bacteria (Sphaerotilus natans), floated downstream, consuming oxygen as they rotted (Gleeson, 1972). Aquatic life in the lower river suffocated and died. Zones of oxygen depletion in the lower river served as barriers to fish migration. Commercial and sport fishing as well as recreational uses of the river suffered. Slime coated the water's edge.
When efforts to get state antipollution legislation passed during the 1930s failed repeatedly, citizens sponsored a successful antipollution ballot initiative that was approved in 1938. The Water Purification and Prevention of Pollution Bill established a State Sanitary Authority with responsibility for cleaning up and protecting Oregon's public waters (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, n.d.) The drafting of the legislation was preceded by a study of successful pollution control legislation elsewhere and an analysis of the principles that made controls work (Gleeson, 1972). World War II slowed pollution control efforts. Studies of river conditions resumed in 1944 and revealed that conditions were worse than in 1929.
Progress toward clean water came slowly. It took 8 years after the establishment of the State Sanitary Authority for the first municipal primary wastewater treatment plant to be built on the river, and it was not until 1957, 10 years later, that all municipalities on the river had primary treatment (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, n.d.). Continued studies of the river in the 1950s and early 1960s revealed, however, that this was not sufficient to correct the problem of low dissolved oxygen. To do so, controlled release of water from reservoirs was begun in 1953 to increase river flow during low-flow months when pollutants were more concentrated and oxygen demand greatest. This was coupled with increasing regulation of paper and pulp mill discharges, beginning 1950. Even these measures combined were insufficient to bring the Willamette up to standards for acceptable water quality. One indication of the river's condition was a fall chinook salmon run in 1965 of only 79 fish, counted at Oregon City Falls.
A turning point in the struggle to clean up the Willamette occurred in the late 1960s. Passage of the federal Clean Water Act of 1977 (P.L. 95-217) required all states to set water quality standards for their rivers and to prepare to enforce them. Hearings to set water quality standards were therefore held by the State Sanitary Authority in 1967, and that year, the state legislature rewrote and greatly strengthened the state's water quality laws. Citizens were very much involved in urging government to take decisive action (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, n.d.).