Big Canyon Creek Restoration Wins Engineering Award

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The Big Canyon Creek Restoration and Water Quality Improvement Project has helped animals and plant life thrive as clean water flows in and along the restored creek, a valued urban corridor in Newport Beach.
— Photo courtesy Burns & McDonnell

The restoration project for Big Canyon Creek in Newport Beach was recently honored for its excellent engineering, officials announced this week.

“What began as a project to remove a single contaminant from a degraded urban creek ended as a comprehensive program to restore the creek to its native condition and improve the quality of water it carried to an environmentally sensitive coastal region,” a statement released Tuesday reads. “Now the project has been honored as among the state’s finest engineering projects.”

The expanded scope of the Big Canyon Creek Restoration and Water Quality Improvement Project was done while still maintaining the city’s $2.3 million budget.

The project, planned and delivered by Burns & McDonnell, won an Honor Award in the Water and Storm Water category from the California chapter of the American Council of Engineering Companies. The chapter presented its 2018 Engineering Excellence Awards earlier this month.

Concerns for Big Canyon Creek, which drains into Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve, were first raised more than a decade ago when testing found elevated levels of selenium, a naturally occurring element that is toxic to wildlife at high concentrations.

But there was hesitation when presented with the option to redirect the water in the creek into a treatment unit that would remove the selenium, the officials hesitated, Mark Fagan wrote in the Burns & McDonnell press release.

“The cost was high, and the solution did nothing to address the pollutant-laden stormwater runoff from nearby Jamboree Road and other issues that contributed to creek’s impaired condition and poor water quality,” project manager Steve Gruber of Burns & McDonnell said in the prepared statement.

After finding an Orange County Transit Authority grant program that “funded the removal of transportation-related pollutants that entered local waterways during storm events,” Burns & McDonnell worked with city staff and McDonnell wrote a grant proposal for — and ultimately was awarded — a $2.3 million grant to remove such pollutants from Big Canyon Creek.  

While the grant funds were designated for transportation-related pollutant removal, engineers envisioned a dual-purpose solution that would treat those pollutants when it rained — and help to remove selenium from Big Canyon Creek during dry weather.  

Because this green solution was implemented at a significantly lower cost than other treatment approaches, the city was able to restore six acres of degraded habitat along the creek to natural conditions, which also contributed to improved water quality. Additionally, the project connected the restored area to a larger trail system to enhance recreational opportunities and promote environmental stewardship.

“Burns & McDonnell’s innovative solution provided Newport Beach the affordable solution to its selenium pollution problem that had long eluded it — and much more,” the statement reads.

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