The Wetter Better Willamette Valley

Tom McCall would have hated this column. As governor from 1967 until 1975, he famously invited Americans to visit Oregon, and then return to their homes in other states. Our state’s best hedge against a population explosion has been its rainy reputation. We gleefully tell anyone who will listen about our unique climate, knowing that few will distinguish “a rain forest” from “a rainy forest.” Our rain may be considerable, but it is also considerate.

We’ve had rain every day this week, but it may be the last soggy stretch we’ll see until the pumpkin patches bloom orange. Enjoy the wet with wonder.

Water gives us year-round sport and recreation, it shapes our habits and our thoughts, and it tastes great. Skiing, boating, gardening, planning, pondering, drinking, complaining — water makes us who we are.

Solomon may have been right when he mused “there’s nothing new under the sun.” That obstacle to originality barely bothers us for eight months each year, explaining why the Pacific Northwest registers more patents per capita than any other region in the world.

“Temperate” describes both our winter temperatures and the rain that fills those months. Native American tribes differentiate between a “male” rain that empties itself on the landscape in a torrent, and a “female” rain that falls softly, quietly nurturing the earth. Our rains are seldom tempests. Then come the breaks for sunshine, giving us more rainbows than I’ve ever seen anywhere.

When my family moved here in 1995, we had a list. Eugene had almost everything we wanted, except a remarkable library and what we called “grandeur.” We wanted an ocean or a mountain nearby to remind us how small we are. We wanted that reminder daily. Three months after arriving, we stood agape on our lawn and watched a storm roll in. It took our breath away. The next day I joined a group dedicated to getting Eugene a better library.

Storms and rainbows decorate our sky, but here’s what newcomers may not know. Meteorologist John Fischer once confided to me that 85 percent of the actual precipitation recorded in Lane County falls in the winter or in the dark. Rain falls here when you weren’t going out anyway.

And then it stops.

From June through September, Fischer told me only two other cities have more sunny days: Spokane and San Diego. And we make the most of it. Walk down your block the next sunny weekend and pity the poor telemarketers, trying to reach Oregonians who are outside digging in the dirt, or sanding their boat, or walking or mowing or biking or climbing, but not sitting inside waiting for the phone to ring.

Scratch beneath the surface and you’ll see that water shapes us profoundly. You live closer to the water than you think.

New England is famous for its flinty individualism, but that’s partly because the region is built on slate. Water is 90 feet straight down, so every household drills a well. Blasting that deep for sewers is too expensive, and without sewers the villages cannot grow. Homeowners need an acre each for septic and leeching fields, so neighbors aren’t so near. Self-reliance rules in New England.

Our region is just the opposite. We “go with the flow” because water is just barely beneath us. Sweepers keep a monthly schedule not to shine our streets, but to gather the grime before it reaches the river. That short connection from aquifer to river has made us alert, aware, and active (in that order) about our environment.

We love being outdoors, but we also love the outdoors. And it loves us back.

The snowpack to our east gives us recreation and respite year round. We can go to it for a late-season ski, or we can wait for the melt to bring the river recreation to us. The mountains store the moisture when we have plenty already and then doles it to us through our dry season, a drip irrigation system writ large for the region.

If one were to design a lush landscape with human enjoyment in mind, it would look like this. It’s better and wetter than almost anyplace else. We’re lucky to live here. But don’t tell Tom McCall I told you.


Don Kahle ( served on the Eugene Public Library Foundation board for six years. The men’s restroom on the first floor is named “The Comic News Reading Room” to commemorate his efforts. Kahle writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs.