The fading of the Grand Canal

On Balboa Island, residents take pride in their quaint shops, rival banana stands and picturesque ferry service. But the watery channel that cuts through it, called the Grand Canal, doesn't quite fit that image.

Sure, the water still reaches high levels — perhaps even higher than in decades past, one resident says — but much of the sand lining the waterway has sloughed away, leaving a beach of what looks more like slimy mud than fluffy grains.

The canal's name hearkens back to the way things once were, when children scoured the canal's shores for seashells or paddled up and down the water on wooden boards, said resident Mike Buettell.

It used to be that one could simply step off the concrete seawall that lines the canal and land on the sand below, he said. Now, the drop down requires a dangerous jump or use of the stairs on someone's private dock.

Still, Buettell believes the canal could be grand again. The city just needs to dredge it.

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Circa 1937

Buettell's great-grandfather paid $600 in 1937 for the Balboa Island lot where Buettell and his wife, Sue, both 67, now live for nine months of the year.

"These were just beach cottages in the old days," he said.

Signs warned not to dive off the Park Avenue bridge, which crosses the canal, but Buettell did so anyway when on trips with his parents to visit family. The water was deep enough.

Back then, in the 1950s through the '80s, the city dredged the canal periodically, sucking sediment from the middle of the canal and depositing it on the side, Buettell recalled.

That practice largely stopped after 1986, Buettell said, and though he has asked the city for assistance, little has changed.

"It's as if the city's forgotten the canal," he said.

The area is a narrow channel, and sand can only be stacked so high, said Harbor Resources Manager Chris Miller.

He added that he hasn't found any evidence of regular dredging there in the past.

The city dredged the area in the 1990s, but Buettell called it "half-hearted."

The city also deposited sand from elsewhere, and that has since been washed away, he said.

More recently, Newport Beach hired a landscaping company to rake the green moss off the waterway's shores. But the canal has not been dredged as Buettell hoped.

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Meadowlands

On a recent Tuesday morning, Buettell walked over the Park Avenue bridge and gestured down toward the mass of green strands visible under the shallow water: "That's our issue," he said.

Protected by state and federal law, eelgrass grows throughout the canal, plus other areas in the harbor. Whereas Buettell and his childhood friends used to rake a path through it because they didn't like how the plant felt on their skin, restrictions now protect the plant from anyone who would disturb it.

Eelgrass serves as a foraging place for birds and fish, in addition to sustaining other aquatic benefits, Miller explained.

"It's good, except when you want to dredge," he said.

The city has been working for more than five years to establish a citywide eelgrass plan for the harbor.

Still in its conceptual phase, the plan takes a holistic approach to understanding eelgrass, looking at the balance of the entire population.

That way, the city could determine how different projects would affect the system as a whole — if at all — making it possible to dredge small areas with less trouble.

"Could that apply to the Grand Canal?" Miller asked. "It might."

As it stands, he intends to begin the process for getting clearance to dredge the canal outside of the citywide eelgrass plan that remains in development.

Under current rules, specific dredging and eelgrass plans would have to be presented, including assurance that the city would replant 1.2 square feet of eelgrass for every square foot disturbed, Miller said.

The process will be slow, both for the canal-specific permitting and the citywide plan. State and federal fish and wildlife agencies have given input for the city regarding the latter, as have the California Coastal Commission and Army Corps of Engineers.

Mayor Pro Tem Ed Selich, who represents the area, was sympathetic to the frustration of residents, who continue to write with complaints:

"Visitors and residents alike walk the perimeter of the big and little islands every day, enjoying mostly scenic beauty," wrote homeowners Nancy and Joe Fries in a letter to Selich and Miller, "But the appearance of the canal is an eyesore. The smell is an affront. For those of us with homes along the canal, it's an unfair detriment to our property values and our quality of life."

As Selich put it, as the area grows more shallow, it's come to be more like a meadow than a canal.

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Eroding memories

Moving from the bridge, Buettell walked toward the southern mouth of the canal. A Balboa Island baseball cap shaded his eyes as the sun broke through the clouds. He took off his shoes, rolled up his pants and stepped down into the muck.

Aesthetics and recreation aside, houses on the island are also at risk, Buettell said. He pointed under the seawall, where several inches of sand had eroded — hinting at a future threat to the foundation of the homes.

One of his neighbor's, Wendy Friedman, who moved to the Island in 2011, agreed that she expected better from the city.

"It should just be a regular maintenance issue," she said of the needed dredging.

If not for Buettell, though, Friedman says she might not have known any different.

"It always looked like this to them," Buettell acknowledged of his newer neighbors. "That's what hurts. They don't know."

Buettell plans to continue informing those who live along the canal of the issues at play, be it by knocking on doors or handing out fliers. For him, it's high time for a change.

Nearby, three kids scampered on a pile of rocks, looking for crabs as mud covered their feet.

Their dad, Jeff Gottfurcht, explained that he had explored the area himself as a child. Now a San Francisco resident, he and his family were visiting his parents, who live nearby. While on the island, he wanted to recreate the experiences for them that he used to have.

One of his two daughters, Ella, proudly displayed three crabs in a bucket that she had caught within minutes.

"Three, three, three," she sang.

She bent over and pinched a fourth.

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