Not a lot of people went swimming in the Willamette River.

Portland's century-old sewers had been designed to let rainwater running off streets mingle with what gets flushed down toilets. Even the lightest drizzle could overflow the system and send excrement shooting through outfall pipes and into the Willamette.

Decades after the state had declared the Willamette clean, events called combined sewer overflows continued. By 1991, the state Department of Environmental Quality had come down hard on towns that had the same problem. But the biggest and baddest, Portland, had used its political power to resist the DEQ. The state environmental agency had let the city operate under a largely toothless permit for years before letting it expire.

City officials knew fixing the sewer system could cost more than $1 billion. And no elected official at City Hall had the guts to take on a project that could double sewer bills.

Nina Bell was then in her last year of law school at Lewis & Clark College. She had worked for a group called Northwest Environmental Advocates since the late 1970s, when she had dropped out of Reed College to help the group's anti-nuclear power efforts.

Bell now ran the organization. She had turned its focus to clean rivers and saw the city's sewer overflows as an obvious target. "The city was a huge source of pollution that was supposed to be regulated," she says. "And it wasn't."

On Feb. 4, 1991, Bell announced that Northwest Environmental Advocates would sue the city for violations of the federal Clean Water Act. Only after the legal threat, Bell says, did the city scramble to cut a deal with the DEQ to keep sewage out of the Willamette.

A federal judge tossed the suit, concluding the city's deal with the DEQ was good enough, but Bell appealed. The city spent a small fortune in attorneys' fees to fight her. But she won in the U.S. Court of Appeals, setting a legal precedent that allows citizens to bring suit to enforce environmental laws. Seven years after Bell first went to court, the city finally signed a binding consent decree requiring it to keep its word to stop sending raw sewage into the Willamette.

Portland cut off several river outfalls and launched a campaign to disconnect drainpipes from storm sewers; the less water running in the system, the smaller the chance of an overflow. Most of all, the city built what's become known as the Big Pipe. It's actually three giant eastside and westside pipes that increased the system's capacity. The eastside pipe is 22 feet in diameter and is almost 6 miles long.

Since the $1.4 billion project's completion in 2011, the city has seen only nine sewer overflows, including 62 million gallons that spilled Oct. 22 after heavy rains.

The cost, however, is something we bear every day. The average household sewer bill is $65.25 a month, about 30 percent of which comes directly from the Big Pipe project.

Rising utility bills have ignited anger among Portland's ratepayers. A handful of companies that use lots of water forced a May vote whether City Hall should lose control of setting water and sewer rates. The measure lost, but the frustration endures.


From the Archives:

An Ode to the Big Pipe, July 17, 2013
In Deep S**t?, May 25, 2005, on $400 million Big Pipe budget fight