Swimming in the Willamette and Columbia Rivers
Special Information about Swimming in Portland's Rivers
Swimming in the City’s two major rivers can be fun, refreshing, and can help keep you fit, especially in the warm weather months (July-September). Portland Parks & Recreation (PP&R) recognizes that interest in this activity is increasing, especially with the completion of the Big Pipe project, which has substantially improved water quality in major sections of the Willamette River.
Although they may look like calm, peaceful places most of the year, our rivers are active, living bodies of water and are in constant states of change. Before swimming, please remember:
- Water levels go up and down
- Currents change depending on the tide, river level and wind
- Branches, debris, and rocks move around on and under the surface
- Boats and jet skis move around over the surface
- Water temperatures change seasonally, with cold water most likely between September and June
- Banks can be uneven, rocky, slippery, and have submerged drop-offs
- Sewage overflows are extremely rare but still possible. Environmental Services issues alerts on its homepage when they occur.
- The lower Willamette River is part of a designated Superfund clean-up site (between the Broadway Bridge and Sauvie Island), and two of its sites should not be entered for swimming: the Willamette Cove and Gasco sites. Please read more about the Portland Harbor Superfund site below.
The State of Oregon’s Department of State Lands has jurisdiction over the Willamette River (nearly all areas below elevation 18, which is the ordinary high-water mark). Swimming is allowed at your own risk.
Please obey all rules and regulations posted.
Water Access Locations
- Poet’s Beach
- Eastbank Crescent Beach (partner-operated site; partners refer to it as Audrey McCall Beach)
Thank you to Human Access Project, a not-for-profit organization, who will be providing a life jacket loaner station, swim line and lifeguards at the beach from 2:00-6:00 pm Friday through Sunday, July 5, through September 1, 2019, except for July 13.
Located on the east side of the Willamette River, just south of Hawthorne Bridge along the Eastbank Esplanade, this area is owned and managed by a variety of organizations who have agreed to Human Access Project operating the Audrey McCall Beach program this summer - Oregon Department of Transportation, Department of State Lands, Prosper Portland and the City of Portland. A parking lot is located at the west end of Madison Street adjacent to Portland Fire and Rescue Station 21, and a bike rack is located on the top of the riverbank on the north side of the Hawthorne Bridge. TriMet provides transit connections in the area.
Swim Safety Near Portland Parks Adjacent to Rivers
While PP&R cannot prohibit swimming in areas below ordinary high water, we do recommend that you NOT swim in certain areas, including:
- Kelley Point Park, because of numerous drownings that have occurred in the waters (notably off the western edge) of the park in the past decades.
- Off or near docks that are designated for boating and watercraft tie-up.
- Sensitive habitat areas – look for signs.
- Some Superfund-designated areas – see map
The Portland Harbor Superfund site extends roughly from the Broadway Bridge to Sauvie Island. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared Portland Harbor a Superfund site because of past chemical contamination in sediments on the river bed.
According to the Oregon Health Authority, with the exception of two areas (Willamette Cove and the Gasco site), the levels of chemicals found in the water, dirt and sediment do not pose a health risk for recreational users, including children.
- Willamette Cove (located at the foot of N Edgewater Street or River Mile 6.8)
- Gasco site (7900 NW St. Helens Road or River Mile 6.5)
For more information about the Portland Harbor Superfund site and its effect on recreation, please refer to information provided by the Portland Bureau of Environmental Services at portlandoregon.gov/bes/article/684200.
River Swimming Safety Tips
- Know your limits: it is possible to jump off a dock, paddle around and get out without being a strong swimmer. But don’t find yourself halfway across the river in trouble because you’ve run out of energy. Swimming in the City’s rivers requires an intermediate to advanced level of skill at a minimum. Can you swim half a mile in a pool without stopping? You will need that level of strength and ability to be safe. If you are not that strong a swimmer, wear a Personal Flotation Device (PFD). Fins help too.
- Know the water: currents in the City’s rivers vary based on rainfall and the tide. Wind may cause choppiness, making swimming challenging even for the strongest of swimmers. Know the weather forecast and avoid swimming during storms, in strong winds and when there is lightning. Do not swim when sewage is being released, which can happen – particularly during and after heavy storms.
- River temperatures vary. Be particularly careful May through June when air temperatures are in the 80’s but river temperature may be in the 50’s. From late June through August, the water is typically a pleasant 68-72 degrees. Temperatures start to drop fast come September. Limit your time in cold water. If you swim during cold weather (below 68 degrees), wear a wet suit or other thermal protection. Check the Willamette River's conditions at the Bureau of Environmental Services site or U.S. Geological Survey site.
- Don’t swim alone: have a safety paddler whenever possible--for visibility and safety there is no substitute for a stand-up paddleboard (SUP) or kayak paddler. At the very least, swim with a buddy.
- Be visible and audible: carry a safety whistle and wear a brightly-colored swim cap. Use a brightly colored floating Safety Buoy. This bright orange, floating dry bag is helpful for visibility, and in case you need to rest for a few minutes and float. You can also carry personal items inside.
- Don't swim in the dark. Just don’t.
- Swim close to shore. Channel crossing is more dangerous that you might think. Tug boats, barges, and motor boats are not looking for swimmers and may not see you. Even jet skiers often don’t see swimmers. Stay close to shore where it’s safer.
- Don’t swallow the water. Try to avoid getting river water in your mouth. Shower thoroughly with soap and warm water after swimming. Don’t swim in the rare instances when an algae bloom is present.
- Learn CPR: In the time it might take for paramedics to arrive, your CPR skills could make a difference in someone's life.
- No swimming under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. They can impair your judgment and put you at risk. Swimming under the influence is a major contributing factor in many drowning deaths.
- Practice ‘leave no trace’ swimming: pack out what you pack in, and consider bringing a plastic bag along when you come out to play in the river. That way, you can pick up a little extra trash on your way out and contribute to the health and beauty of one of Portland's largest public spaces.
- Be respectful of our dedicated public safety officials: obey all river security and safety personnel, including the Multnomah County River Patrol, Portland Police, Coast Guard, and PP&R’s Park Rangers.
How to Enjoy River Beaches Safely
Swimming and wading are allowed on the Willamette and Columbia Rivers. However, in most cases, there are no lifeguards on duty. Beach users swim at their own risk. Parents are urged to carefully watch children near the water. The river can have swift currents and water depths can vary. Some safety suggestions:
- Never swim alone. Always practice the buddy system while in the water.
- Always enter water feet first. There are sharp rocks and possibly glass present--always wear water shoes.
- Know the terrain. Be aware that the river bed can drop off rapidly and can have a strong current. There may be hidden obstacles in natural water sites including floating debris, logs or underwater boulders.
- Learn to swim. Formal swimming lessons can protect young children from drowning. However, even when children have had formal swimming lessons, constant, careful supervision is necessary when children are in or around the water. Click here for information about PP&R’s pools and swim programs.
- Watch waders or swimmers in or around the water. Designate a responsible adult who can swim and knows CPR to watch swimmers in or around water, especially children. The supervisor should not be involved in any other distracting activity (such as reading, or talking on the phone) while watching children.
- Use life jackets (or other personal flotation devices – PFDs). Do not use air-filled or foam toys, such as "water wings", "noodles", or inner-tubes, in place of life jackets. These toys are not designed to keep swimmers safe.
- Learn cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and basic first aid. These skills could save someone’s life.
- Never dive or jump off bridges. Winter storms can shift underwater boulders, creating summer diving hazards where none existed the year before.
Keep in mind there is no guarantee that following these guidelines will keep you 100% safe. Swimming can be risky, like any other outdoor sport: biking, skiing, hiking, and others. By swimming in the Willamette or Columbia Rivers, you assume the responsibility for that risk.