A perspective from Oregon’s mid-Willamette Valley

Riverside trash would be a federal offense

Written June 5th, 2022 by Hasso Hering

Along Cox Creek, a tributary to the Willamette, trash from a fire-damaged camp remained on June 3.

Willamette Riverkeeper, a Portland-based group, wants Oregon state environmental regulators to make rules declaring riverside trash to be in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

The organization announced on Friday that it had petitioned the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and its governing board, the Environmental Quality Commission, to regulate trash along the Willamette River and its tributaries under the federal law.

Riverkeeper has conducted many volunteer cleanups along the Willamette over the past decade. This has helped but not solved the pollution problem, the group said.

“Further, during this time, there has been a massive rise in people experiencing houselessness that are living and camping along the river, its tributaries and local creeks,” Riverkeeper said. “Too often a camp is vacated, leaving items behind, which are then to be swept downstream when the water rises.”

The group wants the state to develop “standards for trash along the riverside, major tributaries and creeks.”

“A clear standard of zero trash, or something close, puts the responsibility on the landowner that is creating the source of the trash,” Riverkeeper Executive Director Travis Williams said. “Then, the state of Oregon would in essence create the necessary accountability to truly address this problem. Not taking action would be a violation of the Clean Water Act.”

The problem, of course, is that it’s not the riverside landowners creating the trash and debris left over from homeless camps. The waste is left by people trespassing on private land or violating no-camping laws on public land.

If city or county parks departments, or private landowners, could prevent riverside camping, they would have done so long ago.

The Clean Water Act empowers groups like Riverkeeper to sue for violations. Just last March, Riverkeeper won a $250,000 settlement in a suit it had filed against the city of Albany.

If the group’s petition for state regulation under the Clean Water Act succeeds, maybe Riverkeeper could then win settlements from the unfortunate owners of sites which vagrants had trashed. (hh)

A camp site, seen Friday, high above the Willamette River at Albany

14 responses to “Riverside trash would be a federal offense”

  1. MarK says:

    I see nothing wrong with that!

  2. David Cross says:

    A thorough report on this issue can be read in The Register-Guard. Adam Duvernay’s article, “Overwhelmed by Willamette River trash, caretakers petition DEQ to accept responsibility” is worth the read.

  3. Gordon L. Shadle says:

    Good luck to Willamette Riverkeeper.

    You’re right, it’s not the landowner (private or public) along the river bank creating the pollution.

    But given the problem, who has the legal power & responsibility to fix it?

    Below the high water line and in the river itself the Oregon DEQ has regulation & policing power.

    Above the high water line the local jurisdiction has regulation & policing power.

    And if a private land owner (ex: Union Pacific) refuses to comply with the regulation and clean up their own property, then policing power must be appropriately exercised.

    Hopefully this petition will succeed in holding the appropriate government bureaucracy accountable for their own negligence.

  4. Richard Vannice says:

    A commendable goal but it would be another level of regulation that would be nearly unenforceable and, in the end, would not reduce the problem.
    Those creating the problem really don’t care and attitudes are difficult to change.

  5. JJ says:

    LIES. The locals do the trashing and scapegoat us homeless. The rivers and forests are trashed by LOCALS and not anyone else. Its a multigenerational problem that is taught by older to younger. Articles like this only help the trashers get away with yet another generation of trashing and dumping while vilifying convenient scapegoat.

  6. Travis says:

    Hasso –

    The main idea is that the Cities that are taking too little action need to get their act together. That is what we are seeing up and down the Willamette. Typically the problem is on public land, much less so on private land. It is about accountability on public sites that generate the majority of trash – something I think you could relate to.

    So from what you wrote, I assume you think the current state of affairs is just fine, or you have another solution? Again, it is about accountability. As of yet, not the State, or any other entity is providing leadership on this massive issue. I’d encourage you to take a look at what is occurring in Eugene and Springfield, Portland and beyond.

    Moving forward, providing a bit of Context in regard to our settlement with Albany might be helpful.


    • centrist says:

      A site doesn’t generate the debris. And in these cases, neither does the owner.
      The proposal holds the property owner liable for the acts of an unknown party. It does not address causality.

      • Travis says:

        It does address causality. Generally folks point the finger to another landowner, or another agency. In this case a landowner would need to take action, such as a City indicating that folks cannot live/camp in certain areas, and directing folks to a real alternative. A place to safely stay, dealing with addiction and other services. Right now there is little appetite to do the hard work in some of these cases, and instead we have a significant amount of trash being generated in such areas.

        • centrist says:

          Thought about your reply awhile. It’s an interesting approach. Assigning both ownership for clearing and ownership for pursuing social modification stops me cold. It brings to mind a phrase from a period dealing with troubled teens — co-dependent enabler.
          There’s no responsibility or consequence for the “doer of the deed”.
          Stepping off the box.

  7. Bill Kapaun says:

    Don’t the Feds decide what’s in violation of FEDERAL LAW?

    • Travis says:

      Oregon implements and enforces the Clean Water Act on behalf of the Federal Government. The term of art is “delegated authority.” That is why the DEQ and EQC were petitioned.

  8. jim karlock says:

    ONLY IF the government failed to remove trespassers from private property!

  9. David Cross says:

    Inexpensive meth and fentanyl drugs seem to be readily availability to those required to live rough in the brush along a riverbank, in order to maintain their addictions. If assigning accountability for the trash left behind in the wake of users destroyed lives is seen as an avenue to win monetary settlements, I would argue the viewer is short sighted.

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