A campaign to create a public beach in downtown Portland won a major endorsement this week.

Mayor Charlie Hales has set aside $300,000 for “River Access” in his 2015 budget proposal. The city’s general fund has an estimated $49 million surplus this budget cycle.

A coalition of river advocates say they hope to use that money to restore Audrey McCall beach, a small cove on the east bank, to benefit swimmers  both human and salmonid.

“We really want to spark the pilot light for Portland’s imagination of what the Willamette can be,” said Willie Levenson, founder of the nonprofit Human Access Project.

Levenson, creator of the annual Big Float event, has made it his mission to encourage Portlanders to get in the river. Contrary to popular belief, it is generally safe to swim and splash in the Willamette River in Portland, except after very heavy rainfall.

Four years ago, he started excavating a small beach on the east bank. With friends and inmate work crews, Levenson removed 18 tons of broken concrete from the shore.

“It’s really hard to get your head around what 18 tons of concrete is. It’s about the weight of 30 elephants. It was spread out like a carpet of concrete,” he says.

Human Access Project founder Willie Levenson

Human Access Project founder Willie Levenson

John Rosman/OPB

Levonson’s group has worked with a coalition of environmental groups, including the Audubon Society of Portland, Willamette Riverkeeper, and the Urban Green Spaces Institute, to convince the city to invest in restoring the site.

The environmental groups say it could provide a critical shallow-water refuge for young migrating salmon that pass through Portland on their way to the Pacific.

“Young salmon need places to get off the main channel to rest, forage, hide from predators and grow,” said Bob Sallinger, with the Audubon Society. “They need them about every quarter mile along the river, and this is a step in that direction.”

Sallinger said environmentalists hope to create habitat by planting vegetation and placing downed trees on the shore at Audrey McCall beach.

He says with a little planning and design, the two uses of the site river access for recreationists and fish habitat should complement each other.

“The more people are able to enjoy the river, the more they will commit to taking care of it. It has a double benefit,” Sallinger said.

The city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability has identified a half-dozen other sites on the Willamette’s urban reach where habitat restoration is feasible. Sallinger said he’s eyeing those sites next.