Effort to bring waves back to Long Beach gets a boost

The effort to bring waves back to Long Beach by dismantling the massive breakwater sheltering its shores is getting a boost from the federal government.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is lending its support to a four-year, $8.3-million study on reconfiguring the breakwater and redirecting the mouth of the Los Angeles River.

The Corps’ decision, part of a 31-page report released Monday, is a victory for surfers and conservationists who have for years blamed the World War II-era, 2.2-mile rock barricade for trapping water pollution, weakening waves and making Long Beach one of the least popular and most polluted beaches in the region.

The report concludes that altering the breakwater and river mouth could improve water quality, clarity and circulation, improve swimming and surfing conditions, and restore kelp and reef habitat in the area.

On Tuesday, the Long Beach City Council will debate whether to pay $4.1 million — half the cost — of the Corps’ extensive analysis of how removing parts of the breakwater would affect beachfront neighborhoods, water quality, wave heights, port infrastructure, seashore ecology and the local economy.

The agency also would study whether rocks removed from the breakwater could be used to construct kelp beds, reef habitat and a structure that would redirect discharge from the Los Angeles River away from the Long Beach shoreline.

After the study is done, any project the Corps wanted to pursue would need congressional approval. The city would be responsible for 35% of the cost, which could reach $310 million.

Business leaders have denounced the proposed study as too costly for a city facing a projected $18.5-million budget shortfall.

“Long Beach’s current fiscal crisis does not warrant spending up to $4 million for a study,” Randy Gordon, president of the Long Beach Chamber of Commerce, wrote last week to the mayor and City Council.

Champions of sinking the breakwater say the cost would be minuscule compared to the tourism, business and recreation dollars that would be generated if beaches were cleaner and waves were bigger.

The city completed its own study last year and found that removing portions of the breakwater could boost wave heights by up to four times their current size. The city could reap up to $59 million a year in spending, taxes and parking fees because it would be more attractive for recreation and tourism, the study found.

“It’s very easy to say we can’t afford it today, but this is visionary,” said Councilman Patrick O’Donnell, who supports removing the breakwater and plans to vote to fund the study. “This could bring Long Beach back to a better place.”

The city used to be one of Southern California’s top beach destinations, with its own Coney Island-esque amusement park called the Pike, until the breakwater was completed in 1949 to protect U.S. Navy vessels in Long Beach.

Waves all but disappeared, along with surfers, swimmers and tourists. The breakwater trapped industrial discharge, untreated runoff and trash from storm drains and the Los Angeles River.

For some who remember the city before the breakwater, such as Ed Hendricks, who has fought for the structure’s removal as vice chairman of the Long Beach chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, Monday’s decision shows there is a desire to restore the shoreline to its past glory.

As a boy, Hendricks, 85, would fight crowds to bodysurf 10-foot breakers in Long Beach.

“It was a perfect situation back then: You had the biggest waves and clean water,” he said. “If we can take any part of the breakwater down, we’ll have instant waves again.”