Swimming in the Willamette

As it Turns Out, Not So Crazy!!!

Everybody thinks our river is filthy. But what do you really know? What are you afraid of?

Bacteria & Sewage? Historically, when it rained in Portland sewage was released into the river. Portland’s big pipe project was completed in fall of 2011 and this should no longer be an issue. We are in close contact with sewage monitors at the City of Portland to ensure that bacterial levels are safe and to track accidental sewage releases. The city’s bacterial monitoring data is available here! Our friends at Willamette Riverkeeper monitor bacterial counts every other week during the summer months. View Willamette Riverkeeper’s bacterial count data here!

Toxic algae? Toxic algal blooms generally occur in warm, stagnant water. This might be a risk late in the summer, when the water level is low. It’s not a likely event, and we selected the date for the swim to avoid this as much as possible.

Toxic chemicals? We have a superfund site in the port. The river sediment is contaminated with toxic chemicals, but they are not free in the water itself. The less turbid the water is (cloudy, churned up), the fewer contaminated particles are available. The toxic chemicals in the river are dangerous in high doses and prolonged exposure. The amount we’re exposed to while swimming through the contaminated area over several hours is negligible. The USGS monitors turbidity and other parameters off the Morrison Bridge. Check them out here!

Trash on the bottom, floating debris? Swimmers will be in water deep enough that they should not be in contact with the bottom of the river. By July, without any rain there is limited debris in the river. Each swimmer will have a support kayaker who will be watching for debris.

Giant fish? Well, there are sturgeon in the river, but that’s about as big as they get. And they leave you alone.

The bottom line: You have to decide for yourself how bad the risks are. We think they’re pretty small, and we’ve done our best to minimize them even further. In 2010 when Marisa and her friend Michelle did the Bridge Swim, they trained in the Willamette about 8 hours a week from June – August. They did not get sick even once. Since we started the Portland Bridge Swim, hundreds of participants have gotten in the river. They still only have 2 arms and 2 legs, and trust us – Marisa’s definitely weird, but she was like that before she swam in the river.