Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-California) gestures toward the Back Bay during a ceremony highlighting the completion of the Upper Newport Bay Ecosystem Restoration Project at the Peter and Mary Muth Interpretive Center on Saturday. Among others speaking was Congressman Ed Royce (R-California), seated at left. (KENT TREPTOW, Daily Pilot / November 6, 2010)

NEWPORT BEACH — While waiting for her turn to speak Saturday, Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-California) shielded her eyes from the sun and looked over her shoulder, taking in the view.

Between Fashion Island's towers to the left, homes to the right and commercial airliners soaring overhead, Upper Newport Bay was at high tide and full of life.

If some politicians had their way years ago, this 750-acre watershed would look vastly different, probably with homes and baseball fields. Instead, in a city millionaires, luxury cars and glitz, there were students touring wetlands, jumping off of levees and soiling their clothes in dust and grass, just like nature intended.

Lawmakers took a break from budget and job worries Saturday to visit the Peter and Mary Muth Interpretive Center and soak in what $47.4 million, four years of dredging and bipartisanship can do.

"At a time when there is national debate about the proper role of government in our lives, this project is the poster child for the wise and proper use of precious taxpayer dollars," said Councilwoman Leslie Daigle. "It is as important as any infrastructure project we could ask our governmental entities to undertake for a long-term benefit of this city and this region."

"There's probably not going to be too many of these in the near future," Feinstein said, referring to local and regional politicians prioritizing environmental projects given today's economy.

Thanks to almost $31 million in federal funding, more than half from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and $16.6 million in local funding, contractors completed the Upper Newport Bay Ecosystem Restoration Project in September.

"They say nothing in Washington ever gets done," said Rep. Ed Royce (R-California). "Well, this is one exception to that."

The project has preserved the homes for thousands of species of wildlife. It restored erosion from decades of urbanization along the watershed, sending millions of cubic yards of sediment down the bay into the wetlands and beyond into Newport Harbor.

Workers dredged two large basins to catch the sediment and created an island for native birds. The project ensures the bay only has to be dredged once every 21 years.

The habitat will provide a home for some 200 species of birds, 75 species of fish, 19 species of reptiles and amphibians, 17 species of mammals. 12 species of insects and more than 1,000 species of invertebrates. Dredging isolated the species from predators like raccoons, possums and feral cats.

"If we didn't have that here you wouldn't get the opportunity to see the things nature has created," said Councilman Don Webb, who takes his grandkids around the bay.

"Timing was everything, and timing was on our side," said Garry Brown, founder of the Orange County Coastkeepers. "When you look at it, your soul tells you how valuable this is."