A major dredging project in Newport Harbor wrapped up this week, leaving the lower bay cleaner and more navigable than it's been in decades, officials said.
Now, the harbor is 10 to 16 feet deep in most spots.
"First of all, I think it means we've greatly improved safety and navigation," Newport Beach Mayor Keith Curry said when asked about the roughly $7-million undertaking's close. "It substantially reduced the risk of [boats] running aground in low tide, and made the harbor cleaner and safer, because we were able to remove a lot of toxic material."
The project, funded by a combination of federal, city and county funds, removed about 600,000 cubic yards of sediment from the harbor starting in May.
Of that, about 120,000 cubic yards that were found to be too polluted to dump offshore were taken by barge to the Port of Long Beach. The rest was taken to an Environmental Protection Agency-designated site four and a half miles offshore.
The deal with the Port of Long Beach was a mutually beneficial one that played a key role in getting the muck moving, said Harbor Resources Manager Chris Miller.
"Part of the crux of the project was finding a home for that unsuitable material," he said.
Without a destination for contaminated material, the project would have likely been prohibitively expensive.
Things fell into place, Miller said, after the city sent about 90,000 cubic yards of material dredged from the Rhine Channel to Long Beach in 2011.
Seeing an opportunity to get the ball rolling on a more comprehensive dredge, "We said, 'Hey, do you have room for another 120,000 cubic yards?'" Miller said. They did, "so we amended the agreement."
While the Rhine Channel dredge was completed by contractor Dutra Dredging, the lower bay work was performed by a different contractor.
Thus, Newport Harbor's World War II-tainted dirt found a purpose: filling in a slip at the Port of Long Beach for extra container storage.
But not all aspects of the dredge came together so smoothly.
"It's been a long hard, road to complete the big dredge," Councilwoman Leslie Daigle wrote in an email.
"We hadn't had a comprehensive dredging of the bay since it was dedicated," Curry added.
While staff reports say that smaller dredging projects have removed sediment from certain areas of the harbor since more than a million cubic yards of dirt were moved from the bay in the mid-1930s, the lower bay dredging marked the end of a years-long effort to restore the bay's depths.
Preparatory sediment testing started in 2005, Miller said, but getting the Army Corps of Engineers onboard took some doing, according to Daigle.
In 2009, a roughly $17.3-million chunk of federal stimulus money helped finish a long-term dredging of the upper bay, which was completed in 2010.
City officials declared the lower bay their next priority, though the Corps seemed reluctant to take on cleaning the harbor, according reports from the time.
Daigle, along with City Manager Dave Kiff, traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby support for the project from the city's congressional delegation. The Corps is officially responsible for much of the harbor's maintenance.
"The city's commitment to provide local funds moved the project up the federal priority list," Daigle wrote.
Miller said the city contributed about $4.5 million. Of that, he said, the county is expected to kick in about $1.5 million.
The city doesn't have any other major dredging projects on the horizon, he said, although crews from the project contractor R.E. Staite Engineering are sticking around in the harbor to complete a couple of private marina dredges.
With dredge mobilization costs running well upward of $1 million, Miller said the private marina owners in question "had the foresight" to get their ducks in a row, in terms of permitting — which for private dock owners can be a task.
Next up, Miller said, is making it easier for private landowners to get permits to dredge on their own.