Volunteers working to restore Upper Newport Bay estuary

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Only about 5 percent of the original coastal wetlands remain along California’s coast and the Newport Bay Estuary in Orange County is one of those areas.

Volunteers are working to make sure it stays that way.

They are planting eelgrass beginning June 25 in the Upper Newport Bay estuary. The Upper Bay stretches east from the Pacific Coast Highway Bridge in Newport Beach.

Planting the native seagrass is part of an on-going effort to restore wildlife diversity and improve the ecosystem of Upper Newport Bay.

Eelgrass is a key part of restoring and maintaining the health of the estuary.

“It could easily be considered the rainforest of the sea,” said Ray Hiemstra, Associate Director of Programs with Orange County Coastkeeper. “It provides food, forage and shelter for many organisms while producing oxygen and stabilizing fragile banks.”

He said the benefits also include a healthier ecosystem to benefit Newport Bay’s commercial and recreational fishery.

Hiemstra said the eelgrass in Upper Newport Bay had declined due to water pollution and other factors.

But now, the health of the estuary is improving.

“Over the last 20 years there’s been hundreds of millions of dollars worth of improvements in the watershed which have resulted in much better water quality in Upper Newport Bay and in the water that is going into the Bay,” said Hiemstra.

He said a recent environmental dredging project in Upper Newport Bay has laid the groundwork for the new eelgrass to thrive.

“The dredging created areas for species such as least terns and plant species,” explained Hiemstra. “It also removed some of the fine nasty sediment that was causing a lot of turbidity in the Bay. Eelgrass needs a lot of light so if there’s sediment and other stuff floating around in the bay, it’s difficult for eelgrass to grow.”

The eelgrass planting is the second phase of the four-year, $157,000 restoration project. The state Coastal Conservancy and NOAA are paying for the effort.

The last two phases are monitoring water quality and wildlife and follow-up restoration if needed.

Hiemstra said the idea is to bring back the entire Upper Newport Bay ecosystem to as much as a natural state as possible.

The restoration project is coordinated by Orange County Coastkeeper and the Department of Fish and Game staff at the Back Bay Science Center in Newport Beach.

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