Newport Plans Defense Against Rising Tides

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One of America’s most conservative towns is now tackling climate change issues – in their own backyard.

Faced with projections of elevating ocean levels and aging sea barriers, Newport Beach city leaders are set to move forward with plans to raise Balboa Island’s seawall by more than a foot in some areas.

City Council members are scheduled to vote Tuesday on a $223,000 contract with URS Corporation, which would gather public input and design a new barrier. The project is expected to be finished in eight to ten years.

The expected action comes as more communities up and down the California coast confront a projected sea-level rise of several feet by the end of the century.

“I thought that we should start to look at it,” said Newport Beach Mayor Nancy Gardner. “We need to meet with the community and say, ‘what is the best way to approach this?’”

“We don’t want to solve the problem of the most extreme projection,” she added, “but as we look at these issues, to try to come up with solutions.”

Southern California sea levels are expected to rise between 1.4 and 5.5 feet by the century’s end, according to a June report from the National Research Council that was requested by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Based on end-of-century projections, a 2010 city-commissioned report found that extreme tides could cause “near complete flooding of Balboa Island, Little Balboa Island and Newport Island.”

Balboa Island, which is home to about 2,750 people living within 0.2 miles, is considered one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the country amidst one of the most Republican cities.

According to recent estimates by the Orange County Registrar of Voters, 54 percent of Newport Beach residents are registered Republicans compared to just over 20 percent who identify themselves as registered Democrats.

Yet when it comes to infrastructure, ideology only goes so far.

Newport’s seawall, which dates back to the 1920s and 1930s, is designed to prevent high tides and storm surges from flooding the island but is now showing cracks and corrosion, according to a city staff report.

Among the challenges city leaders face is how to balance flood protection with residents’ view of Newport Harbor.

With expected height increases to the wall between 1.3 and 2.3 feet, city leaders say they want the public involved from the very start.

Officials plan to hold block parties to gather input from residents on issues like sea wall height, drainage, and access to docks and beaches. One option city staff are looking at is the ability to add extensions to the new walls further down the line.

Another potential sticking point is whether Balboa residents, or the city at large, should pay for the project. It’s expected to cost between $55 million and $60 million.

Mayor Gardner, though, has faith that residents will work through the issues.

“Newport has always been a city that looked into the future,” said Gardner. “And I think this is another one of those examples…we need to start now and then we’ll be in good shape, whatever happens.”

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