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Restoring nature at Oregon icon

Photo Credit: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JONATHAN HOUSE - Fishermen stake their claim below Willamette Falls in Oregon City. The Riverwalk project could bring environmental restoration to the falls area and nearby uplands. Willamette Falls is headed for a makeover, aiding endangered fish in the Willamette River.

The $30 million Riverwalk project led by Metro, designed to spur redevelopment of the abandoned Blue Heron Paper Co. mill in Oregon City, would include major habitat restoration near the iconic waterfall.

The site marked the beginning of industrial life in the Pacific Northwest, settled initially by Dr. John McLoughlin in 1829.

Planners envision a public and private collaboration that would rough up the artificially straight riverbanks, replace invasive species with natives, and circulate water through the now-stagnant Upper Basin, likely by flowing it through canals at the site.

“Restoring that habitat to the degree that we can is a really important value,” says Metro Councilor Carlotta Collette.

The rocky basalt outcroppings and mist from the massive waterfall — second in the United States only to Niagara Falls in volume — create a rare microclimate for the Willamette Valley.

“The site is very unique,” says Brian Vaughn, Metro senior natural resource scientist, “and it offers some amazing opportunities to restore habitat that is pretty unique to the Willamette River corridor.”

Bunchgrasses such as Roemers fescue and wildflowers like Oregon sunshine dot the landscape. Threatened and endangered fish such as the Pacific lamprey, salmon and steelhead fight their way upstream on the Willamette.

The landscape also is dotted with invasive blackberries, knotweed and — most concerning to naturalists because of its ability to choke off aquatic oxygen supply — floating pennywort.

“There’s probably a long list of invaders we don’t want out there,” Vaughn says.

Real estate broker John McKay says he used to do inspections on the site decades ago and recalls the “horrible” chemicals and industrial byproducts. The site hosted mills and other industrial operations for more than 150 years.

“They pretty much just dumped everything into the river,” McKay says.

For better or worse, though, that’s not really a lasting problem at the site. That’s because there is very little soil there; it is mostly concrete and basalt. During floods — such as the massive 1996 flood — everything washes downstream.

“In fact, it was so clean, the (Environmental Protection Agency) was worried they wouldn’t be able to help us,” Collette says.

But potential liability issues at the long-running industrial site were part of the reason local governments didn’t want to buy the property — even though its $2.2 million price tag would have been a small percentage of the overall redevelopment budget.

Photo Credit: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: LACEY JACOBY - Christina Robertson-Gardiner, city planner and project manager of the Willamette Falls Legacy Project, gives a tour of a abandoned industrial site in Oregon City near Willamette Falls. The new buyer, Falls Legacy, LLC, owned by Tacoma investor George Heidgerken, is unlikely to have that problem because of its limited liability.

The biggest part of the habitat restoration effort would focus on undoing the artificially straight river edge, to allow natural resting places for fish.

“That’s probably the most significant thing we’re going to do for wildlife along this section of the river,” Vaughn says.

Removing industrial debris — pipes, concrete and the like — also is likely to be one of the first undertakings.

“You name it, it’s probably out there,” Vaughn says.

Details on the restoration effort will be nailed down as part of the overall Riverwalk project, a proposed public promenade from Highway 99 to the falls. Exact figures on the cost, scope and timing of the project are not determined yet, Vaughn says, but project managers hope to begin implementation in a year or two.

One of the trickier ideas is to reopen tail races — channels below the mill buildings — in order to circulate water in the now-stagnant Upper Basin beside the falls.

Planners will take a hard look at the feasibility of that and other plans as they begin design and engineering of the Riverwalk — a $4 million process that likely won’t begin until zoning changes are approved this fall and money is secured from various public and private funding partners.

Shasta Kearns Moore can be reached at 503-546-5134 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Follow her at Twitter.com/ShastaKM