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BREAKWATER BREAKDOWN: Comfortably number

Published 8/23/2007 on the District Weekly 

Wave strength. Water circulation. Healthier beaches. Reelection of city politicians. Some other stuff. These elements are all aspects of a single number—a cost-to-benefit ratio—that the federal government will produce at the end of a reconnaissance study on the possible reconfiguration of the Long Beach Breakwater. Although the Long Beach City Council authorized $100,000 for the study, nobody seems to understand yet exactly what they’re paying for.

The process is “convoluted,” says Seamus Innes, a licensed coastal engineer and member of the Surfrider Foundation. In the late 1990s, Innes participated in the US Army Corps of Engineers’ reconnaissance study for erosion problems on Alamitos Peninsula. He warns that such studies are full of hard-to-digest terminology.
Let’s make it easier to eat.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about the reconnaissance study is that the priorities of Long Beach and its citizens—such as water quality, recreation, tourism, commerce, and various quality-of-life issues—are of no direct interest to the federal government. The study will simply determine whether there is a cost benefit to removing or reconfiguring the breakwater based on four factors: ecosystem restoration, flood storm protection, navigable waters, and ports and coastal protection. Recreation benefits are not included.

Nonetheless, city officials will be able to use the information compiled by the recon study to highlight problems specifically important to Long Beach—various aspects of water quality, for example—that carry economic weight within the four factors and thus influence the cost-to-benefit ratio.

Finally, these four factors are crunched into numbers and aligned into a series of equations to create a ratio for the project between benefit and cost. All things being equal, the ratio would be 1 to 1.

But according to Innes, if the benefit expresses itself in a ratio higher than that—let’s say, 1.5 to 1—the federal government may contribute to the next step in the breakwater reconfiguration process: a feasibility study. If costs exceed reconfiguration benefits, making the ratio less than one, Granddaddy Fedgov won’t be shelling out an allowance and Long Beach may have to acknowledge that the expense of any breakwater modification will have to come from its own wallet.

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