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Know the West

A spick-and-span plan

  Every year, untreated sewage flows out of storm drains in Portland, Ore., and into the Willamette River.

"Most of the time, when you flush the toilet, it goes straight into the river because basically, when it rains in Portland, the sewers overflow," says Don Francis of the nonprofit group, Riverkeepers. He estimates that 3 billion tons of raw sewage pollute the river annually.

Now, the state has ordered Portland to reduce sewage overflows by 94 percent by 2011. The current plan is to build new pumps and pipes to collect sewage.

But City Commissioner Dan Saltzman says the river pollution isn't only sewer runoff. He proposes blocking oil and other debris from overflowing into the river by implementing a series of "green" alternatives. They include planting trees near streams, increasing public education and building gardens on rooftops to catch the rain.

"Once we resign ourselves to pipes and pumps, we defeat the purpose of green solutions," he says.

Saltzman says his plan also takes endangered salmon into account and moves Portland toward sustainable development. But there's a catch: He says he needs nine more years to put his solutions into effect. Although many in Portland think he's on the right track, he may have to wade through deep water to find support.

Langdon Marsh, who heads Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality, says the city needs to stick to the state's original timetable, and he also worries about extravagant costs to taxpayers over the years.

"Saltzman is trying to railroad an agenda," says river advocate Don Francis. "People have a right to use this river now."

* Rebecca Clarren