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Restoring Willamette Falls to Beauty from Industrial Detritus

Only Niagara Falls, in the U.S., has a greater volume

Willamette Falls — photo by author

I had never heard of Willamette Falls until I moved here, close to Oregon City, Oregon. It is second only to Niagara Falls in water volume in the U.S.

I worked for the New York Power Authority forty years ago and have seen Niagara Falls in many seasons; frozen over in winter, lit by many colors for the tourists at night. I’ve been inside the bowels where the turbines generate electricity. The New York Power Authority owns and operates the Niagara Falls plant.

Niagara Falls is completely controlled by the power companies. According to international agreement, the minimum flow over the falls is 100,000 feet per second during the day, and half that at night. The water that sprays the tourists and instigates their oohs and ahs is managed.

Niagara Falls’ electrical power is generated by a reservoir upstream from the Falls, where a dam holds water in reserve, a pumped-storage facility. A pumped storage facility serves the same purpose as a water tower. Water is held at a higher elevation, then released to flow downstream. In pumped storage power plants, the water flows past the turbine generators.

Willamette Falls was a historic gathering place.

I drove by Willamette Falls in Oregon City today, as I do frequently. Oregon City was the end of the Oregon Trail and hosted the land office where new arrivals could file claims to land in the Oregon Territory (Washington, Idaho, and Oregon; parts of Montana and Wyoming.)

The Willamette Falls were the historic gathering place of indigenous tribes, and salmon was easily gathered by netting as the salmon jumped the falls in their migration. The Clackamas and Tumwater peoples had settled by the Falls and allowed fishing rights on the falls.

Settlers put in a fish wheel later to capture the fish.

The first mill, a lumber mill, was built by John McLoughlin of the Hudson Bay Company in 1829. After the Oregon Trail settlers began arriving, that mill was followed by gristmills, woolen mills, paper mills, and power plants.

Today, that section of Oregon City and the Willamette is an eyesore of several miles of concrete and deteriorating metal buildings, and the Falls are obscured by the detritus of the buildings. The Willamette River has been diverted into various tail races. Locks closed since 2011, were built for shipping to bypass the falls.

Backwaters of Willamette River to abandoned industrial sites — photo by author

Many harnessed the power of the Falls

Oregon City is a fascinating historic place, and the Willamette Valley is a rich agricultural trough between the Cascade Mountain Range and the Coastal Range.

The power of Willamette Falls was noteworthy for how many industries harnessed its power and degraded the landscape. The Blue Heron paper company closed in 2011 and was bought by the Grand Ronde of Confederated Tribes, with plans to restore the falls. One paper mill and one power plant are still operational.

The mills provided living wage jobs to many, and identity to many, who settled along the area. The mills also stunk up the air and polluted the air and water, until mitigated by environmental laws.

Now there are deconstruction cranes in place at the old mill sites. There is a lot of concrete and metal to deconstruct, to clear the river of the decaying industrial ghosts. The Grand Ronde of Tribes, and various other tribes, have agreed with parties to the land and property along the river to restore the Falls to their grandeur. It is a complicated process, both in the many parties who agreed, and the actual restoration itself.

One day, I will walk out to the Falls, and feel the spray on my face. I have scoffed at the falls as a weak remnant of its former self, surrounded by deteriorating buildings. But my son, who is a restoration environmentalist and has been on and in the river, says that by boat they are awe-inspiring. When restored, the Falls will be more like they were in 1800 than will Niagara Falls, the tourist mecca.

I walk, almost every day, along the Willamette. It is a tidal river to the Falls. The Pacific Ocean is over 100 miles away, and still, the river rises and sinks with the tide. Sometimes I see seals, who have traveled that long distance from the ocean for easy fish-eating at the Falls when a salmon run or other fish run is active.

Since seals are also protected species, they are caught and trucked back to the ocean. It seems a silly game; they will appear again at the Falls.

Indigenous people harvest lamprey eels at Willamette Falls, one of the few places in Oregon where they still can harvest the eels. Lamprey are fish, like salmon, who return from the sea to freshwater streams to spawn. Lampreys crawl over rocks using their suction-like jaws.

Dam Removal

Four dams are being removed from the Klamath River, which runs through Oregon and northern California. Fish can return to their original streams, it is hoped, and their populations saved.

Closer to my home, a small dam is built into an overpass on Kellogg Creek, which empties into the Willamette. Funds were recently approved for the too-large costs of removing this dam, the overpass on a state highway.

Highways roads and other infrastructure have been built around these streams that used to be thoroughfares for our aquatic relations. The attached concrete fish ladder is of questionable use, with only a small splash of water most of the year. The Kellogg Creek disappears and runs underground, and emerges from tunnels further upstream and by the underpass where it empties into the river. Herons kingfishers and humans fish at its mouth.

Maybe I am influenced in this story by my concurrent reading of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass, in which she refers to our interdependence with plants and all living things. If we enjoy the gifts of fish, like salmon — their sweet flesh, the nutrients, the keystone species they represent — then we must respect them, and their needs.

My son appeared in scuba gear one day, a black rubber-suited figure. He was assigned to count fish in the Willamette. He has counted endangered birds at potential construction sites.

Environmental restoration isn’t glamorous work. The staff doing the work may be in cold, murky water or hot insect-riddled fields or digging boulders and placing rocks on the side of a stream.

The world has many environmental challenges, and many of us are overwhelmed by them now, rising temperatures, wildfires, and garbage gyres. Nevertheless, the work of hopefulness, against the odds, continues.

I want to watch Salmon jumping the Willamette Falls.

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