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Willamette River
The Willamette passing through downtown Portland
Name origin: From a Clackamas Indian village name[1]
Country  United States
State Oregon
Source Confluence of Middle Fork Willamette River and Coast Fork Willamette River
 - location near Eugene, Lane County, Oregon
 - elevation 438 ft (134 m) [2]
 - coordinates 44°01′23″N 123°01′25″W / 44.02306°N 123.02361°W / 44.02306; -123.02361 [2]
Mouth Columbia River
 - location Portland, Multnomah County, Oregon
 - elevation 10 ft (3 m) [2]
 - coordinates 45°39′10″N 122°45′53″W / 45.65278°N 122.76472°W / 45.65278; -122.76472 [2]
Length 187 mi (301 km) [3]
Basin 11,100 sq mi (28,700 km2) [4]
Discharge for Morrison Bridge, Portland, 12.8 miles (20.6 km) from mouth
 - average 33,800 cu ft/s (1,000 m3/s) [4][5]
 - max 283,000 cu ft/s (8,000 m3/s)
 - min 4,200 cu ft/s (100 m3/s)
Location of the mouth of the Willamette River in Oregon
Wikimedia Commons: Willamette River

The Willamette River (pronounced WillametteRiver-English.ogg wɨˈlæmɨt ) is a tributary of the Columbia River. The name of the river derived from the French pronunciation of the name of a Clackamas Indian village.[1] The river is 187 miles (301 km) long, lying entirely in northwestern Oregon in the United States.[3] Flowing northward between the Oregon Coast Range and Cascade Range, the river and its tributaries form a basin called the Willamette Valley containing two-thirds of Oregon's population,[6] including its largest city Portland, which sits along both sides of the river near its mouth on the Columbia, Portland is divided by the Willamette into east and west sides. Its lush valley is fed by prolific rainfall on the western side of the Cascades, forming one of the most fertile agricultural regions of North America that was the destination for many if not most of the immigrants along the Oregon Trail. The river was an important transportation route throughout much of the early history of the state, furnishing a means of conveying the vast timber and agricultural resources of the state to the outside world.

In Harrisburg, the average depth of the river is approximately 20 feet (6.1 m) and 50 feet (15 m) maximum river depth. In Portland, the average depth of the river is 65 feet (20 m) and maximum depth of the river is 130 feet (40 m).[citation needed]

Part of the river's floodplain (the Willamette Floodplain) was established as a National Natural Landmark in 1987; ten years later the river was named as one of ten national American Heritage Rivers.



The Willamette rises in three separate forks in the mountains south and southeast of Eugene, at the southern end of the Willamette Valley. The Middle Fork and North Fork rise on the western side of the Cascades between Three Sisters south to Diamond Peak. The Middle Fork receives the North Fork northwest of Oakridge and flows northwest through the mountains to the southern end of the Willamette Valley. The Coast Fork rises in the lower mountains south of Cottage Grove, flowing north to join the Middle Fork 2 miles (3.2 km) southeast of Eugene.

Map of the Willamette River watershed

From Eugene, the combined river flows north-northwest across the plain of the southern Willamette Valley to Corvallis, then follows a zigzag course past Albany and around the isolated hills in the central valley, passing west of downtown Salem. From Salem it flows north in a meandering course across the northwest plain of the valley, reaching the hills at Newberg, where it turns sharply east-northeast along the hills, passing through an opening in the hills at Oregon City, the location of the Willamette Falls and the de facto head of navigation. From Oregon City it flows northwest, past Lake Oswego and Milwaukie on the south edge of Portland, then passing between east and west Portland, where it is spanned by a series of urban bridges. Downstream of downtown Portland it flows northwest through the industrial port area of Portland Harbor, then splits into two channels around Sauvie Island that both hook around to enter the Columbia from the west. The main channel enters on the north edge of Portland, and the smaller Multnomah Channel enters about 15 miles (24 km) to the north-northwest at St. Helens.

Tributaries of the Willamette River

The river's many tributaries drain the surrounding valley as well as portions of the Cascades and the Coastal Range. Downstream from the confluence of its forks, it is joined by McKenzie on the north side of Eugene, and by the Long Tom River from the southwest approximately 10 miles (16 km) south of Corvallis. It is joined by the Marys from the west at Corvallis, and the Calapooia from the southeast 5 miles (8.0 km) northeast of Corvallis, and it is joined by the Santiam from the east and the Luckiamute from the west within 1 mile (1.6 km) of each other approximately 5 miles (8.0 km) north of Albany. It is joined by the Yamhill from the west at Dayton, by the Molalla from the southeast near Canby, by the Tualatin from the west at West Linn, and by the Clackamas from the southeast at Gladstone.

The river forms part of the boundary of the following counties: Benton, Linn, Polk, Marion, Yamhill and Clackamas. Tributaries of the Willamette River also drain some or all of Lane, Washington and Multnomah counties.

Although riverboats navigated the upstream part of the Willamette into the first decades of the 20th century, currently there is little commercial traffic on the river above the Willamette Falls. The Willamette Falls Locks allow boat traffic, primarily recreational vessels, around the falls. The river is crossed by three ferries along its route in the Willamette Valley. The three ferries are located (from south to north) at Buena Vista, Wheatland, and Canby. The only locks on the river are located at Oregon City. There are 34 named river bars in the Willamette between Newberg and Salem.[7]

The Willamette River is prone to periodic floods. The great winter flood of 1861 destroyed several towns, including Linn City, Champoeg, and Scottsburg. The flood of 1894 seems to be the first flood well documented with photographs: one such famous picture depicts men thigh-deep in water in downtown Portland, pointing shotguns at decoy ducks as they float by in the flood waters. The great Vanport Flood of 1948 wiped Oregon's then second-largest city off the map. It was a WWII-era project city, built to temporarily house shipyard workers. The city stood near the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, a spot later occupied by Portland International Raceway. Other notable floods include events in 1899, 1964, and the Willamette Valley Flood of 1996.

The Willamette River at Harrisburg

The river below Willamette Falls (RM 26.5) is subject to semidiurnal tides caused by the Pacific Ocean,[8] but also with the effects of dams on the Columbia River and Willamette river basin which are regulated for hydroelectric power generation. Reverse flow is regularly observed above Ross Island at (river mile 15).[9]

The lower river flow rate varies considerably by season and due to weather. Warm winter rains, for example, cause extensive mountain snow melt which significantly raises the river level and flow rate. The Willamette Valley Flood of 1996 was an extreme combination of saturated ground, snow melt and heavy rain. The maximum flow rate is not known, however 283,000 cubic feet per second (8010 m³/s) was estimated on January 18, 1974 at river stage 23.84 feet (7.27 m). The peak river stage (measured at the Morrison Bridge gauge in downtown Portland) on February 9, 1996, was 27.74 feet (8.46 m). Flood stage is 18.0 feet (5.5 m). The other extreme occurred during a drought on July 10, 1978, at 4,200 cu ft/s (120 m³/s).[4] The Willamette's mean discharge rate is approximately 32,000 cu ft/s (910 m3/s).[10]


The Lewis and Clark Expedition missed the mouth of the Willamette River both on their descent of the Columbia and on their return trip upriver. It was only after receiving directions from natives along the Sandy River that they learned about the Willamette. William Clark returned down the Columbia and entered the Willamette River in April 1806.[11]

Environmental issues

Since as early as 1869, with the introduction of a federally-funded "snag puller" designed to keep the waterway clear, human habitation has had an impact on the ecology of the river basin.[12] The construction of big federal dams on the Willamette's tributaries between 1941 and 1969 impacted the spawning grounds for spring Chinook salmon and steelhead trout.[12] Domestic and industrial waste from the cities built up along the river were said to have turned the river, essentially, into an open sewer by the 1920s.[12]

A 1927 Portland City Club report labeled the waterway "filthy and ugly," and identified the City of Portland as the worst offender.[12] The Oregon Anti-Stream Pollution League brought pollution-abatement measure before the 1937 Oregon Legislature; the bill passed, but Governor Charles Martin vetoed it. The Izaak Walton League and the Oregon Wildlife Federation countered the governor's veto with a ballot initiative, the Water Purification and Prevention of Pollution bill, which passed in November 1938.[12]

Today, the Portland Harbor section of the Willamette River between downtown Portland and its terminus at the Columbia River is heavily polluted from years of industrial development of the river and its banks. Historical and current activities include shipbuilding, creosote manufacture, lead processing, and transfer and storage of petroleum products. State studies in the 1990s identified a wide variety of pollutants in the river bottom, including heavy metals, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and pesticides. As a result of these studies, this section of the river was designated a Superfund site in 2000,[13] involving the United States Environmental Protection Agency in cleanup of the river bottom.[14] The initial cleanup and containment of the pollutants is focused on the portion between Swan Island and Sauvie Island.[15]

The Superfund site is downstream from most of the river however and lies less than twelve miles from where the Willamette ends at the Columbia river. Further upstream the pressing environmental issues have been mainly variations in pH and dissolved oxygen.[16] In the Portland Metropolitan Area, these issues are exacerbated by sewer overflow events during periods of high rainfall. The city has embarked on expanding the sewer system in order to minimize these events through construction of the Big Pipe Project part of the river renaissance project.

Further upstream however, the Willamette is not heavily polluted and is used by communities, such as the City of Tigard, for drinking water. The major contaminants are from agricultural runoff.

Big Pipe Project

Following an agreement between the City of Portland and the State of Oregon to reduce Combined sewer overflows (CSOs) dramatically in 1991,[17] the Bureau of Environmental Services began work on what it dubbed the "Big Pipe Project".

The project consisted primarily of two large pipes on either side of the river. The project was part of a larger effort by the Bureau of Environmental Services to reduce CSOs through a series of combined efforts, which had already netted results of a 53 percent reduction in CSO volume by 2003.[17]

The west side pipe, which is approximately 14 feet (4.3 m) in diameter and travels from Southwest Clay Street to the Swan Island Pumping Station, was completed in 2006.[17][18] The pipe connects to the Southwest Parallel Interceptor, another pipe project approximately 6 feet (1.8 m) in diameter, at Southwest Clay Street, which continues south for several more miles, covering the Portland Metro South Waterfront area.

As of June 2008, the east side pipe is under construction and is slated for completion in December 2011.[19] The pipe, like its cousin, will connect to the Swan Island Pumping Station but will extend a full 6 miles (9.7 km) south down the east bank.[20] The east side pipe, serving a much larger segment of population, is 22 feet (6.7 m) wide and will be able to hold more than 83 million gallons (310 million L) of storm water and sewage.[19][20]

Together the pipes and other CSO projects will provide a 94 percent reduction in CSO volume by 2011, dramatically reducing one of the largest pollutants of the Willamette River.[19][20]

The Willamette River as it passes through Portland, Oregon.

See also


  1. ^ a b Bright, William (2004). Native American Placenames of the United States. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press. pp. 567. ISBN 9780806135984. 
  2. ^ a b c d "Willamette River". Geographic Names Information System (GNIS). United States Geological Survey (USGS). November 28, 1980. Retrieved 2008-07-06.  Source elevation derived from Google Earth search using GNIS source coordinates.
  3. ^ a b "The River". Willamette Riverkeeper. Retrieved 2008-07-06. 
  4. ^ a b c "National Water Information System: USGS 14211720 Willamette River at Portland". United States Geological Survey. 2008.,00060. Retrieved 2008-07-06. 
  5. ^ Loy, Willam G.; Stuart Allan, Aileen R. Buckley, James E. Meecham (2001). Atlas of Oregon. University of Oregon Press. pp. 164–65. ISBN 0-87114-102-7. 
  6. ^ "Willamette Basin Alternative Futures Analysis" (PDF). U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. August, 2002. Retrieved 2006-11-16. 
  7. ^ "Oregon USGS bars plotted on Google Map of central Willamette valley". USGS.,-122.99263&spn=0.220873,0.549316&t=h&z=12. Retrieved 2008-12-22. 
  8. ^ "Tidally-Influenced Waterways". Public Ownership of Submerged and Submersible Land. State of Oregon. Retrieved 2008-07-31. 
  9. ^ Caldwell, James M.; Micelis C. Doyle. "Sediment Oxygen Demand in the Lower Willamette River, Oregon, 1994" (PDF). Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. pp. 4. Retrieved 2006-11-16. 
  10. ^ "Willamette River Info.". Willamette Riverkeeper. Retrieved 2007-07-02. 
  11. ^ Benke, Arthur C.; Colbert E. Cushing (2005). Rivers of North America. Academic Press. p. 617. ISBN 9780120882533. 
  12. ^ a b c d e William G. Robbins. Willamette River in the Oregon Encyclopedia.
  13. ^ Lee van der Voo (July 3, 2007). "History of a Superfund cleanup bid". Portland Tribune. Retrieved 2008-02-12. 
  14. ^ "Portland Harbor Superfund Site". Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. Retrieved 2006-12-16. 
  15. ^ "Region 10 Cleanup: Portland Harbor". United States Environmental Protection Agency. Retrieved 2008-02-12. 
  16. ^ "Processes Controlling Dissolved Oxygen and pH in the Upper Willamette River Basin" (PDF). U.S. Geological Survey. 1994. Retrieved 2008-02-12. 
  17. ^ a b c "Northwest Construction". Retrieved 2008-06-03. 
  18. ^ "West Side CSO Tunnel Project". Retrieved 2008-06-03. 
  19. ^ a b c "East Side CSO Tunnel Project". Retrieved 2008-06-03. 
  20. ^ a b c "A big pipe". The Oregonian. 2007-12-11. 

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