The environmental nonprofit Willamette Riverkeeper says so many Oregonians use the river’s banks as a trash dump that plastic and other broken-down materials have blended into river sediments and commonly drape from old tree branches like human-made moss.
That’s why Willamette Riverkeeper sent a petition Friday morning to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and the Environmental Quality Commission to exercise their authority under the federal Clean Water Act to set enforceable standards for riverside trash.
Travis Williams, executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper, tells WW that he wants state agencies to identify specific pollutants and establish limits, or total maximum daily loads, for their presence in rivers.
“Standards oftentimes say you’ll have 10 parts per million of something in a given amount of water—that’s how we look at different toxic pollutants,” Williams says. “There’s a standard for bacteria, and that has its own standard. A standard for trash might be zero pieces of trash, or 10 pieces of plastic per acre.”
After years of volunteer-led riverside cleanups, Willamette Riverkeeper views the establishment of trash and debris regulations under the Clean Water Act as a more sustainable fix, Williams says. He emphasizes the wide range of environmental impacts that trash and debris have on ecosystems that stronger regulations could help thwart.
“Whether you look at microplastics, or food—that type of material—breaking down in the waterway, a whole range of animals can ingest that,” Williams says. “You’re also looking at the water quality impacts of certain types of liquids leaking, and then there are hazards for people utilizing natural areas. We’ve seen everything, and that’s a part of the issue.”
Perhaps the most provocative concept the Riverkeeper is raising: using the Clean Water Act to regulate homeless camping.
The statement released by Willamette Riverkeeper on Friday morning linked the environmental problem on the river to the state’s houselessness crisis. “The trash and debris comes from traditional sources, and in recent years, houseless camps along the Willamette, its tributaries, and local creeks have added to the issue,” the statement said.
According to Williams, the Clean Water Act could play an important role in addressing both environmental issues involving the Willamette and houselessness crises that have taken hold in parts of Oregon.
“Get folks out of the floodplain and do it in a way that is compassionate and creative and direct the resources properly so we can end this problem,” Williams says. “The Clean Water Act can help clean up the Willamette and other societal problems. It could be an important piece of the puzzle.”
The petition submitted by Willamette Riverkeeper is under review by DEQ, a department spokesperson wrote in an email to WW.
“This is the first we have heard about Willamette Riverkeeper’s desire to have DEQ set a Total Maximum Daily Load, or cleanup plan, for trash in our rivers. DEQ recently submitted its ‘Integrated Report’ to EPA, which defines which of our rivers, streams, lakes and coastal waters are impaired by pollutants,” a department spokesperson wrote. “However, trash is not among the pollutants we measure. DEQ will evaluate what next steps we might take under our authority.”
After ensuring all the required elements for a formal petition are included, DEQ will reach back out to Willamette Riverkeeper with a time frame for consideration, Williams says.