It looks like a steamboat crossed with a conch shell, and could scoop trash from Newport's Back Bay

Removing debris from Upper Newport Bay could be aided by a proposal that's been floating around City Hall for several months — a trash-collecting barge.

At first glance, the so-called water wheel looks like a cross between a steamboat and a conch shell. From its proposed stationary position where the San Diego Creek feeds into the Back Bay near the Jamboree Road bridge, the vessel would funnel incoming creek debris into an onboard bin that would be emptied periodically.

The vessel could be powered by a mix of solar and hydraulic energy, said Bob Stein, an engineer with the city of Newport Beach, which is leading the effort. The project's cost is estimated at $750,000 to $1 million, including ongoing maintenance costs.

City officials are looking to have it funded under Measure M, a countywide sales tax intended for transportation programs.

Stein said the water wheel is intended as an interim solution — possibly through 2029, if it's installed in 2019 — to collect trash before it flows into Newport Harbor or the Pacific Ocean. An ideal and permanent solution, he said, would be building a trash collection facility farther up San Diego Creek, possibly near Main Street in Irvine.

Newport officials point to the success of a water wheel installed in Baltimore's Inner Harbor in 2014. The barge has been nicknamed Mr. Trash Wheel — it has two googly eyes attached — and has enough of a following that its minute-by-minute progress can be viewed online. It also has a Twitter account.

Between its May 2014 debut and October 2016, Mr. Trash Wheel collected 1 million pounds of cigarettes, trash and other debris, the Baltimore Sun reported.

A second water wheel, named Professor Trash Wheel, was installed in Baltimore in December, the Sun reported.

Billy Dutton, an organizer with Newport's Help Your Harbor program, said the water wheel would be a valuable tool in protecting the Back Bay.

He noted that Help Your Harbor participants have collected 18,291 pounds of trash and debris since February 2014, but that's a small percentage of what's floating out there.

"The group realizes what they're doing is just scratching the surface of all the trash that's coming in," Dutton said.

Not everyone is excited about a water wheel in the Back Bay.

In October, Newport Bay Conservancy board President Peter Bryant wrote to a city official and then-Mayor Diane Dixon that his group could not support it.

"We feel it would be inappropriate to carry out this kind of construction in the reserve, which is also a state marine conservation area," Bryant wrote. "And we also feel that it would be an unsightly piece of machinery that would be very unpopular with local residents."

The water wheel is still in a conceptual stage, Stein said. An environmental study will determine its potential effects on the Back Bay. The project also would require review by the county, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and other agencies.

"We want to study those impacts and make sure we're not doing anything that would not be beneficial to the preserve," Stein said.

bradley.zint@latimes.com

Twitter: @BradleyZint

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