Feeling Wary of the Willamette?

Willamette River as it passes through Willamette Park in South Corvallis. Photo by Dakota Gange.

With summer just around the corner, a common topic among LBCC students has been summer plans. With a river running through the Willamette Valley, floating the river with friends is a popular choice which begs the question: Is it safe to play in the waters of the Willamette River or, are levels of toxins considered unsafe for long periods of human contact? 

Depending on where you get your information, the answer to safety concerns may be conflicting. 

A quick google search turns up a link to a Q&A article published on Oregon.gov. The answer they have provided to the question “Is it Safe to Swim on the Willamette River in Portland?” is that yes, it’s safe to swim in the Willamette, “most times of the year,” however noting that it was not always safe and that only after a sewer overflow control project, spanning twenty years, is the water safe to swim in. 

Conflicting this answer, however, is a report published in 2020 by Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality, that clearly shows that the surface water does contain toxic pollutants that in large quantities are harmful to humans, pets, and our environment. While the report offers a lengthy analysis of pollutants found in the Willamette in varying locations, the most concerning are legacy pesticides, industrial chemicals and ammonia, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs.)

Legacy pesticides are pesticides that have been banned in the United States after being found hazardous to human health and found in concentrations that exceed the human health criterion in locations where the Willamette intersects Lake Creek, Luckiamute River and the Long Tom River. 

However, in most locations local to the Corvallis/Albany area, these toxins are reported to be found in low enough concentrations that Oregon’s government website’s answer to swimming safety should make potential swimmers feel a bit more confident dipping their toes in the Willamette this summer. 

Although they do warn potential swimmers that because pollutants vary by location and water source that this may not always be the case and that potential swimmers should be aware of the harmful toxins produced by blue-green algae and to stay out of the water if it looks bright green, scummy or thick like blue green paint. It is also noted that it is best to avoid swimming after heavy rainfall as it may cause bacteria levels to increase. 

If you’re an LBCC student that is lucky enough to spend your summer in the Willamette Valley and are planning on enjoying the waters of the Willamette, do so safely and with confidence knowing that the toxins locally are low enough that the Department of Environmental Quality has given the green light for water activities! And, if you are still feeling a bit wary of the Willamette, know that there are a lot of great alternatives:

South Santiam River; Houserock, Cascadia, Trout Creek, Fernview

Calapooia River; Mckercher Park

Alsea River River; Clemens Park

Foster Lake, 

Luckiamute River; Sarah Helmick State Park

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