Pandemic Inspires New Partnership on Willamette River

By Jenni Moore

June 28, 2021

Following increased use of the Willamette River during the pandemic, four organizations — the Willamette Valley Visitors Association (WVVA), Oregon State Parks (OPRD), the Oregon State Marine Board (OSMB) and the Willamette Riverkeeperbanded together for a unique collaboration to increase access and tackle the challenges brought on by increased use. There are new improvements that include life jackets, more safety kiosks, river guardians, river-sanitation support and a new series of discovery paddles for BIPOC community groups led by Willamette Riverkeeper

“With the record usage on the river and the challenges that we saw in the summer of 2020, there are a couple different components there. The first I would say is: If there are more people, there’s more trash … and some things look more run-down during COVID,” explains Katie McFall of WVVA, adding that the local steering committee pivoted and made an investment in additional porta-potties and doing more river cleanups to try to mitigate the increase in litter and waste. Ryan Sparks of OPRD says with additional temporary restrooms at their public properties and more use of the facilities, they’ve increased their service to make sure that they’re cleaned on a more regular basis now, so people can find clean facilities when they stop. Travis Williams of the Willamette Riverkeeper also emphasizes the importance of the Leave No Trace rule. “Try to leave campsites and access points better than you found them,” he explains. “That involves how you deal with your waste and then cleaning up after others on occasion.”

WVVA received one of Travel Oregon’s Destination Ready grants for $50,000, enabling it to not only increase cleaning of facilities and river cleanups, but also to bring safety vests, canoes, paddles and other personal flotation devices (PFDs), as well as instructors and guides to introduce new paddlers to the river.

With the influx of visitors to the Willamette River since 2020 also comes a rise in unfortunate incidents of injury and death. In 2020 the Oregon State Marine Board reported 20 boating deaths, the most for the state since 1979. While COVID-19 safety rules caused a temporary hiccup in the renting of life jackets, the new collaboration has made free life vests available at kiosks and stations so that safety can be accessible to lower-income communities near some of Willamette’s various access points. 

You can obtain those [life jackets] without that being a barrier,” Willamette Riverkeeper’s Williams  says, who adds that one of the biggest challenges of increased use during the pandemic is many people  using the river in untraditional ways, like floating on inner tubes and discovering areas they hadn’t before. In terms of Willamette Riverkeeper’s challenges, Williams says their focus is getting new river visitors the right information. “I think it’s really getting folks out there in a safe way and making sure that they understand what to encounter if they’re planning a day trip or multiday trip on the river, and then kind of helping them understand how to use the different water-trail sites, so you know what’s involved if you want to camp.” 

Willamette Riverkeeper also offers free paddling trips to get folks on the water to see and experience it. For these discovery paddling trips, everything is free, from transportation to life vests to equipment, making it an excellent way to improve access to new user groups. 

Other improvements include more inclusive signs with Spanish versions and using images to promote life-jacket use. “Riverkeeper has been leading the pack doing life jacket, safety, and messaging, and working with the Oregon State Marine Board on that to update some of their information to make it more applicable,” says WVVA’s McFall, who adds that translating all of the messaging is key to ensuring that they reach more diverse user groups. 

At state parks, we were always trying to look at how we can be welcoming and inclusive to everybody,” says Sparks of Oregon State Parks. “As it relates to Travel Oregon and the partnerships that we’ve been developing, I’m seeing a really great improvement just in our own ability to reach out and communicate with different groups and encourage them to come out on the river.”

Through this partnership, WVVA, OPRD, Willamette Riverkeeper and the OSMB hope to enhance the visitor experience for all, breaking down access barriers, improving cleanliness and increasing safety. In the end, they hope that the work leads to an enjoyable and safe summer season.

Photo by Joey Hamilton.