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The Willamette River is Changing

Updated: Jan 16, 2022

The Willamette River has a well known history of pollution from agricultural runoff, sewer overflow, and waste dumping. But has the river taken a turn from the environmental hazard which it became?

The Willamette Valley is one of North America’s most fertile landscapes. The Marionberry was first cultivated right here at Oregon State University from blackberry varieties which sprawl across the valley, Linn County holds the title “grass seed capitol of the world“ for being the world’s largest producer of turf, over 99% of North American hazelnuts are grown by Willamette Valley farmers, and nearly 5 million Christmas trees are harvested across the valley every year. Agricultural achievements in the Willamette Valley go on and on. For example, Oregon is 4th in the country for wine production and 3rd in hop acreage. So how did a beautiful and fertile landscape produce such a polluted waterway?

It could be argued Portland is a product of the American Industrial Revolution having been established during the golden age of steamboats and locomotives. As soon as the railway laid a path across the valley and steamboats found their way up the Columbia river Portland quickly grew to become a hub for mass production and export of lumber and agriculture.

Anyone who has read The Jungle written by Upton Sinclair will understand the harsh environment people endured in factories during the American Industrial Revolution. So it may be of no surprise that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wasn’t around during these times either to abate waste dumping by factories, coal burning steamboat byproducts, or agricultural runoff. The impact of the booming Industrial Era on the environment was yet to be understood. Newton’s Third Law wasn’t even introduced to U.S. academia until the 1800’s.

The Industrial Era was just the start of pollution and waste. The result of the American Industrial Revolution was mass production of goods and birth of American consumerism. The roaring 20’s was in full swing and American goods were at everyone’s fingertips thanks to the factories lining the rivers and the trains and steamboats transporting products to the shelves of every Kmart and Sears across the country. Nothing had ever compared in scale and the impact of such great development had yet to be seen.

It wasn’t until about 50 years after the roaring twenties people began to take notice to the negative impact of consumption. Studies had revealed detrimental effects to the environment such as air and water pollution. For the Willamette River, studies showed dangerous decreases in bird and fish populations due to pesticide runoff. Rivers across the country were polluted with unmanaged wastewater dumped into them. Oil spills on the coast threatened wildlife and studies suggested air pollution to be cause of birth defects.

Fortunately, rivers can quickly change and the Willamette River has done just that. Public awareness of the environmental impact was growing in the 1960’s and by 1970 President Nixon created the EPA to regulate the environmental disaster.

After the creation of the EPA in the 1970’s people noticed the need to protect our waterway. Bird populations are now 18 times larger than what they were in the 70’s. Water treatment plants now discharge water that is cleaner than the rivers they flow into. In fact, many metropolitans recycle treated wastewater to keep up with the demand of tap water. Oregon has slowly began to limit pesticide runoff, for example, in 2021 a new legislation was passed banning use of chlorpyrifos. Over the years we have become aware of our influence on the environment and continue to correct the mistakes we’ve made to restore our river.

Since we first took notice to our waterway in the 70’s the Willamette River has grown back from being an environmental hazard to a flourishing ecosystem designated as a National Water Trail stretching over 180 miles with its source being one of the purest lakes in the world.

For monthly updates on water quality at the mouth of the Willamette River visit:

Works Cited:

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Chen, James. “How the Industrial Revolution Changed Business and Society.” Investopedia, Investopedia, 30 Dec. 2021,

Chris, Chris. “Analyzing the USA Hop Production Statistics of 2019.” Beer Maverick, 14 Apr. 2021,

“Christmas Trees.” Oregon Agriculture in the Classroom, 30 Dec. 2021,

Fagan, Shemia. “Oregon Secretary of State.” State of Oregon: Crafting the Oregon Constitution - Oregon Economic Mainstays in the Late 1800s,,the%20acreage%20and%20productivity%20climbed

“Grass Seed.” Willamette Valley Field Crops, Oregon State University, 25 Oct. 2018,

“Hazelnuts.” Oregon Agriculture in the Classroom, 12 Sept. 2019,

“Marionberry.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 22 Oct. 2021,

McAllister, Tom. “Waldo Lake.” The Oregon Encyclopedia, Oregon Encyclopedia, 12 Dec. 2018,

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Robbins, William. “Political and Economic Culture, 1870-1920 Railroads, Race, and the Transformation of Oregon.” Oregon History Project, 2014,

Rothman, Lily. “Environmental Protection Agency: Why the EPA Was Created.” Time, Time, 22 Mar. 2017,

Thomas, Jake. “Legislation Seeks to Provide Oregon Farmers with an Alternative to Common Pesticide.” Salem Reporter, Salem Reporter, 28 Apr. 2021, pesticide#:~:text=With%20the%20pesticide%20on%20its,State%20University%20to%20research%20alternatives

“Willamette River History.” About the Watershed RSS, Environmental Services, City of Portland, 28 Dec. 2012,

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