For thousands of years the north reach of the Willamette River, near its confluence with the Columbia, was a braided river of shallow channels and islands rich in biodiversity. That was until European settlers came to the Pacific Northwest and displaced the Indigenous people who had made this place their home since time immemorial. With industrial development, channels were filled, or dredged to create shipping lanes. Banks were hardened. Industries contaminated the water and land along the river, destroying salmon runs and reducing wildlife populations that had thrived alongside indigenous communities.
Today the area is designated an industrial sanctuary, but the communities that were displaced or damaged by this so-called sanctuary, see it as an industrial sacrifice zone. Along a six mile stretch of Portland Harbor, hundreds of storage tanks hold over 300 million gallons of volatile fossil fuels. Bob Sallinger with Portland Audubon, who is featured in Once A Braided River, points out: “Portland thinks of itself as this great green city. We have a ten mile, eleven mile long Superfund site running through the heart of our city. You can’t be green and have a Superfund site of that size in the middle of your city.” The documentary focuses a lens on the part of Portland that most Portlanders don’t know about or ignore. It braids together the many strands of issues that face us, not just in Portland but around the world – climate chaos, rivers contaminated with toxic pollutants, fish and wildlife brought to the brink of extinction by these perilous practices, and the dire hazards of storing immense amounts of explosive fossil fuels upon liquefaction zones underlain by major fault lines along the shorelines of world class rivers.
Once a Braided River begins with the story of the river before it was transformed into a Superfund Site and features community groups and activists working to replace the current Industrial Sanctuary with a green working waterfront defined by good jobs, clean energy, and healthy ecosystems. The documentary explores their vision to reclaim this stretch of river as a place where people and wildlife who depend upon the river for their homes, jobs and migration routes can thrive.
ONCE A BRAIDED RIVER was funded by the Regional Arts and Culture Council and Stand up to Oil
Painting by Kandace Manning
Listen to/download the audio of ONCE A BRAIDED RIVER