Environment & Science

Newport Beach takes ecosystem approach to preserving eelgrass

Eelgrass, under the water.
Eelgrass, under the water.
Orange County Coastkeeper

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The aquatic plant eelgrass provides crucial habitat and food for sea life along California’s coast, but it is often considered a nuisance for homeowners and coastal communities. Silt and sand inevitably pile up under docks and in bays, and when those areas need to be dredged out so boats can circulate, state and federal authorities require extensive mitigation of any eelgrass that is disturbed in the process.

But one Orange County city has found a way to take the edge off of conserving eelgrass. Under a special deal with state and federal authorities, Newport Beach is allowed to manage the eelgrass population in Newport Bay as a whole, taking much of the burden for restoration off individual home and dock owners.

Jim Jordan is one of around 25 homeowners on Newport Bay’s Linda Isle who have applied to dredge out their docks under the program, which is entering its second year. 

“[It’s] a major benefit for homeowners and property owners on the bay,” Jordan said. 

In other parts of California, the state’s eelgrass mitigation plan requires individuals to replace disturbed eelgrass, monitor its growth for five years and prove that its healthy with extensive paperwork. Many forego dredging because of the costly and time-consuming requirements. 

Chris Miller, Newport Beach’s harbor resources manager, said the city received around 60 applications from home and dock owners for dredging under the program in 2016, up from just a handful in previous years. 

Miller said it took years of collecting data on Newport Bay’s eelgrass population — “blade for blade” — before the city could apply to state and federal authorities to implement the program. Eelgrass mitigation is overseen by a number of agencies, including the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the California Coastal Commission.

Miller called Newport’s program "an ecosystem approach” to restoration. Through extensive annual surveys, the city determines how much eelgrass is in the bay, calculates how much can be disturbed through dredging and then doles our permits accordingly. 

Homeowners proposing small dredging projects in areas considered low-impact may not have to do any mitigation at all.

Miller said the program will be evaluated after six years to determine whether it’s been successful. According to a recently concluded survey, Newport Bay’s eelgrass population is up from the previous year. 

But Miller doesn’t necessarily give the mitigation program credit for that. Many external factors affect eelgrass growth, including water clarity and quality. 

Ninety percent of California’s coastal eelgrass has disappeared since the 1850s, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Crabs, scallops, turtles, numerous fish species and migratory birds depend on the underwater grass. 

Miller hopes Newport’s ecosystem-based eelgrass program will give homeowners an incentive to help conserve the fragile, life-giving grass.