In the 1930s, appalled at the rising tide of filth that had turned the Willamette River into an open sewer, Oregonians passed a referendum to create the state's first sewage treatment standards.
In the 1970s, galvanized by Tom McCall's passionate documentary on pollution in the Willamette, the state cracked down on industrial plants spewing toxic chemicals into the river.
And now, in a bid to reverse long-term declines in native fish populations, the Willamette is once again the focus of a major rescue effort, this one aimed at restoring the delicate yet vital web of connections between the river and its floodplain.
"Every 40 years or so, we all come together and try to save the Willamette," said Stan Gregory, an Oregon State University stream ecologist who has devoted much of his career to studying the critical environmental challenges facing the state's most beloved waterway.
Leading the charge this time around is the Willamette Special Investment Partnership, which pairs the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, a state agency funded by a dedicated share of lottery revenues, and the Meyer Memorial Trust, one of the largest charitable foundations in the Northwest.
Launched in 2008 to provide funding and direction for floodplain restoration projects in the Willamette Basin, the partnership dovetails with other major efforts already under way, including state and federal salmon recovery programs and a move by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to change the way it regulates flows from its dams throughout the Willamette Basin.
"It's really kind of novel, if you look at conservation throughout the West," Gregory said. "This is a diverse team of people moving toward the same goal - something that we really haven't seen in the Willamette for a long time."
So far, the Special Investment Partnership has awarded roughly $4 million in grants to half a dozen projects up and down the Willamette mainstem while funding additional work in a number of tributaries. Moreover, the partnership has pledged to maintain the funding stream - and the focus on floodplain restoration - for at least the next several years.
The project has ambitous goals: To restore a significant portion of the floodplain connections, channel complexity and riparian forest that once made the Willamette such a rich nursery for chinook salmon, steelhead, bull trout and other imperiled species.
A growing body of scientific evidence shows that seasonal flooding is beneficial in a variety of ways, replenishing gravel beds and woody debris for fish habitat, spreading nutrient-rich sediments across the floodplain, even triggering germination of riverbank trees such as black cottonwood. Aquatic creatures up and down the food chain benefit from ready access to off-channel habitats, finding cover from predators, shelter from high-volume flows and pockets of cold water during the heat of summer.
But the plan also faces some daunting challenges. The Willamette Valley is the most densely populated region of the state, with cities strung out along the river and highly productive farm operations spread over the floodplain.
Not only that, but it has a major psychological barrier to overcome. Oregonians have been working to control the river since statehood - building dams, draining wetlands, blocking side channels and shoring up vulnerable banks with riprap armor. The whole notion of floodplain restoration goes directly against that historical current.
"With the flood control dams on the Willamette, we will never see the flooding and channel complexity that was here when my great-grandfather came to the valley," admits Ken Bierly, deputy director of the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board. "Trying to walk that interesting line between economic sustainability and ecological health is the goal we're aiming at."
So far the Willamette Strategic Investment Partnership has pursued a strategy of protecting key "anchor habitats," funding projects that are either on public land or involve cooperative private landowners. While most are proceeding smoothly, at least one has been shelved after encountering determined oppositon (see accompanying stories).
Bierly said the partnership is proceeding with caution, taking advantage of the best opportunities while respecting the sensitivities of the public.
"It takes quite a bit of creativity to find ways to work with growing cities and ways to work with agricultural operations that still allow some floodplain restoration to occur," he said. "If it were easy, it would have been done a long time ago."
Meanwhile, the partnership has emerged as an important umbrella group for the welter of different organizations and individuals working on Willamette River environmental issues. In December it sponsored a conference at OSU that brought together about 150 government officials, scientists, resource managers, watershed council members, farmers and conservationists to share ideas.
Pam Wiley, who heads the Meyer Memorial Trust's Willamette River Initiative, said the partnership plans more such gatherings in the future.
"If an organization like Meyer can bring people together periodically to talk about what we're all doing, I think that can be really valuable," Wiley said.
"With the amount of money we have and the timeline we have, we're pretty realistic about the fact that we're not going to ‘fix' the river. But maybe we can change the trajectory and maybe we can show what some of the possibilities are."