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Regatta Plies Columbia's New Slough

by Joe Fitzgibbon
The Oregonian, July 23, 2003

The transformation from ugly duckling to storybook swan isn't complete yet, but the Columbia Slough is ready to show off some of its beauty.

This Sunday, about 300 canoeists and kayakers will take over the 18-mile waterway for the ninth annual Columbia Slough Regatta. They'll peer along the muddy banks for signs of deer, otter and beaver and watch the trees for hawks, woodpeckers and heron.

"The slough is still the undiscovered gem of the city," said Jay Mower, coordinator of the Columbia Slough Watershed Council. "It may not be as clean as we'd like it, and there are still some restoration projects to do, but we've spotted young juvenile salmon in the water and that's a great sign."

For three to four hours, the flotilla will make its way along the slow-moving waterway. Guides will point out newly restored channels, dredging operations by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and acres of newly planted native trees and shrubs. City and county officials will discuss reclamation efforts from Kelley Point Park to Fairview Lake.

Although it has a definite environmental flavor, organizers call it one of the largest and friendliest paddling events in the Northwest.

"We've had kids come out with their families in the past and ask if they are in some kind of wilderness," said avid canoeist Joe Annett, who lives near the slough in North Portland. "When we had a special boating event for Hispanics, called Explorando el Columbia Slough, over 175 showed up."

In spite of this enthusiasm, the slough's recovery journey had inauspicious beginnings. In the 1920s, carcasses from meat-packing plants regularly polluted the slough. During the decades that followed, industries and manufacturers dumped tons of waste water and toxic substances into the water, while overflows from the city's sewage system killed off most fish and wildlife. Pollution became so bad that DEQ officials posted signs along the slough warning swimmers and fishermen to stay away.

Major restoration work started in the mid-1990s. Using a directive from the Clean Water Act, the city budgeted millions of dollars to construct huge sewer pipes to divert CSO's -- combined sewer overflows -- away from the slough. Environmental groups, agencies and school groups followed the city's lead and began massive replanting efforts.

Today, the waters are cleaner. More than 175 species of birds and mammals now make their homes along the shallow waterway. Stands of cottonwood, ash and marsh grasses, even patches of wapato, have returned as reminders of the native people who once made this watershed their home.

This year, paddlers will share the slough with beavers, turtles and waterfowl. They can also view several federal and county-funded projects that include dredging efforts to let in clean groundwater, the addition of small islands to create a fish-friendly, meandering channel, and the creation of dirt benches along the banks that have been heavily planted with shade trees to cool the water.

But, organizers said, there's still much work to do.

"There are too many people I talk with who don't know how to find the slough or even that it's out here," Mower said. "I think what we're doing is great, but we need to make it more accessible."

Future projects, Mower said, include replacing 13 culverts with bridges, improving fish habitat in the lower slough and completing gaps in the 40-Mile Loop trail along the waterway. He also wants to regatta to bring more attention to this North and Northeast Portland treasure.

Troy Clark, a naturalist and longtime supporter of cleanup efforts, heads a group called Eyes on the Slough. For the past two years, he and more than two dozen volunteers have patrolled designated sections of the waterway, alerting environmental officials of pollution problems and illegal dumping.

"I recently found a bunch of used oil filters that someone threw into the water," Clark said. "I guess the best way to describe us is as monitors for other people's stupidity."

Joe Fitzgibbon
Regatta Plies Columbia's New Slough
The Oregonian, July 23, 2003

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