Ever since the City completed the $1.4 billion Big Pipe project in 2011, discharges of untreated sewage into the Willamette River have largely dissipated. The stretch of river passing through downtown used to have overflows between 50 and 100 times a year.

Participants in the Human Access Projects Willamette River dip

In celebration of over three months during the rainy season with no overflow plus the Valentine’s Day holiday, twenty-five people braved 45 degree water to take their version of the “polar bear” plunge into the river. The event drew attention to the fact that people can swim in the Willamette River.

Willie Levenson, the group’s ringleader and founder of the Human Access Project said,  “The problem is, many Portlanders aren’t aware of that.”

Levinson formed the Human Access Project to encourage swimming and to clear beaches along the Willamette River in the downtown area. “This was an opportunity to celebrate the Bureau of Environmental Services and the big pipe, because it’s been 115 consecutive days in the wintertime,” said Levenson. “I think this is a record for most consecutive days in the wintertime where there has not been a sewage overflow.”

The Valentine’s Day swim will likely become an annual event.

They also hold a summer celebration – the Big Float in July – to celebrate and increase use of a public waterway.