A possible sea change

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Times Staff Writer

Long Beach has been preening its oceanfront image for more than a decade by pouring money and support into a wealth of new projects on its shores: a $117-million aquarium, gleaming Miami Beach-style condominium towers, a waterfront shopping center with sea-themed eateries, such as Gladstone’s and Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.

What’s missing amid all this sea fever, some say, is a Southern California style seashore.

One of the world’s largest breakwaters stands between Long Beach and the Pacific Ocean, reducing mighty waves to mere lake-like lapping along the city’s beaches. Without surf to cleanse them, those beaches were recently graded among the dirtiest in the state.

Surfers, environmentalists and some residents believe that restoring the surf would improve coastal water quality and draw visitors to the shoreline. They want officials to consider altering or removing the 2.2-mile eastern portion of the 8.4-mile San Pedro Bay breakwater -- the portion that sits offshore from the city’s downtown, Bluff Park, Belmont Shore and Naples.


Known as the Long Beach Breakwater, that piece helped protect the U.S. Pacific Fleet when it was stationed in the city. After the Navy and its ships left in the mid-1990s, some began to wonder if the breakwater had become obsolete.

This month, the Long Beach City Council voted 6 to 2 to hire Moffatt & Nichol Engineers to conduct a $100,000 preliminary study of the federally owned breakwater, to be funded equally by the city and the California Coastal Conservancy.

Some local officials say that the key cause of the dirty beaches is not the breakwater but the Los Angeles River, which drains 51 miles’ worth of trash, urban runoff and sewage into Long Beach Harbor. They said cleaning up the river, not just improving water circulation in the bay, would be a better solution.

The city’s surf-free beaches are among the least popular in the region. Even families within walking distance drive their children to cleaner beaches in nearby Seal Beach and Huntington Beach.

“If you take the hottest day of the year and you go down to the ocean side of the beach, it’s empty,” said Councilman Patrick O’Donnell, who sponsored the June 18 motion to conduct the study.

Robert Palmer of Long Beach recalls that when he first moved to the city and bought a house three blocks from the ocean, he walked his 7-year-old daughter to the beach to test the water.


“She wasn’t out there 20 minutes when she came back with two plastic bags around her legs,” said Palmer, chairman of the local chapter of Surfrider Foundation, a national environmental group.

Surfer lore has it that the sport got its start in California in 1911 when two men returned from Hawaii with surfboards and began surfing at Long Beach. Early surfers ranked the city’s beaches among the best for surf in Southern California, and the city hosted the first National Surfing and Paddleboard Championships in 1938.

Old black-and-white photographs show the city’s pre-World War II beaches teeming with swimmers, surfers and sunbathers. Then came the breakwater. The Long Beach segment was finished in 1949, and the waves ebbed.

Some believe that a return of waves would bolster the city’s economy by drawing more beachgoers and tourists and recast the former Navy town as more of a beach city. The Long Beach chapter of the Surfrider Foundation has suggested three options: remove a piece of the breakwater, create holes in it large enough to let in part of the surf or remove the segment’s upper 20 feet and place it on the ocean floor as an artificial reef to foster sea life.

Now, C.P. “Bud” Johnson, a local retired engineer, is proposing lowering 1,800 feet of the breakwater in one or two spots to sea level at low tide, so water can circulate twice a day at high tide.

News of his 44-page plan broke last week on two local news blogs, one trumpeting it with the headline, “The Man Who Solved the Breakwater.”


Even before the city’s proposed study has begun, numerous concerns are being raised.

Councilman Gary DeLong, who represents Belmont Shore and other beach areas, opposed it, troubled by the lack of guarantees that federal funding would be available for further study.

Some wonder how changing the breakwater would affect navigation into the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation’s first and second largest seaports.

Long Beach port spokesman Lee Peterson said the facility had not taken a formal position on the breakwater issue. Ships can safely anchor outside the breakwater, although some prefer to anchor closer to shore for convenience, he said.

Some residents worry about storms and floods.

Many of the gracious older homes hugging the city’s beaches were built before the breakwater and withstood major storms such as one in 1939 that wiped out several bridges. But others have been built or “mansionized” in the years since, including homes on the Long Beach Peninsula, where many residents fear flooding if the breakwater is removed or altered.

Such a project, peninsula resident Linda McCullough said, “would be an experiment, because no one knows what’s going to happen.”

Even some sea life could be displaced. Waters inside the breakwater now serve as a nursery for young fish, mimicking the function of long-gone coastal wetlands, said Robert J. Hoffman, an expert at the National Marine Fisheries Service. Full surf could mean more habitat for mature fish, but less for their young.


Wave scientists say there is little precedent to suggest how the surf would change without the Long Beach breakwater.

“I’ve heard of dams coming down. I’ve never heard of a breakwater,” said coastal oceanographer Reinhard Flick, who studies waves and beaches at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, part of UC San Diego.

The beaches would change shape as waves shifted the sands, experts said.

Water quality would probably improve because the breakwater would no longer force dirty water from the mouth of the Los Angeles River back against the coast, and the waves would scour and clean the beaches, said civil engineer Hendrik Tolman, who does wave predictions at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Sea foam created when the waves break can increase the water’s oxygen content, further cleaning it, he said.

On the same evening that the council approved the study, a 16,000-gallon sewage spill entered the Los Angeles River 33 miles north, in Glendale. A day later, it would force the closure of nearly two miles of shoreline in Long Beach.

For Palmer and other breakwater opponents, the spill underscored the reason they have spent 11 years fighting for surf.

“They say that dilution isn’t the solution to pollution,” Palmer said, “but in my opinion, it sure would help.”