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River's Edge Goes Natural in Deal with Developers

by Joe Rojas-Burke
The Oregonian, October 10, 2003

In exchange for permit help,
developers renew industrial south waterfront with rocks and trees

Amid rusted steel buildings, dumped concrete slabs and abandoned piers gone to rot, efforts to reinstate the natural world have gained a small foothold on Portland's industrial waterfront.

Carefully arranged boulders and uprooted tree trunks now line a 200-foot swath along the Willamette near the Ross Island Bridge. Soon to come are plantings of native willow, dogwood, and snow berry. A meandering swale carved above the bank and lined with more native plants will catch and filter storm runoff before it reaches the river.

Gone are the steep, built-up river walls lined with the riprap and concrete typical of much of the river's route through Portland.

The restored habitat for fish, birds and other wildlife is the result of a unique deal between private developers and Portland officials involved in the South Waterfront Plan, an effort to renew vacant industrial land with commercial buildings, housing, and parks.

City officials early in negotiations last year hoped to get commitments for environment-friendly solutions to problems such as routing storm water and fixing degraded river banks. But developers balked because of the potential to need extra regulatory approvals and more time to perform the work, driving up costs.

"We were concerned about the permitting risks -- that you open this Pandora's box and have no idea where it's going to end up," said Jim Atkins, project manager for the developers, North Macadam Investors and River Campus Investors. A phalanx of federal agencies come into play when construction encroaches upon a river in which fish are on the endangered species list.

The city gained the environmental commitments from the developers by offering a no-risk guarantee: The city agreed to assist in nailing down all necessary permits by a fixed deadline. If not, the city agreed to let the developers fall back on traditional storm water disposal, routing it through a pipe into the river.

Jim Middaugh, manager of the city's endangered species program, said it took about six months to run the regulatory gantlet. The work required signoff from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, National Marine Fisheries Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as numerous state agencies.

Atkins said the cost -- about $276,000, according to the agreement signed with the city -- is likely to be the same as a conventional storm water system.

The outcome has won praise from environmental groups that view the small-scale project as a precedent-setting example.

"This project stands as an opportunity to show that the built environment and the natural environment can be integrated," said Bob Sallinger, director of urban conservation for the Audubon Society of Portland. "It really is an amazing opportunity. The key is following through."

Audubon and other groups are pressing the city and developers to extend a 150-foot wide greenway all along the south waterfront, with priority given to fish and wildlife and native plants, as opposed to conventional parks and landscaping.

As it stands, the city and developers are talking about a greenway averaging 125 feet in width. How much of it will be devoted to wildlife habitat remains undecided.

All agree that the Willamette needs every bit of help it can get.

Dangerously polluted sediments stretch from at least the southern tip of Swan Island in North Portland to Sauvie Island, six miles downriver, according to federal regulators who added the Portland harbor to the list of Superfund cleanup sites in 2000. Industrial practices during the last hundred years loaded the river with heavy metals, dioxin, pesticides, hydrocarbons and long-lived polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Some industrial sites along the river also have polluted soil.

Every summer, several hundred chinook salmon die from the stress of overheated water in the stretch below Willamette Falls, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The water often reaches lethal temperatures in August. Urban development has blocked access to many cold-running side channels and removed shade trees. Street runoff and industrial wastewater adds heat to river water, as does the storage of water behind upriver dams.

Bad as it is, recent research has shown that salmon make extensive use of the urbanized section of the river. Young salmon are present year-round, according to Fish and Wildlife biologists who are near the end of a three-year study for the city.

Tracking with radio tags showed that many salmon headed out to sea take days or weeks to travel the 26.6 miles from Willamette Falls to the Columbia River. Capture surveys showed that fish congregate near beaches and natural rock outcroppings, and avoid harbor walls, riprap or fill.

Ben Meyer, Willamette River team leader for the National Marine Fisheries Service, said the studies underscore the importance of finding opportunities to restore shallow water habitat.

"Where we can find it, we need to fix it," Meyer said. "Every fish coming out of the Willamette has to go through Portland."

Joe Rojas-Burke
River's Edge Goes Natural in Deal with Developers
The Oregonian, October 10, 2003

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