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Federally protected eelgrass continues its rebound in Newport Harbor

Federally protected eelgrass continues its rebound in Newport Harbor
Eelgrass pops up near the shore of Balboa Island in Newport Beach during a very low tide. (File Photo)

Eelgrass has nearly doubled in Newport Beach waters over the past decade, pleasing the city’s harbor officials.

Three years into a program that allows harborfront property owners to disturb some of the federally protected sea grass during maintenance dredging, the long, billowing blades now cover about 30 acres underwater, up from about 16 in 2009.

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Eelgrass is known for providing foraging, sheltering, spawning and nursing areas for a range of marine animals.

“I am trying very hard to change the attitude [toward] eelgrass in the harbor,” city Harbor Resources Manager Chris Miller told the Harbor Commission on Wednesday. “I’m trying to be its biggest cheerleader.”

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Until recently, pricey red tape made eelgrass synonymous with frustration.

Waterfront property owners, who are responsible for dredging under their docks, have to balance ecological sensitivity with clearing away accumulated muck. Because the National Marine Fisheries Service considers eelgrass a critically important habitat, tight regulations made it difficult to maintain properties.

Between biological testing and replacement of damaged grass, mitigation was costly and few property owners sought the green light, Miller said.

Then Newport Beach officials crafted a program in 2016 with the Army Corps of Engineers and California Coastal Commission to allow more give and take. Under the plan, small-scale, often private dredging projects can scoop out up to 75,000 total cubic yards of sediment and disturb up to one acre of eelgrass per year overall, with the idea that the grass would eventually grow back.

It’s based on a dynamic population and distribution model that provides an incentive for having more eelgrass around the harbor — the more eelgrass is present at the time, the more can be lost to small projects.

“I know that sounds counterintuitive, but it would be a bad day if we did not have any eelgrass,” Miller said.

Volunteer divers bring in eelgrass collected from a lagoon near Linda Isle in 2015 for transplant elsewhere in Newport Beach waters.
Volunteer divers bring in eelgrass collected from a lagoon near Linda Isle in 2015 for transplant elsewhere in Newport Beach waters. (File Photo)

A year after a dredge of Balboa Island’s Grand Canal was completed in 2017, a survey showed a solid bounce-back for eelgrass, which Harbor Commissioner Scott Cunningham attributed to improved tidal flushing, or water circulation via tidal flow, as a result of the dredge.

Well-flushed water is better oxygenated and more hospitable to all marine life.

To have more eelgrass in the upper harbor, where the meadows aren’t as robust, “it’s all about good tidal flush, and hopefully someday we’re going to have better flush in that part of the harbor,” Cunningham said.

Miller said surveys gathered by divers showed 16.2 acres of eelgrass in 2009, nearly 23 acres in 2012, about 27.5 in 2016 and 30.2 in 2018. The city collects the surveys every two years under terms of the program. The results can be used as a blanket survey for property owners, saving them from previously required individual surveys at their own expense.

Before Newport’s program, Miller said, the city saw fewer than five dredging applications per year. But between 2016 and 2018, the city saw 85 applications.

He said Newport Beach is the only city in the United States with this kind of program. Other coastal cities in California use the default California Eelgrass Mitigation Policy, which requires a replacement ratio of 1.38-to-1 — “If you impact one blade of eelgrass, then you have to mitigate 1.38 blades for your project,” Miller said.

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