We recently interviewed Ann Beier, Director of Portland, Oregon’s Office of Healthy Working Rivers, to learn more about her work and how the rivers relate to Portland as a biophilic city.

Q: Can you share a bit of background on Portland’s Office for Healthy Working Rivers, what the office does, and your role? 

Portland, like many other cities, is a river city. Most U.S. cities (and everywhere else too) settled around rivers for drinking water, for manufacturing, etc. Portland has a long tradition of being a river city. In the early 1990s, the then-Mayor said: “we need to have a vision for how we as a city relate to our rivers.” So the city developed a River Renaissance Visioning Project, asking “what do we want our rivers to be?” Common goals that came from the project included that the rivers be healthy for people and wildlife, to support a working harbor, to allow for access to river, for the rivers to be lively and vital for the city. The City Council adopted the vision, and the idea was that in order to implement the vision, different city bureaus would need to operate more holistically with regard to the river. So after about five years, the then-Mayor asked how we were doing and whether we were implementing the vision – the answer was that there was still fragmentation, and we needed some sort of government structure to allow us to address river-related issues. So in 2009 the city created the Rivers Office (the Office of Healthy Working Rivers) with the notion that it would include both environmental and ecological health and the economy, making sure that working waterfront businesses would thrive. I was hired in 2009 to lead the office. We have this very broad mission, and our funding comes from Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services’ sewer rate payers. Because of that funding we have really only focused on the connection to the river for people and ecological, watershed health not the working waterfront part of our mandate. That is kind of a challenge for us, because we were set up to have a broad mandate, and with limited funding we have to respect that our issues are watershed health and connecting people to the river.

Q: What are your biggest challenges working with water and rivers in an urban setting?

Many of the bureaus in the city touch the water. We have about ten different city bureaus all with an interest in the water, whether it is our fire folks, our parks, our environmental services, our development people. So we have a lot of almost “clients.” We also have a complex river system with endangered salmon, which makes any work around the rivers really challenging, because we are trying to make sure we don’t fail to meet our obligations under the endangered species act. We are also in a really built environment, we have a seawall on one side with no access and a hard surface, we have rip rap up and down the river. I’ve seen a statistic that historically as the Willamette flowed through Portland, it had 80% beaches and 20% rock and hardened surfaces, it was a much broader floodplain than it is today – now it’s about 20% beaches and 80% hardened surfaces, so there’s not much natural area left. A large share of the north part of the river, close to probably 11 miles, is in a superfund site due to contaminants and historic pollutants, and that means that any sort of restoration effort in that part of the watershed and other parts as well has to deal with making sure we don’t release contaminants into the environment which raises the price tag of any sort of restoration.

Q: Do you have a favorite story about your work you could share? A success story or a lesson learned?

The good news about the river is that our Bureau of Environmental Services made us one of the first cities to really work on addressing the combined sewer overflows. Like a number of older cities in the U.S., we built our sanitary sewer and our storm sewers together. But when it rains, those overflow into the river. Portland, like some other cities, has invested a lot of money into providing additional storage for those big rain events, and our Big Pipes project came online at the end of 2011. We went from about 50 to 60 overflows each year down to 1 or 2. That means we have basically cut out bacteria loadings to the river. We have moved from a fishable river to a fishable, swimmable river (click here to learn about Portland’s Combined Sewer Overflows Control Program).

The bad news is, the river still comes with a really high “yuck” factor, because for years there was industrial discharge, paper mills, all sorts of things, and it was a nasty sort of place, so people think – “why would I ever swim in that river?” But now because of the Big Pipes and other improvements, the water quality has gone to very good or excellent as measured by our Department of Environmental Quality. So back in the summer of 2011, before the Pipe Project was finished, a young guy who runs a business in the city came to me and said, “you know, I want people to get into the river, I want this river to be an amenity for the city. I want people not to be afraid of it. I have this idea that we should just get everybody in inner tubes to come down and float across the Willamette.” I said, “you know, I kind of like that!” My goal is to get people to care about the river – if they care about the river, they’ll invest in restoration. Some of my colleagues thought I was a little crazy, but I thought “how better? This is free, this is cheap”…so we all pulled together, we talked to the Coast Guard we talked to everybody who uses the river to make sure we could safely get people on the river. And we didn’t know how many people would show up, but we picked a nice sunny Sunday in July and we had 1,300 people in inner tubes on the Willamette. It was so successful and so fun that we did it again last year, and we’ll do it again this year. To me, that is a success. That says this is a healthy river, people can enjoy it, it’s our river, and we care about it. That’s the kind of message we are really trying to send: it’s your river, care about it (to join the fun, check out The Big Float).

Now we are trying to find other places for people to have access to the river, whether in kayaks or by walking down and wading in the river, now that it is cleaner. There is a challenge still, because even though the water chemistry, the water quality is much better, we still have contaminated sediments, and we still have habitat restoration that needs to occur. We are part of the way there, but we still have a lot of work to do.

Q: What have you discovered about the relationship between people and rivers? How does your work relate to Portland as a Biophilic City?

I think our biggest goal here is to get people to understand that the river is a natural system, that it is another kind of open space that they can enjoy, that it supports all these amazing critters (which is shorthand for wildlife and fish), that we have changed it so dramatically, but that we can help it heal, and that it is ours to heal, it is our responsibility – it’s that 1970s saying that “you don’t care about what you don’t understand.” We want to help people understand that it’s part of our greater fabric and that it is healing and it is an amenity for the city and we shouldn’t turn our back on it. We have a great watershed health program and we have done a lot of work on the tributaries to the Willamette, but we have this huge river that needs a different touch, that has different challenges, and trying to figure out solutions that work in a really big river, a highly urban river – to restore the ecological functions of this river. We know we can’t restore the floodplain completely, we are built up. But what can we do in smaller ways to give back the ecological function and to get people to realize the value of that?

Q: Are there any new/current projects we should be on the lookout for that might explore connections between Portland residents and water / nature?

We are trying to do little projects like get some beach access and do a river taxi so people can get on the water – those are little things, but big things. We are going to have to as a city figure out what we want from Portland Harbor’s cleanup. EPA will be issuing a draft cleanup plan probably about a year from now, but what is the city’s vision for a cleaned up river? Do we want everything removed? Do we see our working harbor continuing to work as a port that exports goods? Those are going to be big challenges for us. We’ve got some great restoration projects going on right now that were both put in in the last year or so, so within five years or so that should transform about a mile of riverfront. We’re really excited to see how that will transform a former industrial area and to see how people respond to the river once the vegetation comes out.

Q: Any last thoughts you would like to leave us with?

I think what we need is to better understand urban rivers and how we restore them, because the things that we do in tributaries aren’t necessarily the best solution. So we need to try to understand how we first get our urban population interested and then what restoration sites can do to help us understand how to restore those functions.

Interview by Julia Triman, Biophilic Cities Project Researcher 

Julia is a Masters Candidate in Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia.