Paddlers know how to party

  • Posted on: 29 January 2007
  • By: Amanda Fritz

Ten days ago, I attended the annual fundraiser dinner of the Columbia Slough Watershed Council. Hot on the heels of the State of the Union, State of the State, and State of the City addresses, here is the State of the Slough:

First, what is a slough? The Oxford American Dictionary defines "slough" as "a swamp or marshy place", and as "a state of hopeless depression". We're talking about the first meaning. From the Center for Columbia River History:

The Columbia Slough is part of a system of wetlands, sloughs and lakes, a sixty-mile watershed in the north part of Portland, Oregon. The eighteen-mile slough parallels the Columbia River, flowing west from Fairview Lake near Gresham, to its confluence with the Willamette River in Portland. Historically, the slough absorbed flood waters from the Columbia River, but human-induced changes in the waterway and lands near the slough have altered its function from a natural floodplain to a slow-moving "drainage ditch." Change came to the Columbia Slough by the early twentieth century as settlers filled in wetlands, cut the forests, and created diverse communities that later became dumping grounds for industry and city garbage.

In lay terms, the Columbia Slough is the network of water features (wetlands, swamps, and open waterways) south of the Columbia River itself. The Slough doesn't empty into the Columbia; it is a tributary of the Willamette, with the confluence at Kelly Point Park just south of where the Willamette joins the mighty Columbia. The Columbia Slough watershed is in North and Northeast Portland. Some more southerly urban residents think of "up there" as dense housing, industrial sanctuaries, the airport and interstate freeways. In fact, the area lives up to this sign:

Again in lay language: the State of the Slough is "a lot better than it used to be". Thanks to good work by the Multnomah County Drainage Districts (I'll be posting a full report on these in the future), the City of Portland's Bureau of Environmental Services Watershed Management Program, and the volunteers and staff at the Columbia Slough Watershed Council, the Slough is cleaner, healthier, and safer now than it was 15 years ago. It's a great area to paddle kayaks, picnic, bike/walk trails, and enjoy nature.

Formation of the Columbia Slough Watershed Council wasn't smooth sailing. Again from the Columbia River History site:

In the last decades of the twentieth century the troubled nature of the Columbia Slough became more apparent. Should the Slough be paved over, filled in, or cemented like similar waterways in other cities? Or, should it be cleaned up, revitalized, and restored to a semi-natural state? Despite awareness of the slough's distressed condition, it wasn't until 1993, after $15 million worth of studies and threatened lawsuits, that Portland officials pledged to clean up the Columbia Slough. The city's Bureau of Environmental Services began holding a series of "Slough Summits," and a Columbia Slough Watershed Council -- proposed by McKeever/Morris, Inc.-- would track and stimulate cleanup efforts.

The watershed council plan called for a hierarchy of membership based on those "directly" and "indirectly" affected. Slough activists immediately rejected the organizational plan, calling for balanced representation between environmental and business interests. The council formed amidst controversy, choosing representatives from business, neighborhoods, recreational, cultural, agricultural, educational, and environmental groups in addition to federal, state, and local governments.

For its first two years, the 20-25 member council struggled to outline procedural goals and objectives, attempting to balance conflicting viewpoints. The conflict became so heated that in July, 1995, a memo from the Administrative Committee suggested dissolving the council and convening a new body. Two weeks later, the First Annual Columbia Slough Small Craft Regatta, organized by the watershed council, took place with more than fifty boats plying the Slough. The Regatta's success solidified council members' commitment, and the following day, July 31, 1995, they rejected the dissolution proposal and convened subcommittees to write a mission statement, goals, and objectives. The council resolved to operate by consensus, decided on the number of agencies and local and non-governmental representatives, and agreed to this mission:

to foster action to protect, enhance, restore and revitalize the Slough and its watershed

Good citizen involvement is often messy and controversial, especially in its storming-norming phase. The Council is now highly functional. Its staff and volunteers teach thousands of Portlanders and have planted hundreds of thousands of native plants to help restore the watershed. About 180 people attending the benefit/celebration dinner ten days ago, and it was a highly enjoyable evening. Good-hearted people sharing common goals, mutual respect, a delicious meal, and many laughs. Nancy Hendrickson and Susan Barthell, Bureau of Environmental Services employees, penned this tribute in Dr. Seuss style, celebrating Lynn Barlow, who with fellow City of Portland employees Chris Scarzello and Gregg Everhart received Leadership Awards from the Council:

I am Lynn Barlow,
I speak for the trees
Because trees are important
for the Watershed’s needs.

Riparian canopy
Shades the water so well
It gives us credit
Towards the TMDL*

We can’t do this ourselves
We don’t own all the land!
We need partners and goodwill
So we’ll plant hand in hand.

Sign the agreement right here
It won't take a minute
We'll come to your lot
And plant a habitat in it.

We'll clear out the invasives
(Yes, some plants should be dead)
Then plant native trees and shrubs
To Revegetate the Watershed

A diversity of habitats
The critters implore us
Uplands and wetlands
And coniferous forest.

Scrub-Shrub, scrub-shrub, scrub-shrub
– say it 3 times!
Plant fir, ash and willow
In their own microclimes.

Protect against beavers
(We love ‘em; we hate ‘em)
Food and shelter for critters,
We’ve grown a safe urban haven.

It’s a model for the Nation
It’s a winning Equation:

*** over 1.2 million trees on 197 sites on 784 acres
along 43 miles with 106 partners ***

Well, you just have to call it
a Revegetation Sensation!!

* "TMDL" is Total Maximum Daily Load", a standard limiting the level of pollutants that are allowed in river waters

My favorite line: "Yes, some plants should be dead". Mega-post on the evils of ivy coming later this Spring.


Thanks for blogging the slough -- it's one of my favorite places to take people new to Portland! I work at the Center for Columbia River History and my family lives on the Peninsula, but most importantly, my mom has a canoe. It's old and parts are held together with duct tape, so the slough is one of the places we still feel up to taking it out. It's been at least a year since I went out, but one of the last times we did, we saw about 30 herons, a bald eagle, a family of raccoons peeking out of a drainpipe, and a deer that swam across the slough about 20 feet in front of us. My friend Spine blogged some pictures here.

Ooh, those are great photos! Thanks, Mary!