2004 Prize Winner
The Willamette River has always fascinated Travis Williams. The executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper grew up near the waterway in Milwaukie and spent his youth paddling along its currents and jumping into its waters from the basalt bluffs across from George Rogers Park. "I wouldn't say I was Tom Sawyer or anything like that," Williams chuckles. "But that laid the groundwork for how I enjoy the river today." Williams, 33, graduated from Rex Putnam High School and earned a degree in international studies at Portland State University. Later, while studying for his master's degree in environmental sciences at John Hopkins University, he worked for American Rivers, a national organization dedicated to river-protection issues. After graduating four years ago, he returned to Portland and was hired as the executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper, the nonprofit organization founded in 1996 to protect the waterway from pollution. Working with a large web of volunteers and other environmental groups, Williams' group monitors 200 miles of the Willamette, keeping an eye out for environmental damage, tracking fish populations and health, and making sure companies located near the river are following the requirements of the wastewater permits. Willamette Riverkeeper also tries to make connections between people and the Willamette through a variety of activities. Williams and his co-workers encourage healthy environmental practices by riverfront property owners and organize large group canoe trips and field trips with schools. "We try to get people to learn about the river and start developing an affinity with it," Williams says. "Teachers love to provide that safe opportunity to get their students out there and teach them about animal habitats, water care, and the Willamette's history." Williams keeps a busy schedule. Some days are filled with meetings ("All related to river stuff, which shouldn't be a surprise," Williams says); others can include leading canoe trips. Sometimes he does maintenance on the canoes and patrol boat, and sometimes he drives up and down I-5 corridor checking up on sites ranging from the Portland Harbor Superfund to the industrial mills of Albany. Williams is preparing the organization for a move from its current location near in Sellwood to a new boathouse and office by the Hawthorne Bridge. Williams says the move will get the Willamette Riverkeeper closer to the heart of Portland, where people interested in the river will have an easier time reaching the group intent on keeping it as a a public treasure.