SUNDAY'S SECOND ANNUAL Big Float brought 1,400 people to downtown Portland to float, swim, and boat across the mighty Willamette River. Even though the river is cleaner than ever—no longer playing the role of Portland's sewer—it's a very rare sight to see people actually in the water.
And right on schedule, here comes the Big Float's organizer, Will Levenson, with a plan to make last weekend's vista of swimmers and paddlers something you might see, at least on a miniature scale, every single day.
Levenson is spearheading a plan to ask Portland Parks & Recreation to designate an official city beach on the patch of Tom McCall Waterfront Park just south of the Hawthorne Bridge. Levenson submitted his plan to parks officials on June 29 and a decision on whether to move forward could come later this month.
"It's a game-changer," Levenson says. "Swimming in the Willamette is something that people in Portland have no idea they're craving. But when it's available, they'll never understand how they lived without it."
The approval process is lengthy. Among the initial issues: jurisdiction (the city doesn't control the river, just the land that touches it), safety, and costs. If the bureau likes what it sees, it'll do a deeper analysis, parks bureau spokesman Mark Ross says. If that pans out, then the proposal would head before a committee made up of state, county, and environmental interests, among others.
In the meantime, the city last week put up swimming signs at the beachy spot that tell people who decide to swim that there's no lifeguard on duty. Significantly, the sign doesn't mention icky sewage or tell people to stay out of the water.
"It doesn't mean we're creating a beach, or endorsing or not endorsing the idea," Ross says. "With or without signs, people will be swimming."
Levenson is patiently waiting to find out if the city will give the okay. In the meantime, he's planning an August 25 cleanup of the beach site called "Unrock the Bowl." He's hoping volunteers will show up en masse and help him lug stones from along the water line back up into the park.
It's not just a bid to free up more sand, Levenson says, "it's also habitat restoration."
The river really is free from the poop and sludge—and deadly E. coli bacteria—that once infected it. Whereas even the slightest bit of rain used to send raw sewage coursing into the Willamette, the city's $1.4 billion Big Pipe project has nearly eliminated those "combined sewer overflows," even after a very wet spring.
Regulators say E. coli levels are safe at 400 parts per million. City samples of the Willamette in July showed levels as low as just two parts per million.
Says Rick Bastasch of Portland's Office of Healthy Working Rivers: "It's as clean as it's been for a very long time." Whether people will actually jump in the river, though, is another question.