Historical Water Quality Issues

In the early 1920s, the Oregon Board of Health determined that the Lower Willamette River near Portland was grossly polluted as a result of raw waste discharges from municipal and industrial sources. In 1927, the Portland City Club declared the Willamette "ugly and filthy" with "intolerable" conditions. The first comprehensive water quality survey in 1929 found severely declining oxygen levels downstream of Newberg with an estimated concentration of 0.5 mg/L at the confluence with the Columbia River. Not surprisingly, bacteria levels were also found to be significantly increased downstream of each major city along the river. Industrial disposal from pulp and paper mills had resulted in extensive bottom sludge deposits that frequently surfaced during summer low-flow conditions as noxious, unsightly floating mats of sludge. By 1930, the municipal waste from the 300,000 inhabitants of Portland flowed untreated into Portland Harbor, resulting in severe oxygen depletion during the summer (Oregon State Sanitary Authority, 1964; Gleeson, 1972).

During the 1950s, Kessler Cannon, a state official, described the Willamette River from Eugene to the Columbia River as the "filthiest waterway in the Northwest and one of the most polluted in the nation." Gross water pollution conditions resulted in high bacteria counts, oxygen depletion, and fish kills (e.g., Gleeson and Merryfield, 1936; Merryfield et al., 1947; Merryfield and Wilmot, 1945). Cannon recounted the noxious conditions in the Willamette: "As the bacteria count rose, oxygen levels dropped—to near zero in some places. Fish died. The threat of disease put a stop to safe swimming. Rafts of sunken sludge, surfacing in the heat of summer, discouraged water-skiing and took the pleasure out of boating" (Starbird and Georgia, 1972). In

1967, the Izaak Walton League described the Lower Willamette River as a "stinking slimy mess, a menace to public health, aesthetically offensive, and a biological cesspool" (USEPA, 1980).

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