The Big Float, The Big Pipe and the Human Access Project

On July 14th, the City of Portland celebrated the 8th annual Big Float.  About 4,000 people (this writer included) made the trip down to Tom McCall Bowl at Southwest Columbus and Naito Parkway to, in the words of the event’s organizers, “give our river a hug.”  Sponsored by a number of local and international companies, including Subaru and PointWest Credit Union, the Big Float styles itself as a celebration of the Willamette River.  With food trucks arranged around the Bowl, live music on a barge and multiple “parades,” complete with marching bands to lead the way, The Big Float sets itself up to be the event of the summer.  What’s more the event and its organizers, The Human Access Project, have reasons to celebrate.

Despite its reputation for quirkiness, Portland has always been an industrial city.  Incorporated in 1851 and named via coin toss (the alternative name was Boston), Portland was situated at an ideal point between the Columbia and Willamette Rivers.  This also gave it access to both Port Vancouver and the fertile Tualatin Valley, creating conditions for a thriving trade port.  Additionally, before the city was even officially incorporated, it had already garnered the nickname of “Stumptown,” on account of the excess of tree stumps that had been cleared away to make room for incoming settlers from the Oregon Trail.  This would mark the beginning of a thriving lumber industry that would be centered on the fledgling metropolis.

Portland’s growth continued through the 20th century.  Over the course of the 1900s, the city became a railway hub, built carrier escorts during World War 2 and eventually attracted modern industrial giants like Intel and Nike.  And through it all, the city’s primary waterway, the Willamette took its share of punishment and became horribly polluted.  In fact, the man for which the Big Float’s starting location is named, Tom McCall was one of the first governors of Oregon to call for a more intense focus on River Cleanup.  McCall’s successor, Bob Straub, would build on McCall’s work to establish the Willamette Greenway Project, which began the construction of paved paths and trails along the banks of the river.  These efforts progressed well into the late 20th Century, culminating in 1990 with the Combined Sewer Overflow Program or CSO.

Tom McCall – The first Oregon governor to campaign on environmental cleanup.

You see, while Portland was founded in 1851 it didn’t build a water treatment plant until 1952, over 100 years after the fact.  The treatment facility was built to work with existing sewage lines, which had, up to this point, carried raw sewage into both the Willamette River and the Columbia Slough, a nearby local tributary of the Columbia River.  During dry spells, the sewers worked as intended, diverting sewage towards the newly installed treatment plant.  But during rainy periods, the sewage overflowed and the runoff was deposited into the river.  This run off was about 80% storm water, but that remaining 20% was untreated sewage, which contained dangerous bacteria like E Coli.  The purpose of the CSO Program was to collect the storm water runoff and prevent it from reaching either the Willamette or the Slough.  The Department of Environmental Services gave Portland 20 years, starting in 1991 to correct the issue and the city went to work.  The centerpiece of the CSO Program was affectionately dubbed The Big Pipe Project.  The Big Pipe was simple, large pipes running parallel to existing sewage lines, with collection points for sewer runoff.  Along with additional investments like constructing new storm drain trails, the goal of the CSO was to reduce combined sewage overflows entirely by 2011.

Graphs Demonstrating the Effectiveness of the Big Pipe Project – Graphic is property of the City of Portland

And while no sewage system is perfect, the Big Pipe has been a resounding success.  Before the construction of the pipe, the Willamette river suffered from CSO events at a pace of roughly 50 per year.  Today, Overflow events have been reduced by 94% and 99% on The Willamette and Columbia Slough respectively.  What’s more, the cost to get rid of those final few CSO events would be exponentially more expensive than the current investment.  The Big Pipe project cost the City of Portland about 1.4 billion dollars.  And the plan that was chosen was regarded as the most cost effective solution available.  The cost to completely eradicate overflow would have been twice as much.  As such, the city still maintains a system to easily and clearly alert its citizens when the rare CSO event does occur.

The Big Pipe program was nominally finished in 2011. In the same year a small nonprofit named The Human Access Project held its first big event, the Big Float.  Turn out was good with about 1300 people showing up to celebrate the newly cleaned river.  The next year, that total would climb to about 1400 and the numbers have steadily grown every year since then.  As such, by the standards of nonprofit organizations, The Human Access Project isn’t exactly a firebrand.  They’re cheerleaders, celebrating the work of the city and the Department of Environmental Services in getting the Willamette clean.  And there’s nothing wrong with that approach.

The Project is fighting back against decades if not more than a century’s worth of bad publicity for the river.  And as the attendance for their main event grows a bit each year,  they’ve clearly become more and more successful.  In addition to organizing The Big Float, the Human Access Project also organizes beach cleanups and other beautification efforts along the banks of the river.  Additionally, the City has continued to work towards completely eradicating CSO incidents.  Most notably, the City has invested heavily in green infrastructure.  Pieces of green infrastructure are building improvements designed to retain stormwater like ecoroofs, which involves installing water-collecting plants on the roofs of office buildings and apartments.  Other, similar improvements include green streets and other natural installations designed to reduce the amount of water heading into the sewers, which reduces the frequency of CSO incidents.

And these efforts should be lauded, especially in our current political climate.  Sometimes, celebrating 8 years and counting of a clean river is enough.  The Human Access Project is taking pride in a problem solved, something that seems more and more distant some days.  As people flock to the river everyday this summer, it’s worth looking back on all the hard work that went into keeping the shining blue water of the Willamette what they are today.  As a city, we can look back on twenty years of hard work, perseverance and a few really big pipes to see what we can accomplish.

Thanks for reading, and enjoy the summer wherever you are.


The vast majority of information for this article came from the City of Portland’s Environmental Services page on The Big Pipe project.


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