YOU’D never know it by the languid pond lapping the shores of Long Beach today, but this was once Surf City, USA. Ed Hendricks, 80, remembers riding 10-foot breakers in the ‘30s.
He and his buddies would jump off Belmont Pier to body surf Long Beach’s famed outside break. “We’d come down off the peak, take a big breath and have a long, long ride,” recalls Hendricks, who now surfs at a place with waves -- Huntington Beach.
A breakwater built in the 1940s neutered this surf hub, where the father of wave riding, Duke Kahanamoku, held the first national surf contest in 1938. But Long Beach may be back in the curl again. Last month, in a demonstration of the increasing influence of organized surf activists, the City Council approved by an 8-1 vote a reconnaissance study to explore submerging the Long Beach breakwater, which would allow waves to once again roll to the city’s moribund beach.
Supporters say modifying the boulder barrier would increase water circulation, reduce pollution inside the breakwater, restore habitat and improve the local economy. But opponents fear unchecked waves could swamp homes on the Long Beach peninsula, roil waters for boaters and threaten the busiest port complex in the U.S. They say the lopsided vote doesn’t mean much. Funding for the study is yet to be found.
“They voted for the study because they don’t have anything to lose. There’s no science in what they voted for,” says Brigida Knauer, former dean of students at Occidental College and a homeowner on the Long Beach peninsula. “I don’t think the city is going to pay $150,000 for a study that’s not going to amount to anything.”
But the Long Beach chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, which campaigned for eight years to modify the breakwater, is celebrating the decision as a victory for beach restoration.
“It’s a monumental step. We’re elated,” says Seamus Innes, a coastal engineer and Surfrider member. “We needed that. We were working on it so long with so little progress.”
The Long Beach breakwater is one of three offshore barriers that protect the port. Two others, the federal breakwater on the western side and the middle breakwater, shelter the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, and would remain unchanged in the plan. But activists say the Long Beach breakwater, a stack of boulders two miles offshore that helped shield a naval site, has outlived its usefulness, since the Navy left in 1996.
“The two breakwaters on the port side are needed for international trade, but the Long Beach breakwater is in front of downtown, Belmont Shore and the peninsula,” says Gordon LaBedz, a physician and former chairman of Long Beach’s Surfrider chapter who spearheaded the campaign. “It has no function.”
For almost 10 years, LaBedz and his volunteers went on the offensive, campaigning door-to-door, at PTA meetings and outside grocery stores to build grass-roots support. They argued their plan would bring back 2- to 3-foot surf and ocean currents that could flush the rank water.
“The pollution from the L.A. River would be diluted because the breakwater wouldn’t hold the urban runoff against the beach anymore, and tourists would come back to Long Beach, and property rates would rise to that of normal values in a beach community,” says LaBedz.
But surf activists learned that it takes a long time to catch a wave in the sea of politics. The City Council “thought it was a ridiculous idea,” recalls LaBedz. They said, “It couldn’t be done and the port wouldn’t allow it.”
At the first vote four years ago, port officials opposed modifying the breakwater. They have concerns about “potential navigational hazards,” says Art Wong, spokesman for the Port of Long Beach. “There might be a slim chance a vessel could run into it, if it wasn’t clear where the barrier is. We’re also concerned about waves making it difficult to load and unload cargo.”
Treading water for years, the campaign almost fell apart after 9/11. Slowly, though, activists began to build political support, and allies such as the Sierra Club helped get out the vote for sympathetic City Council candidates.
The Surfrider proposal calls for lopping about 30 feet off the breakwater, creating an outside reef for waves and habitat for fish. But some homeowners on the peninsula, including Mayor Beverly O’Neill and Councilman Frank Colonna, worry that a diminished breakwater would expose buildings to winter storms.
“Would we be willing to turn our shoreline ... into a laboratory of the unknown?” asks Colonna, the lone dissenting vote on the City Council. He says the proposal would worsen beach erosion on the peninsula.
Surfrider has proposed sand replenishment on the peninsula to resolve erosion concerns. A 1998 study by a Harvard University undergrad concluded that the breakwater actually contributes to erosion by blocking swells and reversing natural sand movement. The study said removal of the breakwater would also clean up polluted water.
Breakwater busters have focused on lost revenue from a dirty beach with tides as dynamic as a bowl of minestrone. This once-packed Long Beach shore is a ghost town even on holidays. Surfrider estimates that a modified breakwater could inject $50 million into city coffers each year through increased use.
Knauer doesn’t see a wave windfall. “How would that supplant revenues from world-class events, like boating?” she says. “I think we would lose more than we could ever gain.”
The crowds and energy at neighboring beaches, from Huntington to Manhattan, may make the best case for Long Beach residents, who shun their own shore for places they can Boogie board without becoming a chemistry project.
Any splashing is a long way off, though. First, Surfrider has to find funding for the study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) has made it clear there are no federal funds available, but LaBedz thinks he can get the money, about $100,000 or less, from California conservation and restoration funds. It will take two more studies, more votes, five years and millions of dollars before any rocks budge.
But Surfrider is in for the long paddle. “This is an idea whose time has come,” says LaBedz. “It’s time to restore our beach.”