Hydraulic dredging goes small, and precise, at sand-filled marina in Newport Beach

A diver works just below the surface in a slip at the Channel Reef marina in Newport Harbor with a hand-operated dredging device that works much like an aquarium vacuum.
(Hillary Davis)

A new type of dredging in Newport Harbor will balance the shores in the area of Corona del Mar’s China Cove, where there’s too much beach in one area and not enough a few streets away.

The city of Newport Beach and the Channel Reef Community Assn. are partnering on a precision hydraulic dredging project that will suck 5,000 cubic yards of sand out of the clogged Channel Reef marina through a hose and deposit it on the public pocket beaches just to the south.

The technique, never before used in Newport, uses a wet vac-type system maneuvered by a diver just under the surface. The system is much smaller and more nimble than the familiar mechanical dredging, which digs out sand with a backhoe-type piece of heavy machinery and dumps its spoils onto a large barge to be hauled away for disposal. Mechanical dredging is the method the city uses for its wide navigational waterways.


Bulky equipment can’t get into the tight nooks and crannies of marinas and private residential and business docks.

That’s where precision dredging, hand-directed by a diver in a stainless-steel hard hat/dive helmet, comes in. With a 6-inch-diameter hose, the diver does detail work like one might when cleaning an aquarium.

Until now, private property dredging had not been done with such a fine approach in Newport Beach.

The work at Channel Reef, a condominium development that allows boat owners to keep their vessels onsite, is being done by Apex Diving & Marine Services, a Van Nuys-based company that custom-built the equipment to fill the small-scale niche. It debuted its setup at Channel Reef this month, packed efficiently onto a 15-foot pontoon boat. By comparison, the barges used in the main harbor’s mechanical dredges are 79 feet long, according to city Harbor Resources Manager Chris Miller.

Apex Director of Operations Peter Deckard said the Channel Reef site was the most sand-clogged marina he’d ever seen.

The marina has eight slips, 10 side-ties and a kayak and paddleboard dock. Tim Paulsen, president of the Channel Reef Community Assn., said the marina started being unusable about a year and a half ago, and several boats had to be temporarily docked around town. One Duffy boat was completely aground in its slip.

“It was so packed you could walk across it,” said Scott Cunningham, vice chairman of the Newport Beach Harbor Commission.

Cunningham, who has been extensively involved in Newport’s wide-ranging dredging efforts, said the precise nature of the Apex system kicks up little cloudiness and enables the diver to avoid ecologically sensitive eelgrass.

It’s also an attractive method of maintenance dredging, which is “kind of like mowing your lawn,” he said.

Miller said currents, tides, wind waves, boat wakes and the reflection of waves off the nearby seawalls carry and direct sand.

Because Channel Reef is just inside the harbor entrance, it is first to naturally get hit with sediment. Also, with its proximity to the open ocean and the wide strands, the sand is clean and sugary, not yet mucked up by the traffic of the main harbor and its dense residential and industrial development.

But it’s hard to draw a larger contractor to smaller-scale jobs like this, and Apex found a niche, Miller said.

He said the removed sediment will first be used to refresh — or widen — the smaller of the two China Cove beaches about 400 feet away at the end of Fernleaf Avenue, then refresh the larger southerly one a few houses down. After that it will go to Pirate’s Cove, about 1,000 feet from Channel Reef and locally famous for being a filming location for the intro to “Gilligan’s Island.” Pirate’s Cove hasn’t been replenished since the late 1980s, Miller said.

The city is paying about $12,000 for the dredged sand.

Paulsen helped the homeowners association coordinate the dredge and said he’s impressed with Apex’s work. He said the marina hadn’t been cleaned out in two or three years. This job will get the marina to 12 feet below mean lower tide.

Miller said he expects the Channel Reef work to be done by mid-February.

Potentially next up with this method: the beaches and marinas of Beacon Bay, Cunningham said.

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