Simplicity enters the island’s lagoon. Houck gestures out over the vast expanse of flat water. Cottonwoods, crumbling banks, and upturned, skeletal tree roots define the far shore. “When the lagoon was first formed [in 1979], it was 20 feet deep,” he says of our location. “Now it’s 130 feet deep.”
Our boat is a sturdy craft, with small decks fore and aft and a nifty, arched-roof cabin, complete with woodstove, in between. All the same, the thought of the man-made abyss stretching full-fathom 21 below us is slightly unnerving. A bitter wind blows. It’s Sunday, and Ross Island Sand and Gravel barges, heaped with debris, sit motionless in the water. On the east side of the lagoon, the company’s gravel-processing plant looms—gray, corroded, and deserted, like an artifact of post-Soviet industrial decay. The landscape feels more like the setting of an action movie’s climax than Portland’s next great park. Houck, undeterred, makes for the lagoon’s western bank.
Ross Island Sand and Gravel stopped excavating Ross eight years ago. Around that time, Houck joined city and Metro officials on an advisory board to review the company’s operations permit, which spells out many of its environmental obligations. The previous management guidelines, dating to 1979, had called for the eventual reconstruction—somehow—of the islands’ original contours. “We decided, well, if those are the terms, that’s never going to happen,” Houck says. “So we changed the agreement to say that they had to bring the shore out 15 acres and create a bunch of shallow-water habitat at the north end of the lagoon.”
Young salmonids need shallow water to rest and feed in as they migrate. Ross may be a mined-out husk, but for fish, it still has its uses, particularly when they face the long swim through the hard edges of downtown’s seawall and the Portland Harbor. As Sallinger explains, none of the work and money going into salmon restoration upriver will work as well if Ross isn’t also restored. “Once you get into the river’s northern reaches,” he says, “Ross is kind of the last gasp of natural habitat.”
So these days, the Ross Island Sand and Gravel barges are actually dumping dirt back into the lagoon to create a graded underwater landscape congenial to fish. A lot of the actual infill material comes from the nearby excavation of the Big Pipe, the $1 billion-plus super-sewer project that will reduce the amount of raw excrement that flows into the Willamette from Portland. Where Ross Island’s gravel once made the buildings and sidewalks of the city, the city’s plumbing system is now rebuilding Ross Island. But preliminary estimates suggest that the reconstruction effort will require 4.5 million cubic yards of material—the equivalent of the volume of the US Bancorp Tower, 50 times over. As if to amplify the ambiguity over whether Pamplin is an ally or an enemy, Ross Island Sand and Gravel has missed several deadlines to provide information about the work’s effect on water quality, to the chagrin of state and federal environmental officials.