New Photographs from Jon Gottshall
The floodplains along the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers were, in their pre-development state, a braided maze of tidal and seasonal streams, wetlands and marshes. As an intermediate zone between the riverbanks and the drier uplands, the floodplains supported one of the regions most diverse and complex ecosystems, home to a wide variety of aquatic and upland species.
The floodplain that now exists along the Willamette and Columbia Rivers is quite different. As the wetlands were drained, the drier land became ideal for economic development—railroads, warehouses and manufacturing became the main utility of the floodplains, kept behind a protective barrier of levees.
Not all of the waterways were eliminated, of course. The Willamette has been channeled, what was once a real Swan Island is now a peninsula, the upriver eastern channel filled and now spider-webbed with railroad tracks. The Columbia Slough, along with several lakes and ponds, are the surviving remnants of what once covered the Columbia’s southern shore near the outlet of the Willamette.
We like to build where it is easiest. From an economic perspective, a low floodplain makes an attractive site to develop, if you can ward off annual floods. Dams and levees were built along the Columbia to keep the high water back, and the once porous landscape is now covered with hardscape and impervious surfaces. The Slough has been relegated to a drainage, and has filled with industrial sediments for over a century.
Yet aquatic life, damaged though it is in the Slough and the Willamette, persists and somehow endures. Herons, osprey and otter still make it their home, albeit living on fish that the Oregon DEQ warns humans against consuming. For some people, it is a place of recreation and connection. Though there is a great deal of work to be done, initial steps are now underway to stabilize and perhaps restore both waterways to a more sustainable ecosystem.
The effects of the past 100 years of development are everywhere to be seen, and the urbanized waterways of this nation will never be “wild” again. Our engineering of major waterways is not likely to stop. This exhibit represents a questioning of how we choose to build on and use environmentally sensitive land, a search to find space between human utility and ecosystem health, which can allow for the function of both in a sustainable manner. We need a new paradigm for the future.