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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

County's Piers Deserve Care

April 07, 2002

Orange County's piers largely are taken for granted until a relentless Pacific Ocean storm batters one into submission. Ask the regulars who frequented the Aliso Beach Pier before it was dismantled after a severe El Nino storm.

But not everyone is inattentive. Newport Beach should be congratulated for using court settlement funds from the 1990 American Trader oil tanker spill to fund a $3.1-million refurbishing of the Newport and Balboa piers. The city regularly maintains the piers that were built in 1940 in order to keep pace with damage caused by ocean waves and marine organisms that bore into wooden piles, weakening them.

The city closed its piers for about two months this past winter to complete much-needed overhauls. The graceful structures now sport thicker, reinforced concrete decks, new electrical wiring and water and sewer pipes. Crews are finishing access ramps for the disabled on the Newport Pier, capping utility conduits and applying other finishing touches.

The official reopening ceremony won't be held until June, but the piers already are back in business.

On a recent overcast morning, Minnesotan Joan Mancl and her family spent about an hour wandering from one end of the Newport Pier to the other. The family stood wide-eyed in front of a huge crab a fisherman had pulled from the cold waters.

That sense of awe should be enough to justify the expense of building and maintaining Orange County's five piers (Seal Beach, Huntington Beach, San Clemente and the two structures in Newport Beach). Piers clearly offer a unique form of public access to the ocean that defines so much of life in California.

Piers, though, are more than a picturesque perch for fishermen and sunset aficionados. They're integral parts of the economic engine that powers Orange County's tourism industry. When local piers are closed because of damage, nearby restaurants, bait stores and souvenir shops feel the pain.

Money is tight when it comes to keeping piers repaired, and, in the case of Aliso Beach, replacing failed structures.

Maintenance is largely a local issue, so it must be disconcerting to public officials that El Nino, the weather phenomenon that stirred up massive storms in the 1990s, is showing signs of awakening after a four-year slumber.

The California Coastal Conservancy, which in the past has raised and distributed funds to repair piers in Huntington Beach, Malibu and San Francisco, reports that "from San Diego's Ocean Beach Pier through to Orange County and Los Angeles, the need is still there for pier repair dollars."

Through their appreciation, out-of-towners underscore the need for Orange County cities to care for and maintain their signature piers. When asked what the Newport Pier symbolized, one recent visitor surveyed the nearby shoreline, and the distant horizon before concluding: "It just feels like freedom." Locals need to cultivate a similar sense of wonder, and back it with a commitment to maintaining these waterfront treasures.

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