By Jill Cowan
11:13 PM PST, February 12, 2013
Contractors for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have begun dredging sediment in the Santa Ana River Marsh in Newport Beach — some of which is being piped just offshore for beach replenishment, drawing concerns from residents.
The roughly $5-million project, which will restore channel depths to improve water circulation and tidal flushing necessary for maintaining the 92-acre salt marsh habitat, is expected to be complete by the end of March. The Army Corps project is federally funded.
A temporary pipeline is in place to funnel what officials call "good quality sand" about 1,000 feet offshore. This process, which began Monday and likely will continue until the week of Feb. 25, will help replenish beach sand, according to a city project update.
The pipeline runs parallel to the river from the marsh area, over the beach, through the surf zone and to the approved nearshore disposal location off 60th Street, the update said.
Sediment that is deemed too silty and unsuitable for beach replenishment will be trucked to upland sites.
The marsh area is near the mouth of the Santa Ana River, upstream of West Coast Highway and east of the Greenville-Banning Channel levee.
Army Corps project Biologist Erin Jones said about 25,000 cubic yards of sediment will be pumped offshore to eventually make its way back to the beach. Meanwhile, she said, about 30,000 cubic yards of material will be reused in construction projects upland and another 20,000 cubic yards will be taken to a landfill.
The task was necessary as sediment and runoff have settled and increased stagnation since the marsh was first constructed about 20 years ago, Army Corps and city officials said.
Jones added that as shorelines erode, "That good quality sediment is really hard to come by to replenish the beaches."
But some neighbors echoed concerns that have arisen surrounding past Santa Ana River dredging projects — that the sediment, which could eventually come into contact with beachgoers, is unclean.
"I'm very disturbed.... Two-thirds [of the sediment] is going to be trucked upland and the other one-third is going into the water," beachfront resident Barbara de la Pena said. "Why should even one-third go there? It's like making a cake batter and one out of six eggs has salmonella."
De la Pena added that the Corps didn't adequately notify nearby residents of the work.
Longtime resident Richard Taylor agreed.
"We don't really know who's making the choices on this," he said. "I'm not sure it's had the proper review."
He said his primary worry, though, is about water quality.
"I hope that what we're dredging out there doesn't become a health problem for the humans and animals that play in our water.
Corps officials, however, stressed that any potentially negative effects on water quality — like some turbidity near where the sediment will be piped into the water — will dissipate soon after the work is complete.
For the time being, Jones advised swimmers and surfers near the pipeline to heed lifeguard warnings and "try and relocate."
But, she said, "the second that pipeline is out of the water, you can go over there all you want."
And, as is the case with dredging projects up and down the coast, sediment is tested for chemicals and bacteria according to various agencies' protocols, Jones said in an email.
Those agencies include the Environmental Protection Agency, Regional Water Quality Control Board and the California Coastal Commission, she said.
She added in the email that the Corps complied with the National Environmental Policy Act in distributing information about the project for public review.
An Environmental Assessment was drafted, then circulated for public review from April 18 to May 18, 2012, she wrote. A public meeting was held at Newport's city hall April 30.
"The concerns raised by local residents that attended the meeting were considered and portions of the [Environmental Assessment] were revised to accommodate those concerns."
Above all, Jones said, "I would like to emphasize that while this is a construction project, the purpose of this project is to restore endangered species habitat," Jones said. "That's the reason we're doing this — it's not a typical construction project."