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Riverkeeper’s Role

Working to protect, restore and clean up the Willamette
Michelle Emmons
Michelle Emmons

Recently there has been some confusion regarding proposals associated with “riverkeepers” and “river guardians” in Eugene. Willamette Riverkeeper (WR) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection and restoration of the Willamette River. We accomplish this mission through four key initiatives: clean river, monitoring, river discovery education and habitat restoration. 

To clarify our work in Lane County, WR organizes the Great Willamette Cleanup, an annual event that happens the first Saturday in October, with volunteers spanning from Oakridge to Portland. This event will be in its 11th year; eight years under the Willamette Riverkeeper banner. We also administer River Guardians, a river-wide monitoring program, in Eugene, spanning the river between the confluence and the Beltline bridge, documenting a variety of river health concerns, including water quality, invasive aquatic weeds, riparian habitat and wildlife observations, and the accumulation of garbage. In tandem with this effort, we work with property owners to remove garbage and debris with organized volunteer cleanup efforts. 

We do not approach active camps, provide “notices” or request volunteers to serve as informants on other homeless people; neither have we endorsed any project proposals outside our current programs. 

However, we do work with all members of the community to clean the river. During our last cleanup effort, local homeless camp residents volunteered with WR to remove two major dumpsites on ODOT property. WR provided tools, gloves, trash bags, sharps containers and safety oversight. The work was completed in less than two hours, and we provided our volunteers (they did not expect to be paid) a small cash stipend for their efforts, thanks to the generosity of a local supporter. 

Garbage and vegetation removal along the riverbanks produces a variety of unique health and safety risks for the entire community — including downstream drinking water contamination and the introduction of hazardous waste to park users, river recreationalists and wildlife. Our volunteers have removed thousands of used needles, household chemicals, paint, propane bottles and gas containers. This garbage is not contained, as it might be in an upland area. The river transports and deposits debris over a much larger landscape, and the destruction of riparian habitat contributes to increased water temperatures, poor stormwater filtration, soil erosion and destruction of important wildlife corridors. Soaring costs to property owners in the Eugene-Springfield area add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, and if garbage is not removed, property owners can be fined even more for not cleaning up affected waterways.

We believe that through a combination of community engagement efforts, the situation along the urban riverfront can be addressed effectively, but we have to start somewhere. Therefore, we are striving to implement prevention, education, accessibility and inclusion as key components of all our programs. As these efforts continue to grow, the money saved by public agencies to clean up areas along the river can eventually be re-directed toward housing and other services to help more homeless people. 

River health is not elitist. We all need clean water and we all share a connection to the river, regardless of what kind of shelter we call home.