portlanders to drift down the river on all kinds of floatation devices. A marching band and musicians keep the mood fun, and the event is already winning hearts and minds, says Levenson. “When you get thousands of people in the Willamette, all having a good time, you radically transform their relationship with the river.”

Volunteers removed 18 tons of concrete from a beach site. (Human Access Project)

The Human Access Project has worked with city officials to allow public swimming off several docks on the river’s east bank. As part of a coalition of river advocates, it successfully lobbied the city to commit more funding to new beaches. After Levenson, volunteers, and inmate work crews removed tons of concrete from the shore beneath the Hawthorne Bridge, Mayor Charlie Hales earmarked $300,000 to develop a beach there, which will provide waterfront access as well as a habitat for migrating salmon.

Despite these victories, Levenson takes the long view. “This is the sort of work that will take 15 or 20 years,” he told me, and pointed to the teens lounging on the dock.

“They’re the next generation of decision-makers. When they grow up being in love with the river, they’ll fight to protect it, to cherish it and to preserve it. That’s what long-term success will look like.”

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