For humans, eelgrass not always greener

NEWPORT BEACH — Some call it a weed. A scourge on the bay. Others, mainly fish, can't live without it.

Eelgrass, a type of seagrass found throughout Southern California bays, lines the shore in many parts of Newport Harbor and provides refuge and food for marine life. Because of strict environmental regulations, homeowners avoid disturbing the plant. Many haven't dredged their shorelines for years, and their boats and floating docks have begun to run aground.

Trying to strike a delicate balance between the recreational and environmental value of the bay, the city is proposing a novel plan to manage eelgrass. City officials are negotiating with federal and state regulators to allow homeowners to dredge under their docks without costly mitigation. But part of the plan relies on growing the unpredictable grass in other parts of Newport Harbor using methods never tested in Southern California.

"We are trying to make things work for our residents, yet recognize the importance of eelgrass," said Chris Miller, the city's harbor resources manager.

Federally protected under the Clean Water Act, eelgrass has many ecological benefits. Besides the shelter and food it provides, it filters excess nutrients from fertilizers and other material washed into the bay. It also oxygenates water and sediment, and removes excess carbon dioxide through photosynthesis.

With long, ribbon-like blades, eelgrass provides small fish and invertebrates a refuge from predators. Crabs and other herbivores also eat it, and some smaller species attach to it for survival. Sand bass, California halibut and other fish use it as a nursery.

"We don't want to see a loss of eelgrass habitat in Newport Bay," said Bryant Chesney, a biologist at the National Marine Fisheries Service office in Long Beach.

Because of its benefits, National Marine Fisheries Service guidelines require dock owners to evaluate, transplant and monitor growth of the delicate grass. This process can cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Since regulators began strictly enforcing rules about 10 years ago, hardly any homeowners have dredged under their docks, local officials say.

To obtain a dredging permit, dock owners have to ensure the plant thrives for five years after dredging. If it doesn't survive, they're required to plant anew.

"It's a blank check," said Mark Sites, owner of Intracoastal Dredging, based in Newport Beach. "I haven't found many people that want to take on that responsibility."

Donna DiBari, a homeowner of 25 years on Balboa Island's South Bay Front, isn't one of them. She used to dredge around and under her dock every two years, she said, until the Army Corps of Engineers, the California Coastal Commission and other groups required strict mitigation.

Now the planks of her dock crack during low tide, when the sand pushes against the dock and it torques. Her dockhand refuses to repair the planks because they keep breaking, she says.

Furthermore, paint cracks and flakes off from the stress. A recent paint job cost $7,500.

"I can understand [eelgrass] does help the bay," she said, "but when you're prohibiting the owner of a dock to dredge — that's unreasonable."

The water's so shallow in front of her home that the ground scratches the instruments of DiBari's 30-foot Navigator powerboat, and she can no longer keep it there. Like many dock owners, DiBari leases space to other boaters. Now she can no longer lease to sailboat owners because their keels hit sand.

"We're a boating harbor, a recreation harbor. We need to be able to maintain and use our boats," said Miller.

While hitting ground is a problem for boats, many swimmers can't stand touching eelgrass, either.

"I hate it. It's messy and full of gunk," said Allan Beek, 83, who grew up on Balboa Island and has despised eelgrass for much of his life.

The Beek family owns the Balboa Island Ferry, whose propellers churn enough water to prevent eelgrass from growing there, his brother Seymour said. Seymour Beek owns a home and dock near the ferry and eelgrass thrives there. He hasn't dredged for about eight years. Sand now pushes up against his dock and boats during extreme low tides.

"Boats are hard to use when they're on the sand," he said dryly.

About two years ago, Beek paid $800 to have a biologist survey the eelgrass under and around his dock, because he thought he might be able to dredge in some places and not others — if eelgrass is found within 15 feet of the dredging site then the extensive mitigation is triggered.

"It was just a waste," he said, because divers found it all over. "It's almost impossible for an ordinary homeowner."

The National Marine Fisheries Service, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, makes guidelines for Southern California eelgrass mitigation. Its policy says for each square meter of eelgrass removed, a dock owner has to replant 1.2 square meters of eelgrass nearby.

A homeowner does this has to obtain permits from the Corps of Engineers, the Coastal Commission, the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the city.

Sites, the dredger, estimates this process takes between six months and a year to complete, and consumes about 300 to 500 hours of time.

The city wants to change this process and make it much easier for homeowners to dredge when sand accumulates under their docks. The city's proposal would basically set a baseline amount of eelgrass in the harbor; the current proposal is 20 acres. So long as the bay remained at or above that level, homeowners would be able to dredge without the burdensome requirements.

It appears that staff at National Marine Fisheries is receptive to the plan.

"On the one hand we want to conserve the habitat, and on the other we want to provide some flexibility for the city and the folks that are trying to use their docks for boating," said Chesney. "It's good that a comprehensive plan is being developed because it's hard to manage a habitat with individual homeowners."

But Chesney said the baseline has been contentious. His office is pushing for a higher number.

The city started monitoring its eelgrass populations in 2003 and it has been dropping since then, said Rick Ware, a marine biologist who consults for the city.

In 2003 there were 30 acres of eelgrass, and now there are 20, he said.

After months of negotiations, Miller submitted a draft last week to the National Marine Fisheries Services' Long Beach office. The plan would allow 1.5 acres of eelgrass to be dredged per year, so long as it remains above 20 acres. But if it falls between 15 and 20 acres, then only half that amount could be dredged and dock owners would have to replant using eelgrass "seed bags."

A less labor-intensive process than transplanting by hand, seed bags are essentially mesh bags filled with eelgrass reproductive shoots strung together and suspended by buoys. Positioned to grow in areas of the harbor conducive to seagrass growth, the bags would disperse the seeds and replenish the harbor's stock.

Ultimately, if the stock drops below 15 acres, then the harbor reverts back to the Southern California mitigation plan.

Another mitigation method Miller is proposing is called TERF, or "transplanting eelgrass remotely with frames." In this method, biologists tie clusters of the plant together with degradable crepe paper to a weighted frame.

Both this method and the seed bags have been successful in other bays, including San Francisco, but never tested in Southern California, according to biologist Rick Ware, the city's eelgrass consultant.

Eelgrass is dependent on uncontrollable factors like weather patterns. When it rains heavily the runoff clouds the water and stunts its growth.

"You can have a plan that is all laid out on paper," said Garry Brown, the executive director of Orange County Coastkeeper, an environmental advocacy group. "But that doesn't mean that nature is going to comply."

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