Taiwanese River Conference Highlights Common Concerns and Goals

Half a world away, city and Port staff partner to carry Portland’s planning messages to new audiences.

Kaohsiung City, located in southwestern Taiwan, was the gathering place for planners, engineers and environmental experts from around the world to discuss urban river management. The October 2010 Kaohsiung River Global Forum Experience of River Remediation was hosted by the city as part of a concentrated effort to improve the water quality and riparian health of the Love River.

Ann Beier, director of the city of Portland’s Office of Healthy Working Rivers, invited Susie Lahsene, Port of Portland regional affairs manager, to co-represent Portland. Their goal was to share their experiences, learn from other attendees, and discuss ways to manage urbanization and industrial pressures on river systems. Guests came from Portland and Seattle – both sister cities to Kaohsiung – Tokyo and Osaka, Japan; Sydney, Australia; and Busan and Seoul, South Korea.

The two gave a joint presentation on the Willamette River’s significant role in the city, with examples of both the good and the bad from more than 150 years of industrial and urban activities along the Willamette River. Other attendees were fascinated by Portland’s move toward eco-roofs and other green infrastructure. Dense urban development is leading people to consider how the built environment can manage stormwater through projects like green roofs or bioswales, and Portland’s efforts prompted lots of questions. Beier described the Big Pipe project and related capital expenditures as well as the relationship between the Port and the city. She stressed that the two are partners in making the river work for Portland because the Port connects the region to the rest of the world.

 Lahsene spoke about environmental improvements to industrial areas along the river and the role of the Port in the region’s economy.

The conference included field trips to wetlands and other areas along the Love River, which used to go by the name “Stinky River” because it was so degraded by sewage and industrial waste. Kaohsiung is about 10 years behind Portland in water quality improvements, and its local surface water is often undrinkable due to untreated runoff from rural areas. But the city is actively trying to implement innovations to improve water quality and introduce more complexity into river channels. Beier said, “Other participating cities have levees or floodwalls, just like Portland, to move water out as fast as possible. A lot of the discussion focused on controlling floods while providing recreational amenities, protecting threatened and endangered species, and allowing the rivers to function more naturally.”

The takeaways were numerous and in many cases enlightening. Beier said, “Being in urban areas, we all have challenges, but the island communities have big issues. When we visited Taiwan, they were between two major typhoon systems, where 300-plus centimeters of rain can fall in a just a few hours. They have to deal with intense storm systems that can affect stormwater management and water quality. They’re not debating climate change; they’re actively thinking about how they will adapt to it.” Other participants are focusing on upriver improvements to address issues at the start of a watershed, which can positively impact habitat restoration and provide flood water storage. Many projects involve restoration of wetlands.

Common ground was found in the need to balance diverse river uses. Beier remarked, “The Asian countries seem to value their rivers as amenities, with festivals, boating and other efforts to get people to the water.” Beier’s Office of Healthy Working Rivers has a similar goal to make the Willamette more accessible. “We want to create ways for people to enjoy the river and provide access for different boating populations, from kayaks to motorized boats to those out fishing.” At the same time, these rivers support commerce. She added, “We still must respect that we have a working river, so we don’t want to jeopardize our more active port area.”

The backdrop was a little like Portland: the Love River passes through the middle of Kaohsiung, with a waterfront park, seawalls and levees. On the water, dragonboats race by, while the port is one of the busiest in the world. Despite this last fact, Lahsene noted, the port is noticeably disconnected from the rest of the city: it’s not within the city limits and has not always been considered in urban planning processes, a situation city and port officials are trying to change. Other differences included the tropical weather, thousands of motor scooters, monkeys in city parks, and solar-powered barges carrying commuters. “I was startled by the vitality of the Taiwanese economy,” Beier said. “We spent one day in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital city, and its economy is doing well – with much of the activity generated by mainland China.”

The Love River, which flows through downtown Kaohsiung, is important to both trade and recreation. Photo: Ann Beier

As for next steps, the trip helped connect the two agencies with useful contacts around the world. Beier noted, “We had to go all the way to Taiwan to meet colleagues in Seattle. They have the same endangered species issues, similar contamination issues, a huge university doing interesting research—we can learn a lot from them. We’re following up on assessment tools being used in Sydney, which are more straightforward than some of the methodologies we’re using. And, of course, we’d love to have the Koreans’ funding.” Korea recently established a program to spend billions of dollars on four different waterways, focusing on water supply and flood control, with the goal of completing the project within three years.

The trip also helps support ongoing efforts related to the Willamette River. The city and the Port will continue working with the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability on ongoing river planning, with a constant eye on managing for the river’s many constituents. “In everything we do,” Beier said, “we want to continually promote Portlanders’ connection to the river.”