Our Willamette has come a long way. But with new challenges on the horizon and increasing demand on the river to meet our region’s needs, the mission for river health has never been more important.
Standing on the riverbank at Willamette Mission State Park, it’s hard to believe that just a few decades ago, the Willamette River was a polluted catchment for sewage and industrial waste, unsafe for swimmers and lethal for fish.
Thanks to a sustained regional effort by many to restore our river system, today’s Willamette stands in stark contrast. Swimmers flock to the water each summer, salmon have returned to tributaries they hadn’t occupied for decades and a growing number of cities draw their drinking water from the river.
What do we mean when we call the Willamette a system? We’re not just talking about the 187-mile Willamette River, but also its 13 major tributaries and the rain, mountain snowpack and underground aquifers that feed them. Our river system doesn’t stop at water. It also includes the lands that touch our water, and the human and animal populations our waterways support.
The importance of this progress can’t be understated. As the home watershed to more than two-thirds of Oregon’s population and three-quarters of its economic output, a healthy Willamette River system is essential to Oregonians' way of life. But while the gains of several generations of dedicated river stewards are worth celebrating, persistent river issues continue to affect our communities, and new challenges on the horizon demand our urgent attention. To name a few:
- Summertime water temperatures are still too warm for native salmon and steelhead.
- Invasive species threaten to destroy our native ecosystems.
- Population growth is increasing regional demand for river water while climate change jeopardizes the supply.
- Toxic pollutants leach into our waterways, making resident fish unsafe to eat and affecting human and animal health.
- And because of deep-seeded inequities within our society, all of these hazards unfairly impact certain populations of Oregonians.
This community is prepared for even greater
accomplishments. But they need support to continue this work.
Since 2008, the The Willamette River Initiative’s unique combination of nimble, sustained funding, convening and coordination has cultivated a strong, effective alliance of restoration professionals, scientists, landowners, public agencies and community members. They are reopening floodplains and replanting streamside forests to create habitat and lower water temperatures, working together to track and treat invasive weed outbreaks and helping communities think strategically about river and community health when considering their future. The results have been promising, but the work isn’t done.
So, people and groups from throughout the Willamette Basin have built a new community-led Willamette River Network to support our collective efforts to improve river health.
If Oregonians desire a river that is swimmable, fishable, and a reliable source of drinking water and cultural connection for our communities, we must accomplish even more in the next decade. A river health movement that fails to reflect and include all communities within our basin will be unable to rise to the challenge.
Communities of color and low-income people shoulder a disproportionate risk from river health hazards like water insecurity and pollution. Yet the mainstream environmental movement remains disproportionately white and middle-class. The Willamette River Network will strive to address this gap by uniting environmental groups, community-based organizations, government agencies, businesses and communities in pursuit of a healthier river. It will uplift the voices and prioritize the needs of communities most impacted by our river’s problems. In doing so, it will build a larger, more powerful, more relevant coalition for a healthy Willamette.
With continued investment in this model of support for a regional river health movement, we can do more than simply maintain the achievements of the past. We can go further. Join us in the effort.
Gary and Steve Horning grow many iconic Willamette Valley crops on their family farm near Monroe, Oregon, including grass seed and hazelnuts. Recently the've added a different kind of crop to the list — native trees to restore a floodplain forest on their riverside property.
By joining forces to submit one large annual order for plants, Willamette Basin restoration groups tap into the wholesale nursery market, which saves money while providing a boost to family-owned nursery businesses. Best of all: Bulk plant orders can be specifically tailored to groups' needs, leading to more successful restoration.
Despite a growing awareness of the benefits of time spent in nature, surveys indicate young people, particularly low-income youth and youth of color, are underrepresented in the outdoors. Through his nonprofit, Soul River Inc., Portland military veteran Chad Brown is determined to change those demographics.