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Lisa Loving of The Skanner News
Published: 19 July 2012


 An estimated 1,300 people participated in the
Big Float 2011 -- as many as 2,000 are expected to
show up on the east side of the Hawthorne Bridge
ready to get in the water on July 28.
Photo courtesy of the Big Float


Last year, Willamette River advocate Will Levenson spearheaded the Big Float, a first-time event that saw more than a thousand people cross the river on inner tubes and other floatables.

For this year's Big Float, which is Sunday, July 29, Levenson is thinking bigger.

"This community is going to really start caring about the Willamette," he says. "It's going to be more than the river you drive over – it's going to be the river of fun and enjoyment."

A benefit for the Willamette Riverkeeper, the Big Float 2012 is expected to attract up to 3,000 people, and organizers hope to break the world record for the number of people simultaneously floating in "water rings" that are connected together "with something other than hands."

The event is $5, and this year life vests are required for all participants in addition to your "personal floatation devices."

Levenson says that there is no current on this part of the river and that the water is warm, "like a lake."

Registration kicks off starting at 10 a.m. Sunday morning, on the east side of the Willamette River near the Hawthorne Bridge. At 12:30 p.m. a parade of inner-tubers walks across the bridge, then the group puts into the water on the west side after each participant gets their water gear safety-checked.

A barge holding a live band is docked in the center of the river for the event; participants are expected to spend an hour and a half in the water as they paddle their floats across to the other side.

On the east side of the bridge is a community after-party with food carts, a beer garden by the Kona Brewing Company, and children's activities by the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde.

Early weather reports say to expect partial sun and 80-degree temperatures.

Last year's event set sail under a cloudless blue sky. Photos show participants in costumes (one man wore a ballet tutu and an Elmer Fudd hat); large, wildly-shaped inflatables, including two friends with giant seahorse-shaped pool toys; and one floater playing blues music on a handmade dobro.

Still, what most people want to know about the Big Float is: Will you die from EColi if you get in the Willamette?

The answer is: absolutely not.

Completion of the Big Pipe sewage project in November of last year is a major reason for the upswing in Willamette River health – at $1.4 billion in money paid completely by city taxpayers without any federal or state assistance, it is considered the biggest public works project in Oregon history and took some 20 years to complete.

Community organizers add that many, many people have worked hard for years promoting bioswales, green roofs and water gardens to limit road and pesticide runoff into storm drains.

"The river is dramatically cleaner than it was and the opportunities for water contact and recreation have ballooned," says Dean Marriott, director of the Environmental Services for the City of Portland.

Marriott's bureau keeps a table on its website that tracks the results of weekly bacterial tests at key points in the river; for each one, green numbers mean the bacteria levels are considered safe by federal standards – red means unsafe.

Since the Big Pipe was completed, Marriott says, there have been three combined sewer overflow events triggered by heavy rains – two in January and one on Memorial Day weekend, which saw an inch of rain fall in less than an hour.

"Before completion of this project, we would have had raw sewage in the river on about 100 occasions a year," Marriott says. "The majority of winter days would have been above the bacterial safety threshold."

He, too, took his family down to the Big Float last summer.

"It was a magic day, blue skies," Marriott said. "I think this is an indicator of how the city's relationship with the river has changed."

Rick Bastach, of the City of Portland Office of Healthy Working Rivers, says his staff is small, and their charge is big: coordinating the city's efforts to reach its officially-established "river goals."

That involves coordinating a slate of priorities established to maintain the Willamette as a working harbor; bird-dogging development along the river and the issues that brings; making livability a priority for river neighborhoods; and more.

And if you're interested in learning more about the Portland Harbor Superfund site, the river office website is a goldmine.

The Office of Healthy Working Rivers regularly holds free activities including a River Walk with Oregon Historical Society Chair Emeritus Chet Orloff on July 24 – picnicking encouraged.

"We have become kind of disconnected from the Willamette, especially as a city," Bastach says. "In a way it's understandable because for so many years the Willamette was a river of problems, and now it's a treasure more than it is a problem."

Bastach noted that the Portland Bridge Swim, held this year on Sunday, July 22, and covering 11 miles through the Willamette – has already been up and running for some time without a lot of fanfare or hang-wringing. http://www.portlandbridgeswim.com/

In fact the Bridge Swim participants – who organizers say come from all over the country – will be wrapping up at the St. John's Bridge during the Cathedral Park Jazz Festival.

"The idea is that we now have a river worth reconnecting to, and that's why we're helping a little bit with the Big Float -- because it's a direct fun introduction for a lot of people," Bastach says.

"We get a lot of pushback saying, 'you're just sort of trying to minimize problems and greenwash what has happened,'" Bastach says.

"There's enough facts out there for people to make up their minds about whether they're ready to think of the Willamette in the way I would think of the Rogue River.

"Let's take a moment to appreciate what we have as we get ready to recommit to making it better."

For more information go to http://www.thebigfloat.com.


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