Don't let a 'tsunami' wash over the Willamette Valley
"Citizens of Oregon: You must maintain awareness of your natural resources and the beauty of our state because all can be lost when ignored."
— Gov. Tom McCall, circa 1973.
There is a tsunami — an attack of waves generated by people and their ballasted boats — sweeping our beautiful Willamette River. It is having its greatest impact by eroding riverbank homes for people and wildlife, while releasing huge amounts of turbidity to the river.
Riverside beaver and otter dens, bank-nesting swallows and wading birds are at risk, along with people's docks and property.
In general, a reshaping is occurring to major wildlife habitats unique to parts of the Willamette Valley, as people's property is affected in the Newberg Pool. This is a nearly 30-mile-long sector of water impounded behind Willamette Falls, reaching upriver to Newberg.
Scottish botanist David Douglas, in 1824, documented the valley, the river and the falls and proclaimed them the "most beautiful and unique in the world."
Douglas was describing the fine soils of our Willamette Valley that produce the lush vegetation that he loved so well.
A great emigration of pioneers — some 300,000 from the middle parts of our country — came west to the new Oregon Territory that Lewis and Clark described. They were told of the "Garden of Eden," "the Paradise West" that was the Willamette Valley upriver from Willamette Falls.
The agricultural mecca that they came for and abundant wildlife they saw are sustained by the fine soils easily eroded by extreme wave-washed activities occurring now.
The boating public, of which I've been a part all of my life, has been given a new invention. That invention is the modification of efficient smooth-running hulls that are now crafted and ballasted with 5,000 to 10,000 pounds of on-board water, to make big waves for wakeboarding enthusiasts.
These new designs modify formerly efficient hull shapes and create fuel-guzzling crafts that generate immense waves as they plow through the water.
Such waves washing ashore, or impacting other watercrafts and docks, are more than an inconvenience. Their effects are extremely harmful to riverside natural resources, people's property, docks, parks and public access points.
Homeowners, canoeists, kayakers and others have witnessed the shoreline slumping in front of them because of the nature of the fine valley. "These fine alluvial soils are perfect for agriculture, horticulture and, of course, the native plants that colonized the shoreline," says naturalist Bryon Boyce from Oregon City.
All these concerns and more came to a head when Oregon's legislative assembly took up the matter and passed House Bills 4099 and 2351, which were placed into process and ultimately signed into law to help manage or solve the problem.
The Oregon State Marine Board, appointed by Gov. Kate Brown, undertook fact-finding studies and rulemaking to comply with the law. The Marine Board is now tasked with a difficult assignment in the rulemaking process trying to balance recreation needs with natural resources and private-property impacts.
Boat dealers who specialize in ballasted boat designs ("wake enhancing methods" they say) need to consider what is realistic in this situation, otherwise intervention or management could become a threat to their industry and sales.
The Marine Board funds and tasks marine patrol officers to enforce the law. Present confusion over where such ballasted boats can operate and where they cannot is causing great concern for those officers already tasked with assuring the health, welfare and safety of our public waters.
Some officers say present rules and sector designations are hard to enforce. Some of them say that a statewide standard would be the best approach.
Tom McCall, who was governor from 1968 to 1974, would agree. But, if he were here, he would ask the critical question, "Why are we letting inappropriate technology threaten the natural resources of the valley and its river I worked so hard to restore?"
McCall's approach in that decade was to get cities, industries and citizens working together to embrace aggressive standards for sewage, industrial waste and citizen actions that would ensure that the Willamette would not become the "river of death" that it nearly was.
The fact that we can recreate, fish, hunt, waterski, canoe, kayak, etc., in the Willamette River, is a testimony to his work and that of his carefully selected cabinet members.
Willamette riverbanks now are slumping, fine agricultural soils are collapsing, and the river has a moderately turbid look Monday through Thursday as it attempts to clear from the activities of the weekend.
This is a situation that McCall never would have allowed. Commercial vessel operators — barge companies, tour vessels and others — would never be allowed to generate these problems. If they did, the U.S. Coast Guard would take their captain's, master's and pilot's licenses and bar the commercial operation of their vessels.
When was the last time any of us saw a commercial barge traveling at 25-30 miles per hour? If we did, it would be the last time we stood on that shoreline, because the wave would knock us over.
All licensed commercial vessels, with Coast Guard-certified captains, are prohibited from creating these effects. Shall we simply declare the Willamette Valley to Willamette Falls a tsunami zone? Or can we encourage a new method and technologies appropriate for people and wildlife?
McCall today would say, as he had in the past, "How dare we let things threaten the beauty and heritage of the most beautiful of our 50 states?" He would ask us to talk to our legislators and our governor for a realistic approach to avoiding the problem and managing it where necessary.
Gladstone resident Jerry Herrmann is president of Rivers of Life Center, a nonprofit organization that organizes cleanup efforts throughout the length of the Willamette River
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