Tag Archives: environment

Columbia Slough Part IV – Environmental Education

My Volunteer Experience

The Columbia Slough Watershed Council (CSWC) works directly with several of my passions: outdoor place-based education, service learning projects and stewardship. I volunteered with their Slough School education program, which works with students in the surrounding schools.

volunteerStaff members visit classrooms and teach students  a wide range of topics, such as water quality and native plant species. Students also come to restoration sites to learn in the natural environment. The CSWC provides opportunities for service learning projects (planting native plants), and learning about the eco-systems through water chemistry tests, observing micro-invertebrates, and identifying species and habitats.

                                                             -Whitaker Ponds-Outdoor Classroom-4th Graders-

I volunteered at a community site near Fairview (just off I-84) with a 5th grade class. The students planted native species to beautify the area and create a sound barrier next to a busy road. They also did water chemistry tests to explore Ph, oxygen, and temperature; learning how these things effect water quality.


A couple of the students grew tired of the project quickly, but the vast majority were thrilled to be outside, getting their hands dirty, and helping their community.

One student said, “I wish I could do this every day!”

Since the class wasn’t able to plant all the plants on site that morning, many of the students were asking to return the following day to “finish the job.”  

Almost all of them wanted to stay longer, a testament to the power of placed-based education! 


Many of the field trips take place at Whitaker Ponds, (also the CSWC office site). Students have planted hundreds of native species there this year. I volunteered at this site twice, assisting with plantings, water quality tests, and micro-invertebrate studies.

It’s so great to watch the children become scientists and stewards, enjoying their natural world.

kids planting

If you are a teacher interested in having your class volunteer with the CSWC and creating a plan of study with the Slough School, contact:

Sheilagh Diez, Slough School Education Director
Phone: (503) 281-1132
email: sheilagh.diez@columbiaslough.org

(Note: The program fills quickly. I recommend contacting her spring/summer before the school year begins.)

A big thank you to the staff and volunteers at CSWC for all they do with the community and fostering a sense of stewardship with our youth! It was fabulous getting to know your organization. 

Whitaker Slough
-Whitaker Slough and Canoe Launch-

Note: I encourage you to check out Whitaker Ponds. Located at 7040 NE 47 Ave, a ¼ mile north of Columbia Blvd., The area is a pubic park, with two ponds, a canoe launch into Whitaker Slough and a half mile loop trail. Although it’s a small pocket of nature in the middle of industrial Portland, it’s home to many species. On a recent birding event I attended there, we saw 35 species of birds in just two hours! (FYI- No dogs allowed)

Watch this great 5-minute documentary on Whitaker Ponds – really well done.

Map of Ponds

Suggested Reading Material on children and the outdoors: Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv- check it out here.

Want to Learn more about the CSWC and the Columbia Slough? Check out my other posts in this four-post series.

1. Columbia Slough – What is it?

2. Columbia Slough Part II – Natural Surroundings Education

3. Columbia Slough Part III – A Peak Behind the Scenes (The Interview)


Columbia Slough Part II- Natural Surroundings Education

IMG_0113-Columbia Slough near Columbia Blvd. Wastewater Treatment Facility-

I’m a huge proponent in learning about your natural surroundings. What are the native species in your area? What are the bodies of water near you, and the mountains and hills that surround your city/town? Do you know where your tap water comes from? I encourage everyone to attend free events to learn more about your surroundings. It’s a great way to meet interesting individuals, and learn about the “behind the scenes” people that help run our city!

I shared my new found interest in the Columbia Slough in my last post, and I  just couldn’t get enough, so I attended a free educational event to learn more about this enticing area. Co-hosted by the Columbia Slough Watershed Council (CSWC) and Multnomah County Drainage District No 1., the hour-long event was a great opportunity to learn about the Columbia Slough, the watershed, and the human impacts on the water flow using flood control levees.

Byron Woltersdorf, P.E., an engineer for the Drainage District NO. 1 (MCDD), was our tour guide and educator for the event. IMG_0024He explained there are four drainage districts along the Columbia River from west of I-5 to Troutdale, the watershed has  31 miles of flood control levees, and with the help of the 1936 flood act and then the revised 1950 flood act, the lower Columbia River basin is now protected from flooding with the help of levees constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers.

When the MCDD was formed in 1917, the land in and around the district was primarily agricultural.  This use of land was perfect, as the annual flooding was great for adding nutrients to the soil. However, as the land use changed over time, eliminating flooding was necessary for the growing urban lifestyle.

IMG_0026-Drainage District NO. 1 Pump House-

After a general history lesson and Q&A session, Woltersdorf gave us a tour of the pump house. Water is pumped down the slough towards the Willamette River, however, there aren’t any pumps on the lower portion of the slough. This portion is tidally influenced from it’s close proximity to the Columbia River, which can be influenced by as much as 1.5-3.5 feet, depending on the tide. (Pretty amazing, considering how many miles away Portland is from the ocean!) The pump house we visited at Drainage District No. 1, can pump 600,000 gallons of water a minute if every pump is running (not normally necessary.)


-Pump Area at Drainage District NO. 1-

During a Hundred Year Flood event, the stations would require to pump a million gallons a minute in a 24-hour period of time.

Speaking of power, apparently, there is not enough of an elevation difference to use the pump house as an energy source, but if the power went out during a time that the pumps needed to be running, five semi-trucks and five tanker trunks would be necessary on site to operate with a generator according to Woltersdorf. (Yikes- that is a huge monthly electricity bill!)

The MCDD meets a few challenges along the way. One interesting critter is none other than Oregon’s state animal, the beaver. There are approximately 3000 beaver in the managed flow plain. Woltersdorf explained, somewhat hesitantly, that his department is allowed to trap and kill the animals when necessary, as the beavers can be problematic. The workers are also allowed to remove dams when needed. The effectiveness of this is limited however. Woltersdorf said that his crew took down a four-feet tall dam once, and in only two days, the beaver erected the same size dam in the same location.

Turns out, “Busy as a Beaver,” is relevant!

Although this department is not in charge of water quality, (mentioned in my previous post), Drainage District  NO. 1 station takes in storm water runoff from a 20,000 acre area of town.


-Columbia Slough Pump area- East of Wastewater Treatment Facility-

For all my history buff readers, a wonderful resource for additional information on the history of the Columbia River Basin, and the Slough, please visit Center for Columbia River History website. It’s full of images, stories, and historical accounts of the area.

Do you have any favorite waterways near you, or stories on discovering your surroundings? I would love to hear them, please share in the comment section below!

Special thanks to the Drainage District NO. 1 and Byron Woltersdorf for all the valuable information, and fun tour!

Thank you for opening  your doors to the public and keeping us all safe from floods….the unsung heroes of Portland!

Special Thanks to the Columbia Slough Watershed Council for all the environmental education, stewardship awareness, restoration, and relationship building they perform in the community and watershed. Please visit the site for additional information, volunteer opportunities, and announcements for future events and workshops.

Columbia Slough- What Is It?

IMG_0115(Columbia Slough on Bike Bridge Near the Wastewater Treatment Plant)

Whenever I move to a new area, I immediately seek out the nature spots nearby, and best places to walk my dogs. When I moved to Portland OR., and started exploring my neighborhood, I stumbled upon the nature reserve on Columbia Boulevard next to the water & sewage treatment facility. IMG_0094It seems a little odd to create an outdoor oasis next to a sewage treatment plant, but it really is a beautiful area close to my home that I can walk the dogs and feel like I’m in a pocket of nature, (despite the occasional unpleasant odor on certain days). A bike trail in this area travels  out to Marine Drive in one direction, or Smith and Bybee Lakes , and Kelley Point Park in the other.

IMG_0102During my first visit, I was stumped by the body of water that flowed through the area. It was too small to be the Columbia River, and larger than a runoff stream. Because of it’s close proximity to the water treatment facility, I honestly thought it was some sort of man-made  toxic runoff  from the plant, despite the fact that I could see evidence of life thriving in the area, (plenty of wildlife and foliage).  I later found out that this body of water is the Columbia Slough. I wasn’t familiar with the term “slough,” further cementing the idea that it had something to do with sewage waste water (“slough” just sounds so yucky).



However, my recent volunteer work with the Columbia Slough Watershed Council (CSWC) has taught me that the Columbia Slough is not man-made, is not part of the sewage treatment facility, and is a very natural occurring body of water influenced by the Columbia River.  The term “slough” is simply a body of water that is low flow, or stagnant, not necessarily “dirty,” although I will share environmental concerns below. The Columbia Slough travels through lakes and wetlands, and is in an area that used to completely flood every year, prior to human intervention.

The Slough is approximately 18 miles long with the headwaters at Fairview Lake in East Multnomah County. Traveling through Northeast and North Portland, (paralleling the Columbia River), the slough eventually flows into the Willamette River in Kelley Point Park.

IMG_0211-Columbia Slough Entering Willamette River in Kelley Point Park-

According to the CSWC website, the entire Columbia Slough Watershed contains 32,700 acres, 6 lakes, 3 ponds and 50 miles of waterway. The area has 26 identified fish species, 175 bird species and contains several wildlife corridors.


(Natural area near Columbia Blvd. Wastewater Treatment Plant)

Despite these amazing characteristics, many challenges are present in maintaining a healthy waterway, especially in this area. The Columbia Slough watershed is heavily industrial and residential, with approximately 158,000 residents-(1/20 of Oregon’s population), 54 schools, 2 universities, 1 community college, and 3,900 businesses, including Portland International airport and port of Portland marine terminals.

The Columbia Slough Watershed is made up of 54% impervious surfaces – solid surfaces where water can’t sink into the ground, and join under-ground water systems. Therefore, water runs along these surfaces such as sidewalks, streets, parking lots etc., picking up sediments, toxins, litter, and oil along the way. This contaminated water makes its way to the slough, where it travels to the Willamette River, onward toward the Columbia, and eventually out to the Pacific Ocean.

Unfortunately, storm water is only one source of pollution in the Columbia Slough. Failing septic systems, illegal dumping, and industrial equipment cleaning, all pollute the water systems as well.  Although the Slough has a long history of contamination, according to the Columbia Slough Watershed website, its cleaner today than it has been in the last 100 years due to great efforts made by the CSWC, and the surrounding community.

To read more about the Columbia Slough Watershed, flood history, and flood control levees, read my blog post Columbia Slough II.

Do you have an interesting story about your local waterways? Please share below!

Special Thanks to the Columbia Slough Watershed Council for all the environmental education, stewardship awareness, restoration, and relationship building they perform in the community and watershed. Much of the statistics I provided above I found on their website. Please visit the site for additional information, volunteer opportunities, and announcements for events and workshops.

Toxic Utility Poles

Ever notice that black sticky looking goo on utility poles when you put your sign up for the weekend garage sale?  I had never given it a second thought until I attended the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC) held on the University of Oregon’s campus this spring. According to the panelists on the “Dioxin from Phone Poles: Poison in Your Back Yard” panel, the last thing we want to do is get a closer look.

Most utility poles are covered in toxins that are proven to cause cancer. Unfortunately, most people aren’t aware of the danger the black looking goo poses, and I’ve noticed a pole on virtually every corner in the neighborhood-vegetable gardens planted near these poles and children playing around them.  Because heat draws the material down the pole and into the soil, (the soil often leaks into nearby storm drains and into local waterways) the area surrounding each of these poles is a mini superfund site.

In addition to the people living and playing near these poles, utility workers that climb and repair them are at high risk of health problems from toxin exposure.

Below is part of my article printed in The Eugene Weekly, You can read the whole article here.

Before WWI, the steel industry began looking for ways to use its waste products, and provided the public with pentachlorophenol (penta), a wood preservative. According to PIELC panelist Patricia Clary, a representative from Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, penta is so toxic that nothing can live in the wood.

Years later, health issues related to penta began to surface. Because it contains dioxin, a known human carcinogen, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned its production in 1987, except for the use on utility poles. Still used today, penta is dissolved into petroleum and forced into the poles wood.

A 1994 EPA report stated, there is no safe level of exposure to dioxin, which can cause cancer and severe reproductive and developmental problems.

According to the panelists, there are 140 million utility poles treated in the U.S., the majority treated with penta. Additionally, damaged poles are sold to individuals to use in landscaping and garden use.

Heat draws the penta oil mix to the surface of the pole during hot weather so it can easily slip down the pole into the soil, wash down storm drains, and get into water systems.

“The poles lose up to 50 percent of their oils in the first eight to 10 years into the environment,” said Fredric Evenson from the Ecological Rights Foundation. He explained that mixing dioxin with oil makes it travel very fast through the soil. Penta has been found in groundwater as far as 90 feet below the surface.

“Each of these poles are like mini superfund sites all across the country. They are in people’s backyards, school yards, near daycare centers,” explains Evenson.

The panelists said the vast majority of poles they tested in California came from the McFarland Cascade Pole Treating Facility, located near the Eugene airport. Evenson describes a massive plume of penta surrounding this entire wetland area, with oil floating on the surface of groundwater, which he explains, likely makes its way into the Willamette River.

Fiberglass poles, steel poles, applying citrus oil, and using tree species that don’t need to be treated, are all alternatives to penta use. “The real answer is to get away from wood,” said Clary.