The Past and Future of the Tualatin River Basin

Mark Fitzsimons, Outreach and Education Coordinator
May 31, 2019

Each year, Tualatin Riverkeepers conducts a Volunteer Paddle Trip Assistant training program to prepare volunteers to help participants experience the Tualatin River. Whether the trip’s intent is a slow cruise on the river, stalking elusive spring migrating birds, or getting a good workout, volunteers introduce new paddlers to the Tualatin River. Our volunteer training sessions include safety procedures, paddling techniques, teaching tips, first aid, natural history, and human history.

This spring we added a new session to the program called The History and Future of the Tualatin River, which delves into the Tualatin River's rich history and the challenges it faces as a source of drinking water, receiver of storm runoff, and recreation destination. The presentation, held at Max’s Fanno Creek Pub in Tigard, was a joint venture with Clean Water Services. John Fervia, volunteer archivist for Tualatin Riverkeepers, began with a history of the Tualatin River, once known as the most polluted river in the state, and Bob Baumgartner, Assistant Director in the Regulatory Affairs Department at Clean Water Services followed with the difficulties we faced cleaning up the Tualatin and the challenges ahead as our population and demand for water grow.

John Fervia’s historic timeline began at the end of the last ice age with the Missoula floods. He talked about the culture of the native Atfalati people who lived in the Tualatin area for thousands of years before European Americans began arriving in the 1800s. They were hunter-gatherers and lived in concert with the seasons and the predictable rising and falling of the water, harvesting fish, ducks, eggs, willow, wapato, camas, and a wide variety of food sources from the river and its many tributaries. Later, recent immigrants from Europe were also drawn to the area by its fertile soils and a temperate climate. The fur trade briefly flourished, valleys were converted into agricultural fields, the headwaters were logged, small sternwheelers navigated the river by the early 1900s, and swim parks dotted its banks in the 1940s and 1950s.

In 1989, the Tualatin River was the first river in the state to fail water quality standards established by the Clean Water Act of 1972. Through the hard work of community partners, Tualatin Riverkeepers staff, and volunteers like John Fervia, the river is now much less polluted and has seen a resurgence of people boating, fishing, and swimming. The muddy appearance we still see is caused by run-off. There was a time when logging played a role, but those days are over - much of it now comes from erosion and plowing and farming in the Tualatin Valley.

Changing land use practices have left their mark on the land and have influenced the way the landscape is both perceived and used today. Human perception and subsequent land use affects the natural environment and how it in turn affects humans. Mr. Baumgartner challenged us to use our understanding of the influence of human history on the landscape of the Tualatin Valley to inform our future land and water use decisions.

Since the late 1980s, awareness about the ecological services that wetlands provide has increased, and national laws have been established to protect and restore wetlands across the country. Wetland mitigation, also a federal mandate, requires that, if a wetland-drainage permit is granted, a new wetland must be created elsewhere or an existing one restored. The Endangered Species Act was also instrumental in preserving the Tualatin Valley’s remaining wetlands by requiring that habitat used by species federally recognized as endangered be protected. These types of federal regulations, along with public demand, have helped create wetland preserves around the county. They provide habitat for a variety of plants, animals, and migratory birds as well as pollution mitigation and flood relief to the surrounding region.

Public demand for clean water and air along with a growing sense that humans are a part of nature, not apart from it, have helped to reshape the way we think about our role in the natural environment. Evidence of changing perspectives can be seen in the places we choose to set aside for enjoyment. As science touted the many ecological benefits of wetlands, public opinion began to shift. We once viewed wetlands as health hazards and land-wasters but now seek to restore them, re-populate native plants, and protect wildlife habitat. Spreading awareness about local environmental issues is an important step toward creating a viable balance between human use and the remaining natural resources in the watershed.

Graph courtesy of Clean Water Services

As we take steps to restore damaged ecosystems, projected population growth in Washington County creates an increased demand for natural resources - water demand being the most prominent. At the center of this demand is Henry Hagg Lake, a reservoir created to provide irrigation water for farmland along with drinking and industrial water for the cities of Hillsboro, Forest Grove, Beaverton, and surrounding communities. The reservoir also supplies river-flow augmentation water during the summer for fish habitat and improving water quality. Anticipating significant increases in water demand by 2050, several Washington County agencies have created plans that include increasing the reservoir’s holding capacity.

Human manipulation of the Pacific Northwest began thousands of years ago when native people used fire to create a landscape suited to their needs. The savannah landscape resulting from annual burning improved hunting opportunities and promoted the growth of particular plant species. This landscape also appealed to European American settlers who transformed the land first with agriculture, then with urbanization. Subsequent cultural and environmental changes, including continued population growth and urban development, have created the landscape that we see in the Tualatin Valley today.

Map courtesy of Clean Water Services

Going forward, we must balance urban expansion, the loss of farmland, water shortages, pollution, and further habitat simplification. If we apply what we’ve learned from our past, we will prioritize valuing the land that produces our food, the streams that supply our water, the wetlands that provide habitat for our wildlife, environmental education programs, and ecologically minded building practices. Understanding the past of the Tualatin Valley and the elements that make it worth protecting is critical to making the future worth protecting as well.