NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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Portland Harbor Superfund Site Restoration Plan Announced

The St. Johns Bridge spans the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon. Image credit: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The St. Johns Bridge spans the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon. Image credit: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

NOAA announced a plan to restore natural resources in the Portland Harbor Superfund site, an 11-mile stretch of the Willamette River with several areas of contaminated sediments from more than 100 years of industrial and urban uses.

The river has been a hub of the Oregon city’s maritime commerce since the 1900s, and is still at the center of Portland’s commercial and recreational activities. Pollution from industrial and urban uses prompted the Environmental Protection Agency to declare it a Superfund site in 2000.

NOAA and the other members of the Portland Harbor Natural Resource Trustee Council recently released the Portland Harbor Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement and Restoration Plan. The plan evaluates several alternatives and outlines the council’s chosen approach: Integrated Habitat Restoration. Officials believe the integrated plan will result in habitat restoration projects that benefit a wide variety of fish and wildlife that may have been harmed by contamination.

This integrated approach focuses on the habitat needs shared by many species, with a particular focus on juvenile Chinook salmon. It also establishes a geographic boundary to guide the location of restoration projects.

The Trustee Council seeks projects that will achieve the following:

  • Restore natural hydrology and floodplain function
  • Reestablish floodplain and riparian plant communities
  • Improve aquatic and riparian habitat
  • Increase habitat complexity
  • Provide connectivity to other habitats in the area
  • Restore recreation along the river while avoiding negative impacts to habitat

To read details of the plan, visit the Damage Assessment Remediation and Restoration Program website.


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In Oregon, an Innovative Approach to Building Riverfront Property for Fish and Wildlife

This is a post by Robert Neely of NOAA’s Office of Response Restoration.

Something interesting is happening on the southern tip of Sauvie Island, located on Oregon’s Willamette River, a few miles downstream from the heart of Portland. Construction is once again underway along the river’s edge in an urban area where riverfront property typically is prized as a location for luxury housing, industrial activities, and maritime commerce. But this time, something is different.

This project will not produce a waterfront condominium complex, industrial facility, or marina. And as much as it may look like a typical construction project today, the results of all this activity will look quite different from much of what currently exists along the shores of the lower Willamette River from Portland to the Columbia River.

Indeed, when the dust settles, the site will be transformed into a home and resting place for non-human residents and visitors. Of course, I’m not referring to alien life forms, but rather to the fish, birds, mammals, and other organisms that have existed in and around the Willamette River since long before humans set up home and shop here. Yet in the last century, humans have substantially altered the river and surrounding lands, and high-quality habitat is now a scarce commodity for many stressed critters that require it for their survival.

On the site of a former lumber mill, the Alder Creek Restoration Project is the first habitat restoration project [PDF] that will be implemented specifically to benefit fish and wildlife affected by contamination in the Portland Harbor Superfund Site. The project, managed by a habitat development company called Wildlands, will provide habitat for salmon, lamprey, mink, bald eagle, osprey, and other native fish and wildlife living in Portland Harbor.

Mink at a river's edge.

The Alder Creek Restoration Project will benefit Chinook salmon, mink, and other fish and wildlife living in Portland Harbor. (Roy W. Lowe)

Habitat will be restored by removing buildings and fill from the floodplain, reshaping the riverbanks, and planting native trees and shrubs. The project will create shallow water habitat to provide resting and feeding areas for young salmon and lamprey and foraging for birds. In addition, the construction at Alder Creek will restore beaches and wetlands to provide access to water and food for mink and forests to provide shelter and nesting opportunities for native birds.

Driving this project is a Natural Resource Damage Assessment conducted by the Portland Harbor Natural Resource Trustee Council to quantify natural resource losses resulting from industrial contamination of the river with the toxic compounds PCBs, the pesticide DDT, oil compounds known as PAHs, and other hazardous substances. The services, or benefits from nature, provided by the Alder Creek Restoration Project—such as healthy habitat, clean water, and cultural value—will help make up for the natural resources that were lost over time because of contamination.

Young Chinook salmon on river bottom.

Fish and wildlife species targeted for restoration include salmon (such as the juvenile Chinook salmon pictured here), lamprey, sturgeon, bald eagle, osprey, spotted sandpiper, and mink. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Wildlands purchased the land in order to create and implement an early restoration project. This “up-front” approach to restoration allows for earlier implementation of projects that provide restored habitat to injured species sooner, placing those species on a trajectory toward recovery. The service credits—ecological and otherwise—that will be generated by this new habitat will be available for purchase by parties that have liability for the environmental and cultural losses calculated in the damage assessment.

Thus when a party reaches an agreement with the Trustee Council regarding the amount of their liability, they can resolve it by purchasing restoration credits from Wildlands. And Wildlands, as the seller of restoration credits, recoups the financial investment it made to build the project. Finally, and most importantly, a substantial piece of land with tremendous potential value for the fish, birds, and other wildlife of the lower Willamette River has been locked in as high-quality habitat and thus protected from future development for other, less ecologically friendly purposes.

Robert NeelyRobert Neely is an environmental scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Response and Restoration. He has experience in ocean and coastal management, brownfields revitalization, Ecological Risk Assessment, and Natural Resource Damage Assessment. He started with NOAA in 1998 and has worked for the agency in Charleston, South Carolina; Washington, DC; New Bedford, Massachusetts; and Seattle, Washington, where he lives with his wife and daughter. He’s been working with his co-trustees at Portland Harbor since 2005.


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With Restoration, Will Willamette River Lampreys Rebound for Northwest Tribes?

This is a post by Office of Response Restoration’s Robert Neely and Restoration Center’s Lauren Senkyr.

It’s mid-summer, and something amazing is happening at Willamette Falls, a pounding cascade of water about 30 minutes from downtown Portland, Oregon. People are balancing on mossy, wet boulders tucked among the falls, reaching into its waters to harvest Pacific lamprey by hand.

A tribal member holds two lampreys in his hands.

Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Tribal member Torey Wakeland displays some lamprey that were harvested at Willamette Falls on Monday, July 18, 2011. (Photo courtesy of Ron Karten.)

After pouring over the falls, the Willamette River rolls on for nearly 30 miles before joining the Columbia River.

Prior to the construction of dams throughout the Columbia River basin, which includes the Willamette River and its tributaries, native Americans harvested lampreys in many other locations in much the same way they do now at Willamette Falls: by braving the cascading water and slippery rocks to grab wriggling lamprey by hand or with dip nets.

Northwest tribes have relied on the lamprey for food, medicinal, and ceremonial purposes for generations, since long before the first European explorers and fur traders became aware of these falls. But virtually all of the tribes’ historic collection spots are gone now, either because they are submerged under dam-impounded waters or because lampreys are absent, their upstream journey blocked by dams. Willamette Falls is the last place in the Columbia basin where tribes can collect lampreys as their ancestors did.

So it’s not surprising that the tribes are concerned about the Willamette River lamprey and the rest of the Columbia basin lamprey population. In fact, lamprey numbers have declined steadily since at least the 1960s.  According to a 2012 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fact sheet [PDF], likely threats to lampreys include habitat loss associated with passage barriers, dredging, and stream and floodplain degradation; river flow alterations; predation by non-native species; poor water quality; changing ocean conditions; and exposure to toxic substances.

Willamette River lamprey may be particularly vulnerable when it comes to toxic substances. Paddle the river as it flows north from the falls and you will eventually pass by downtown Portland. It is about here that you enter the Portland Harbor Superfund site, an 11-mile stretch of river with numerous patches of contaminated sediments from more than 100 years of industrial and urban uses. Juvenile lampreys, called ammocoetes, must pass through this portion of river on their seaward migration, just as adult lampreys do as they return upriver to spawn. But it is the ammocoetes that are most likely to be at risk from pollutants buried in the riverbed.

Pacific lamprey

Pacific lamprey. (Photo courtesy of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Lampreys are an anadromous species, which means they spawn in freshwater, spend their adulthood in the ocean, and return to freshwater to reproduce. In this respect they are similar to salmon, but lamprey life cycles are more complex. After hatching from their eggs, ammocoetes drift downstream to areas with slow-moving water and silty, sandy sediments. Here they burrow into the sediments and filter-feed for up to seven years before emerging to continue their journey to the sea. It is during this time that they may be particularly vulnerable as they eat contaminated foods and are directly exposed to pollutants for long periods.

Ammocoetes are known to use the stretch of the Willamette River encompassed by the Superfund site, and lamprey tissue samples collected from within the site show higher levels of contaminants than those collected from cleaner sediments upstream of Portland Harbor. It is not clear how ammocoetes in Portland Harbor are affected by contamination, but at least one analysis suggests exposure to contaminated sediment from Portland Harbor may adversely affect their behavior.

So what is being done? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been working with its partners and a group of companies called the Lower Willamette Group to assess risks to human health and the environment and to determine how best to clean up the river. EPA’s efforts are ultimately aimed at removing the threats posed by contaminated sediments.

NOAA is one of eight members on a trustee council that is working to understand how contaminants may have impacted natural resources. The council is also planning habitat restoration projects to make up for those impacts.  (The other members of the council include five tribes–Grand Ronde, Siletz, Umatilla, Warm Springs, and Nez Perce–and the state and federal fish and wildlife agencies.)

In addition to the lamprey, the council is planning restoration projects to benefit other types of fish and wildlife, like osprey, bald eagles, mink, and salmon. The council is focusing on these species because evidence suggests they may have been most impacted by contaminants and because they represent species guilds that are important in the lower Willamette River and similar Pacific Northwest ecosystems.

Tribal member displays cooler with harvest of lamprey.

Michael Wilson, Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Tribal member and the Tribe’s Natural Resources Department manager, shows the lamprey that were harvested by NRD staff at Willamette Falls on Friday, July 29, 2011. (Photo courtesy of Rebecca McCoun.)

This summer, the council wants to hear what the public thinks about restoration in Portland Harbor. A plan that lays out restoration options to benefit lampreys and other species that use the lower Willamette River, Multnomah Channel, and parts of the Columbia River close to the Superfund site has just been released. The council wants to hear from tribal members; people who fish on the river; folks who like to bike, jog, or picnic along the river; and others who care about the health of fish, wildlife and other natural resources in the Superfund site.

The plan includes a list of 44 potential restoration projects, including activities like removing culverts to improve access to upstream habitats, creating off-channel areas with clean water and sediment where fish can rest during migration, and “daylighting” cold, clean streams that currently run through pipes in the heavily built-up and industrial section of the river. For the next couple of months, the council is hosting meetings, presenting at neighborhood associations, and attending community events around Portland to let people know about their work and gather comments on the plan.

To see a copy of the draft plan and a schedule of meetings and comment deadlines, visit http://www.fws.gov/oregonfwo/Contaminants/PortlandHarbor. And for a little lamprey fun, take a look at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s lamprey activity book [PDF].

Robert NeelyRobert Neely is an environmental scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Response and Restoration.  He has experience in ocean and coastal management, brownfields revitalization, Ecological Risk Assessment, and Natural Resource Damage Assessment. He started with NOAA in 1998 and has worked for the agency in Charleston, S.C.; Washington, D.C.; New Bedford, Mass.; and Seattle, Wash., where he lives with his wife and daughter. He’s been working with his co-trustees at Portland Harbor since 2005.

Lauren SenkyrLauren Senkyr is a Habitat Restoration Specialist with NOAA’s Restoration Center.  Based out of Portland, Ore., she works on restoration planning and community outreach for the Portland Harbor Superfund site as well as other habitat restoration efforts throughout the state of Oregon.