Sinking Islands

How the dream of man-made islands off the shore of Newport Beach became more of a costly burden than a utopian dream.

Balboa Island did not exist until it was dredged into being in 1904. In those days, the property was a muddy wetland surrounded by water. Old, grainy photos show shiny streaks of water slicking through the soft terrain. In those days plots of shallow waters and sand were usually hidden by regular high tides, making the land seem like an undesirable place to build a home. Boats would have a difficult time maneuvering, often hitting sand bars into the shallow waters with disgruntled fisherman and merchants having to wade into the waters to push them out. It would six years later when Collins came along with giant digging machines to build an island that present-day wealthy Newport Beach citizens hold near and dear for its unique and short history. One of the first buildings erected, the Pavilion, is built on a solitary plot of sand with surrounding water making the structure itself look like an island itself. The Victorian recreation facility is photographed in 1906 looking like a lone farmhouse in the middle of stranded, untouched plains somewhere in the Midwest, except in this case; the farmland is water and is accompanied by some spare plants and grasses.

Balboa Island, a man-made island, has been something of an environmental nuisance since Collins came around with his bright idea. Dredging, which is essentially vacuuming sediment out of a harbor, is like underwater mining. Nowadays, when harbors need to be dredged, they usually ship the extra mud to a site the Environment Protection Agency approves for an agreed upon sum.

But back before the EPA could have a say, the Newport Investment Co. and Collins dredged Newport Harbor and laid used their dredged sand and sediment to create the Balboa Peninsula.

Courtesy of Historical Society of Balboa Island

Back then, the Newport Harbor initially served as a natural depository for the Santa Ana River, and water and sand continuously flowed through the Bay and into the ocean creating more series of sand and mud deposits. In the eyes of nature, Newport Bay was meant to be shallow and if Collins gave it a hundred more years, it’s possible that the Bay would be a giant hunk of sand.

So, being a natural depository, the vacuuming of mud would need to need to continue if man wanted land where he wanted land and water where he wanted water.

Collins didn’t think about that. Of course he didn’t; it was 1905. Since then, many dredging projects would commence with Newport officials dumping their leftover mud on someone else’s plate or to reconstruct the edges of the islands to keep them from eroding into the sea. Perhaps, if man had allowed nature to simply run it’s course, the continuous piling of sand would make Newport Bay a picturesque meadow, or maybe it would sink into the sea because of flooding due to climate change and rising sea levels. But now, with wildlife depending on the current man-made ecosystem, consistent maintenance is an expected reality.

Balboa represents the American Dream. Much like a bright green lawn in front of a picture-perfect home, Collins hustled up a sleazy scheme to make his artificial, pretty dream come true. Today, the artificial Palm Islands in Dubai, shaped like palm trees, have over 100 luxury hotels catering to the lush, and relaxing island life. The potential risks of living on the Palm Islands are similar to those living on Balboa, with weak soil and exposure to rising sea levels. Like Balboa, the Palm Islands are also conveniently placed in an area prone to earthquakes. With any landform that didn’t exist before man’s meddling to make it habitable, Balboa is far from unique. Ancient cities like Cleopatra’s Alexandria in Egypt, or Pavlopetri in Greece, and Dwarka, Gulf of Cambay in India, were all planned cities built along flimsy coastlines only to be devastated by earthquakes or floods that eventually sunk into the sea and stumbled upon by excited archeologists years later. The plains of the Netherlands used to be devastated by storms that would flood their plains, even changing the contour of the land. If it wasn’t for their complex dike system, there is a very great chance that Amsterdam would be underwater.

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In Newport Harbor today, there are expensive yachts, jets and sailboats paying for their spot on the bright blue seafront. In northern Orange County, it is difficult to get away from the overwhelming traffic. Even on the water, the sense of overpopulation creeps in gnawing at your neck. Rowers power through channels, with coaches shouting at jets to slow down. It’s picturesque, though, with daily neon sunsets on a glimmering, flat horizon.

Old women in visors stroll down the Bayfront sidewalks and look out at Newport Harbor from Balboa Island while gliding past wooden hand-painted signs on tiny lawns that read, “nothing grows where the dog goes!” Those who amble down Bayfront are not in a hurry to get from point A to B; they are merely walking to walk. They move past waterfront backyards, all possessing a similar “quaint” allure, as if the owners had all followed the same blue prints when deciding where to put their naked-angel statue. One home has dozens of stuffed animals placed in the windows, all eerily gazing out towards passing by strangers. Of course, owners know strolling visitors peer into their yards on a daily basis, with only a couple of feet separating them from their back windows giving clear views of family portraits hanging over their televisions. They may have a private dock with a tiny rowboat roped up, but the gate is always locked with a “No Trespassing” warning posted.

Balboa Marina Ave. / Courtesy of Balboa Island Historical Society

The main street, Marina Ave., is littered with small, high-end shops ranging from salons and privately owned retail stores to “Bluth’s Banana Stand,” a re-creation of the shop featured in the show “Arrested Development.” The show is a tongue and cheek attack at the typical lifestyle in Orange County, and continuously makes fun of the people who live on the island and in Orange County. But they love it, A Change.org petition was even drawn up by residents to bring the banana stand to the island after their annual parade saw a temporary version of Bluth’s. 550 signatures secured the business in place. With bananas starting at $2.50, families in board shorts and flip-flops line up for frozen bananas dipped in chocolate. But why does everyone wear board shorts? There’s no swimming. From an aerial view of the island, it looks as if there are only as many pools on the island as there are fingers on one hand. In late 2012, a dredging mishap saw the accidental spill of nearly 2,800 gallons of sewage into harbor waters so perhaps swimming in the bay is not the wisest of ideas.

People wear bathing suits, but no one dares to stick a toe in the harbor’s water. While the sun reflects a glimmer making the water shine bright blue, it is thick and dirty, with an off-colored foam surfacing on the edge of the shore. In their casual summer-wear in mid-February, tourists and locals use golf-carts and cruiser bikes to get around. Aquatic-themed mail boxes and hand-made signs that say “the beach is that-a way,” would make one think that the town would offer more than the singular charm of beach-town lifestyle, other than just a thematic element that serves to make Balboa into more than what it truly is. With only one bridge connecting the island to the mainland, there’s always traffic. On weekends, long streams of impatient drivers with Starbucks in their cup holders sit behind BMWs moving at a glacial paces while glaring at pedestrians as they jay walk across the busy street. For many businesses on the island, websites and brochures preach, “parking is difficult, but be persistent!” Activities on the island consist of whale watching, kayaking and sportsfishing—in addition to the usual shopping, eating, loafing about in lawn chairs, and screwing around and blasting music from an overpriced boombox on a rowboat in the harbor. There is something special about this island though—it serves to please the affluent. The only animals to be seen are dogs on leashes, and there certainly are no homeless people allowed to collect on, say, Amethyst, Diamond, Pearl or Emerald St. Today, waterfront homes are priced up to $8.7 million and vacation rentals can cost up to $3,500 per week. So, if one doesn’t mind shelling out the big dollars to sit on a lawn chair while sipping on an $8 milkshake on a man-made island, maybe it isn’t so bad and it’s all worth the trouble and this island is worth keeping around.

There are beautifully constructed homes, with maybe a foot separating them from each other. Several are identified as Historic Homes, having been around since the first dredging with plaques confirming them as “Historical Landmarks.” Those homes are the ones to have survived the trials and errors of the early days of development. Owners of those old homes would complain of lack of plumbing, electricity, and flooding back when the island was less than a decade old. The tides would usually rise flooding the island on a regular basis. This prompted the first construction of the surrounding seawall, which would prevent tides from causing too much damage to the vulnerable piece of land. Back then, lots were priced starting at $300, but were sometimes sold for as little as $25 with promises that sewer-lines and plumbing would be installed. Sometimes, homes were simply abandoned. But, as progress picked up, roads were built and streetlights were put up. Suddenly, prices for homes skyrocketed and within 20 years, Balboa Island was the place to be and people were coming back to their abandoned lots. The Historical Society on Marina Ave. has a small room dedicated to the founding of the island. It praises the newness of the idea at the time of construction with captions under old photos bragging about the founding of how everything came to be on the island. It includes some of the first shop owners coming to the island with prospects of fortune, the first fire station and the different types of families that would vacation along with a handful of businesses that would open up along Marine Ave. In the small museum on Marina Ave., there are multiple photos of an oblivious little girl, Shirley Temple, with short ringlets smiling on the rudimentary sidewalks. Balboa Island was built and intended to serve as a luxurious resort for wealthy Los Angeles and surrounding city residents.

Courtesy of Balboa Island Historical Society

An early “promoter” and creator of the Newport Investment Co., William S. Collins was certainly a man with a dream. His plans for building a profitable land from the ground up were at his fingertips. In the early 1860s, the bay was used as a landing to load goods for export. It would be established as “Newport Landing,” with a wharf and warehouse near the west end of present-day Newport Bay Bridge. The bay was considered dangerous and wasn’t truly a harbor since sandbars made navigation difficult, but the calm waters were inviting. Originally dubbed as “swamp and overflow” land, it would serve no purpose to man other than as a nuisance and a waste of pleasant weather. As a strange in-between land, offering something that was more than a body of water and a step down from land, it was money would be needed to create a land to put down a building—otherwise it would be rendered useless to man. With the rearrangement of sand and sediment, it became valuable. In 1902, McFadden sold the Newport town site and half of the Peninsula to Collins for a rumored $35,000. In 1905, Collins began dredging for his “pet project.” Huntington joined in the Balboa project when he saw that the Red Car, which connected Los Angeles to Newport, could add on a section stopping at Balboa, thus making the new island easily accessible to summer people like Shirley Temple and John Wayne. The southern terminus acted as a tool in potentially turning the island into a highly profitable development project and a place of importance and relevance. Tourists would hop on the Pacific Electric Railway line and get dropped off at the Pavilion, solely built as a southern terminus. After the construction of the Pavilion, buildings such as the Hotel Balboa were hastily constructed to accommodate incoming tourists. Balboa was, in a sense, built to serve the railway, to increase ridership and ultimately, to sell homes and land.

Collins, the prominent Southern Californian businessman and developer, knew there was promise in Balboa—he and his partners, who eventually included Henry Huntington of the Pacific Electric railway company, knew that it could be a convenient place for vacationers to come to. He promoted it as the “Queen of Beaches.” Yet, since there was no concern about environmental impact at the time of the dredging of the Peninsula, untold damage was done to the surrounding marine ecosystem. In retrospect, the creation of a series of three artificial islands on the coast of northern Orange County seems—by contemporary standards—to have been irresponsibly hasty. There would be a long string of consequences associated with the dredging of the islands—consequences that would follow Balboa a hundred years into the future—even though at the time of its founding, the dredging and construction was referred to airily as Collins’ “pet project” by the Los Angeles Times. Collins’ dream to bring people to this former “swamp,” included persuading them to pay a high price for something that was once worth so little. He even hired out pushy salesmen to travel to rich neighborhoods in surrounding neighborhoods in LA, like Pasadena, to hand out pamphlets convincing the wealthy to come buy plots of land on his swamp-island.

There was little to be desired in the beginning, what with frequent flooding from seawater, a lack of adequate sewers and streetlights, and no sanitation services. But Collins was a talented American hustler, and people who looked at the luxurious brochure showcasing Balboa as an exotic retreat did not see overflowing sewers or flooded first floors. Instead, they saw fabulous beaches and a seaside vacation waiting for them and their friends, leading them into believing that the island was not going through any sort of problem. They thought it already was a tourist destination. There was no grand hotel, instead, early residents had to go out with shovels and dig giant holes in the island to bury their trash. The few homes that were initially built were often boarded up in the summers. Undeterred, Collins went ahead and dredged another island for himself, “Collins Island.” On his own tiny island, he built the “Collins Castle”—a huge white elephant made of cement. The home, which—like a Hollywood mogul—he built for his fourth wife, was described by locals at the time as one of the most beautiful seaside dwellings in the world. An Old photo shows the building standing alone on the island, as if it truly was a castle floating on water. Collins’ clear desire for the finer, bigger, better things in life was embodied in his grandiose castle, and really in the very idea of Balboa itself: a stomping ground for the rich and famous. Today, a home on Collins Island goes for $9 million.

In 1915, after selling half of the properties on Balboa that he intended to sell, Collins went broke, sold his castle and was forced to abandon his pipe dream, only to leave Balboa, an unfinished project, to the city of Newport Beach. By 1916, Balboa Island was a part of the city. Collins had started something he couldn’t finish. He dug up a bunch of sand, put it in one place designating it as land and the deep trenches in the harbor that he dug up, he designated as the harbor making it suitable for boats—but with the Santa Ana River still depositing sand into the waters, the harbor would always be a sand depositary and always the end terminal for water streams. Dredging would be a regular part of maintenance and man would struggle with having to protect the multi-million dollar homes they put out on what they call self-made prime real estate

After about 100 years, Balboa is one of the densest communities in Orange County with about 3,400 people living on an island that is only a bit more than one square mile in area with 1.71-mile perimeter. With an entire annexed town sitting on a pile of sand though, it’s hard to get excited about the structural integrity of what the land actually has to offer besides just nice views and artificial waterfront properties. As permanent as Collins wanted Balboa to be, it’s about as temporary as a sand castle. But with 3,400 people and hundreds of really expensive homes, it’s something fiscally worth protecting. Balboa, Lido and other islands have seawalls protecting the islands from flooding that would cost the city an estimated $60 million to replace to protect the islands from a 1-foot sea level rise by 2050.

Collins’ Roaring Twenties pet project became a much bigger phenomenon, and a constant source of worry that developers, naturalists, and residents would have to keep a close eye of during the century after conceived of it. The Bay of Newport has seen a hefty amount of dredging since that first dig back in 1905. Newport Investment Co. spent about $470,000 dredging the lower bay between 1906 and 1920. In 1916, the city of Newport would spend an additional $450,000 to make improvements by dredging after Collins skipped town. Sand was dug out from the Lower Bay to create the harbor entrance, used to reinforce the Balboa Peninsula. More dredging again in 1934 and 1935, then in 1981, more sand was dredged to buttress Balboa Peninsula, then again in 1998 in the Upper Bay, then again in 2003. These were all major projects planned and funded by the city of Newport, but some private dock owners are sometimes given permission to dredge granted they do not disturb eelgrass habitats—a financial annoyance for boat owners. Dredging with eelgrass nearby equates to thousands of dollars in extra costs. Protected by federal and state regulations, the eelgrass habitats keep dock owners from being able to independently dredge in and around their personal docks so they can keep their boats out of the mud. Also, these private dock owners have to get permits, taking up to a year for approval. A private dock, which is so appealing to these homeowners, becomes a nuisance, since it doesn’t naturally offer a suitable home for their boats and what looks like seaweed is simply getting in their way. For some dock owners willing to shell out the time and money for permits, luxuries by the sea come with a bigger price tag than simply a written out check.

Since the year 600, eelgrass has been thriving in Newport Bay, where archeological findings show eelgrass was used as a Native American building material. Eelgrass, which is widespread in all sandy marine areas, is a vital part of the local ecosystem around Balboa. Crabs and two-spotted octopi live in beds of eelgrass. Fish like goby, surfperch, halibut, stingray and other harbor species live in the eelgrass in their early stages. Essentially, eelgrass is a staple of the areas where marine organisms to thrive—without it, fish populations would plummet.

Man can no longer allow nature to take its course, especially when he’s already gone and changed it to fit his needs in the first place. All this dredging is in the interest of maintaining the harbor as Collins first saw fit—and nature didn’t have too much of a say in the decision. If the city of Newport folded its arms and kept its wallet in its pocket and had allowed the Santa Ana River to flow through into the harbor, Balboa would, in short shrift, turn into its old sand-banky self—and who’d want that? Maybe a few strands of eelgrass and old sorry fish—but not the citizens of Balboa.

If dredging came to a halt in Newport harbor, rising sea levels would completely flood Balboa in no time. When the coastlines of such man-made islands are not maintained and bolstered, the shores flatten out and erode. Like the levees in New Orleans and the jetties at Fukushima, seawalls can only do so much. By 2100, according to the EPA, global sea levels are predicted to rise disastrously by about one foot. Even a smaller increase might mean farewell to Balboa and places like it, unless stark means are taken to protect them.

In the winter of 2010, water toppled over the surrounding seawalls of Balboa and emergency workers in yellows suits rushed out to pump the water into tanks to keep it from spilling into the streets. Storm drains on sidewalks pump the water back into the Bay. This has been an issue ever since the beginning of the island’s initiation: flooding and erosion, something putting these wealthy beach goers and their multi-million dollar homes at risk. But since they have put their homes there under the pretenses of altering nature, they must work around nature to maintain their homes. But working around nature is not cheap.

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After a century of dredging, the vitality of the Upper Newport Bay also depends on the continuation of man’s manipulation of land. In the 1970s when Newport was transitioning from a recreational destination to a place of residence, increasing development and construction had naturalists looking at what little nature they saw in their backyard and said, “stop.” They saw birds and animals flocking to what little land was left, populating a small plot of land that fit their needs. Now, the Back Bay is a dense community of wildlife not found in Newport 100 years ago. The land resembles what the mud flaps and sand bars might have looked like back when dredging projects began. A coastal wetland, the Back Bay is a 752-acre “undeveloped” ecological reserve with open water and marshland. With a diversity of habitats, it supports a diversity of birds during the Fall and Winter when shorebirds and waterfowl arrive from their northern breeding grounds. The protected wetland is a direct byproduct of the continuous dredging projects in Newport Bay. The projects in the lower bay have forced organisms to thrive in a very small and isolated ecosystem —they are moved into just one area that would allow for them to thrive, just as Balboa Island residents. Their isolation and ability to flourish solely depend on the dredging projects.

The most recent dredging project in 2011 dug out sand in both the Upper and Lower Bay. The Upper Bay, as part of the Newport Conservancy, would call it a restoration project. The Conservancy had the intention of controlling the sediment and improving the water quality in the Upper Newport Bay. The upper bay being a “protected estuary,” the conservancy sought to protect the recreational value of the beaches and Harbor by moving forward with dredging. This recent project included the dredging of the Upper Bay, said to protect current wildlife, with some species that are recognized as endangered. The catch was that by calling it a “restoration project,” the city of Newport Beach would also have the rights to dredge out the Lower Bay. According to Sue Lau, a naturalist and photojournalist involved with the Conservancy for over ten years claims they called it a restoration project so developers and builders could find an excuse to develop further down the bank in the Lower Bay. “It’s all politics,” she says.

The project before this was also a “restoration project,” when storm caused the San Diego Creek to start depositing sand and water into the Bay, which released clay sediment foreign to the current habitats. The project would entail a protection of this man-made haven to species that found it’s home in a place that would simply not exist without man’s meddling.

Tall grasses, blue waters, squawking birds are a change of pace next to the surrounding urban sprawl. The protected Back Bay is fenced in by a high chain-link fence that keeps trespassers out. A long, unmarked road provides a view of the estuary, but hikers are not allowed inside the sensitive habitat besides walking along a fenced in trail.

In 2011, after the completion of Newport’s $47 million dredging project, the city concluded that sediment would continue to deposit in the Bay no matter what control measures are implemented and dredging maintenance is expected to occur, on average, every 21 years. It seems for the Balboa Peninsula and the Newport Bay, the artificial reality of its existence is expected to thrive, but only if man is willing.