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Human Access Project stages a polar bear swim in the Willamette River to mark more than three months without a combined sewer discharge.

PHOTO BY KEITH JONES, COURTESY OF HUMAN ACCESS PROJECT - A swimmer goes into the river head first on Wednesday morning during the Valentine's Day Dip into the Willamette River.While other Portlanders celebrated Valentine's Day with heart-shaped candies or romantic candlelit dinners, Human Access Project supporter celebrated with a dip into the 45-degree Willamette River.

The Feb. 14 swim was meant to show some love for the river as it runs through downtown Portland, and mark 115 days in a row without any sewage overflows — likely a new record — says Willie Levenson, Human Access Project founder and ringleader.

PHOTO BY KEITH JONES, COURTESY OF HUMAN ACCESS PROJECT - Some of the 25 Portlanders who swam in the 45-degree river near downtown on Wednesday. Sewage overflows into the river were commonplace for decades, when the city's sewer system got overwhelmed by heavy rain water, sending untreated rain water and nasty sewage into the Willamette and Columbia rivers.

But ever since the city completed the $1.4 billion Big Pipe project in 2011, discharges of untreated sewage into the river have largely dissipated.

The problem is, many Portlanders aren't aware of that, says Levenson, who formed Human Access Project to encourage swimming and beaches along the river in the downtown area. "Every time it rains, it doesn't mean sewage is flowing into the Willamette River."

Portland's version of a classic "polar bear" swim was designed to highlight that, he says.

In all of 2017, sewage flowed into the Willamette seven times, usually on days of heavy rain. The Bureau of Environmental Services puts out warnings when that occurs, so people stay out of the water to avoid contact with contaminants.

PHOTO BY KEITH JONES, COURTESY HUMAN ACCESS PROJECT.  -    Usually those are days when the river is so cold that nobody is in the water anyway.

Wednesday was an exception, with 25 people taking the plunge, one of them sans swimsuit.

"We are likely going to make this an annual event," Levenson says.

Reach Steve Law at 971-204-7866, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or twitter.com/SteveLawTrib

Find out more

• To see a video of the event, check out: www.youtube.com/watch?v=2G9Z_dyldVc&sns=em

• To learn more about the Human Access Project, an advocacy group known for sponsoring the annual Big Float event: www.humanaccessproject.com.

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