Portland's Bureau of Environmental Services tests water each week in five locations to assure river is safe

TRIBUNE PHOTO: OLIVIA SANCHEZ - Katie Bohren of the Bureau of Environmental Services logs water safety data after taking a water sample Wednesday from a dock in the river. Every Wednesday morning from mid-May through September, Katie Bohren makes her way from the Bureau of Environmental Services office in St. John's to Sellwood, and then back up north, stopping at five popular recreation spots along the Willamette River. There she measures E. coli bacteria and water temperature, to ensure eager Portlanders of water safety just in time for the weekend.

The weekly sampling was implemented by the Bureau of Environmental Services in response to Portlanders' increased appetite for river recreation in recent years, says Diane Dulken, the BES public information officer.

The river is much safer than it's been in decades thanks to the completion of the Big Pipe project in 2011. BES test results indicate that bacteria levels in the river have met state health recommendations more than 98 percent of the time since then.

Water samples are collected on Wednesdays, then processed for two days in a lab. Results are available online by Friday each week in the summer.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: OLIVIA SANCHEZ - Katie Bohren dons plastic gloves to take a water sample on Wednesday. On Wednesday, at the Portland Boathouse sampling location near the Hawthorne Bridge, Bohren shared the nearby dock with rowers and runners alike. Shortly after she pulled the thermometer out of the water, two people jogged down the dock, kicked off their shoes and jumped in. The water was 62 degrees.

"The E. coli levels are all pretty consistent, but the temperatures tend to get warmer as you go north towards the Columbia," Bohren says.

Prior to the Big Pipe project, sewage was commonplace in the river, especially during the rainy months. Whenever it rained more than one tenth of an inch, water streaming down city streets would overwhelm the city's combined sewer and storm drainage pipes, sending untreated sewage into the river. Huge pipe systems added on both sides of the river greatly reduced the amount of sewage overflows into the river.

According to BES, those only happen now after big rain storms, and since the Big Pipe's completion, there have not been any overflows in July or August.

The BES is passionate about letting people know that the river is safe to swim in, Dulken says.

"Thanks to this investment in our critical infrastructure and in the health of the river, the Willamette is once again open to all kinds of summer activities," says City Commissioner Nick Fish.

In addition to the weekly field testing during the warmer months, Bohren and her colleagues test the river from a jet boat monthly in three locations. Those samples include other basic water-quality parameter tests, including measurements of metals and nutrients.

Bohren says the jet boat testing days can be really fun when it's nice out, but they do it year round regardless of the weather.

In her free time, Bohren kayaks on the Willamette.

Check the results

To see results from the weekly and monthly Willamette River water tests:

Swim and boat safely

Portland fire and rescue officer Rich Chapman says the river is a big part of what makes our city special. Chapman, who spent most of his career at Fire Station 1 in downtown Portland, says the station has two jet skis and officers trained to respond to emergencies on the river. In hopes of preventing these emergencies, he suggests that patrons be mindful of their environment, swim in pairs, and refrain from using alcohol while swimming or operating boats.

"Being in a river is unique," Chapman warns. "Sometimes people overestimate themselves, whether it's their experience as a boat operator or as a swimmer. We want to encourage people to (swim in the river), we just want people to do it safely."

When it's hot out, Chapman says he swims in the river for fun.