"Speaking for the Slough": The Columbia Slough Watershed Council

A meeting of potential participants in the Columbia Slough Watershed Council may make Mideast peace look easy, but most of the 75 people at a sometimes-raucous meeting last week said they would keep at the process -- for now. The Oregonian, January 24, 1994

In the last decades of the twentieth century the troubled nature of the Columbia Slough became more apparent. Should the Slough be paved over, filled in, or cemented like similar waterways in other cities? Or, should it be cleaned up, revitalized, and restored to a semi-natural state? Despite awareness of the slough's distressed condition, it wasn't until 1993, after $15 million worth of studies and threatened lawsuits, that Portland officials pledged to clean up the Columbia Slough. The city's Bureau of Environmental Services began holding a series of "Slough Summits," and a Columbia Slough Watershed Council -- proposed by McKeever/Morris, Inc.-- would track and stimulate cleanup efforts.

This slough flyer highlights the many activities of the Columbia Slough Watershed Council.
Courtesy of the Bureau of Environmental Services

The watershed council plan called for a hierarchy of membership based on those "directly" and "indirectly" affected. Slough activists immediately rejected the organizational plan, calling for balanced representation between environmental and business interests. The council formed amidst controversy, choosing representatives from business, neighborhoods, recreational, cultural, agricultural, educational, and environmental groups in addition to federal, state, and local governments.

In sum, the agencies that pump, drain, drip, seep and discharge a wide range of pollutants from farms, airports, parking lots, factories, sewers, golf courses, landfills, etc.are well represented. . . Those of us who represent. . . the public interest in recreational use and environmental protection are not. Nina Bell, Northwest Environmental Advocates, 1994

How can you say the Hmong fisherman who fishes in the Slough every day is any less affected than the business owner with 30 feet of chain-link fence up to the banks? Mikey Jones, Slough activist, 1994

We came in assuming that it would be an arduous and slow process. . . I think it will grow into an organization that can speak for the slough and represent all interests in it. Dean C. Marriott, Director, Portland Bureau of Environmental Services1995

The litigation route just takes too much time and money. . . This has to be a substitute. Alice P. Blatt, North Portland Neighborhood leader, 1994

We haven't decided whether to build a house of brick or wood, and we're arguing over what color to paint it. Donald Francis, Slough activist, 1994

Things are going to happen to the Slough, whether there's a council or not. . . To get ahead of the curve, this council should have been formed 30 years ago. Greg Malarkey, Slough business owner

I think there's a lot of potential to promote action-oriented programs, but we've gotten bogged down in regulations. . . Still I'd rather have dissension before starting work on a project, then during comment review, speak with a united voice. Tim Hayford, MCDD#1 Manager, 1995

I don't completely trust the city or their consultants. . . Everyone's talking about what to do, but I don't think enough of them know that there are people like us who live and work along the Slough. We're the ones they ought to listen to more. Gail Worrell, 30-year resident on the banks of the Slough

For its first two years, the 20-25 member council struggled to outline procedural goals and objectives, attempting to balance conflicting viewpoints. The conflict became so heated that in July, 1995, a memo from the Administrative Committee suggested dissolving the council and convening a new body. Two weeks later, the First Annual Columbia Slough Small Craft Regatta, organized by the watershed council, took place with more than fifty boats plying the Slough. The Regatta's success solidified council members' commitment, and the following day, July 31, 1995, they rejected the dissolution proposal and convened subcommittees to write a mission statement, goals, and objectives. The council resolved to operate by consensus, decided on the number of agencies and local and non-governmental representatives, and agreed to this mission:

to foster action to protect, enhance, restore and revitalize the Slough and its watershed

Although some claim the council is too conservative, others claim its environmental emphasis is too stringent. The council contends that complex issues defy easy solutions.

In 1996 Columbia Steel Castings Corporation (CSCC), located in North Bloss Avenue, proposed to fill fifteen acres on the Columbia Slough for company expansion. The Company produces steel items from 4 to 40,000 pounds for a number of industries. The company purchased a piece of adjacent property once known as the "Wapato Wetlands" in order to increase operations. The permitting agencies actively sought input from the community, and particularly from the watershed council, and denied the application. In another round of discussions, Columbia Steel proposed matching five acres of fill with five acres of off-site wetlands mitigation to meet complicated federal, state, and local environmental regulations. Some members of the watershed council objected to the proposal and requested an on-site visit by council members to CSCC. After community input, the permitting agency (the Army Corps of Engineers) scrapped the fill plan. The fill and expansion issue continues to be debated by the Columbia Slough Watershed Council and the community.