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Long Beach breakwater bringing waves of debate

 Published  7/05/2007 on Daily 49er,  Cal State Long Beach Newspaper (Click here to see slideshow)

LONG BEACH – Deep wrinkles creased on the face of lifetime Long Beach resident Ed Hendricks, but he spoke with buoyant hope of bringing waves back to his coastal city.


Hendricks, 82, is chairman of the Surfrider Foundation's Long Beach chapter and has spent the last decade trying to recover the coastal waters he remembers bodysurfing in as a boy. He is trying to revive the forgotten Long Beach of the '30s, when there was 10-foot surf and hundreds of beachgoers populating the sand.

"People used to take the train down here [from Los Angeles] all the time, get right off the train and head for the beach," Hendricks said. "My brother and I used to sell umbrellas to people down by the pier for 10 cents a pop. Now, even on Labor Day, Long Beach is deserted."

Hendricks' mission, and that of the Long Beach Surfrider Foundation chapter, is to "restore the shore" by reconfiguring the third segment of one of the world's largest breakwater systems, located 1.5 miles off the coast of Long Beach.

However, Surfrider's plans for the breakwater aren't what they used to be.

"We're not trying to blow up or sink the breakwater anymore," said Gordana Kajer, a spokeswoman for Surfrider's breakwater taskforce. "That sort of argument killed communication with beachfront homeowners and the city council. It was unreasonable."

Now, Surfrider aims to reconfigure the 2.5-mile, easternmost segment of the breakwater system – the Long Beach breakwater.

If Surfrider had its way, the top 20 to 30 feet of the rock wall would be redistributed to form an underwater, reef-like environment for fish and other marine organisms, while simultaneously reestablishing the surf and water circulation.

Environmental concerns stemming from water pollution and toxic algal blooms in Southern California have thrown Long Beach's ocean water circulation problem into the spotlight this summer. A series of failing water quality grades on May's Heal the Bay Report Card results started a buzz again that some sort of reformation was needed.

According to Surfrider, some oceanographers and coastal engineers, the project would allow more circulation within San Pedro Bay, improve water quality and stimulate tourism for the city.

"The waves will bring back the people, and the people will put Long Beach back on the map," Hendricks said.

A swash of history

Visitors to Long Beach's 4.5-mile stretch of sand today may be one of only a handful of people. The beach's popularity has heavily declined since 1949, when the Army Corps of Engineers completed the final stretch of an 8.14-mile offshore rock barrier.

The breakwater system, composed of Santa Catalina Island rock, was built to shelter the port and provide a secure harbor for the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet in the '40s.

The breakwater itself is valued at roughly $1 million per linear foot.

The last boulder was put on the Long Beach breakwater in 1949, and served the Navy well by providing a safe harbor with mitigated wave activity and easy access to a bustling port.

But when the Navy left Long Beach for San Diego in 1996, some community members questioned the barrier's function. A grassroots murmur echoed through the community to "sink the breakwater."

Word on the street

Since then, the slogan has changed, but some Long Beach residents remain apprehensive about such a large-scale change as a reconfiguration.

They claim boats heading for the port may have navigational trouble getting around the reef. Recreational wind-sailing vessels would lose their glassy surface. The four oil well islands would be exposed to an open ocean, and homeowners could experience a more dynamic, unpredictable beach.

"Long Beach's coast is a highly complex, human-impacted region," said Dennis Eschen, manager of planning and development for the city of Long Beach Parks, Recreation and Marine Department. "Most of the modifications done within San Pedro Bay were completed with the breakwater's presence in mind. Making alterations there is difficult."

Art Wong, assistant director of communications for the Port of Long Beach, said that although the port is extremely concerned with water quality issues in Long Beach, the third segment of the breakwater is out of the port's jurisdiction.

"We're strong supporters of water quality," Wong said, "and mindful of the concerns the community has about shipping waste. But the shipping industry is highly regulated and we have effective programs that ensure port operators dispose of waste properly. We're doing what we can to improve water quality, but the federal government owns the breakwater, not the port, and without a study that shows any benefits [of breakwater reconfiguration], of course the port would have some concern."

Reconfiguration doesn't hold water with some locals, either. Uncertain of the impacts and multimillion dollar homes at stake, some beachfront homeowners believe the breakwater, which has been stationary for 58 years, should not be tampered with.

Donna Hilbert, a poet and resident of the Long Beach Peninsula, watched southern storms waves in 1996 breach the berm in front of her house, flooding the first level of her property.

"If I didn't live down here," Hilbert said, "I probably wouldn't mind so much if they did something with [the breakwater]. I'm usually very environmentally supportive. But this is my home, and those consequences are uncertain."

Another Peninsula resident, Iraq War veteran and Cal State Long Beach student Mark Berkstresser, who is a single-subject credential graduate student, felt differently.

"It's beautiful down [on the Peninsula] but very unstable," Berkstresser said. "An intelligent compromise needs to be reached here."

Some, like Angi Carelli, a senior biology education major, are concerned about the homes of marine organisms on the rocks that will be displaced if the breakwater is changed.

"I'm definitely for reconfiguration," Carelli said via e-mail. "After extensive research into the situation, I realized that although bringing it down completely would benefit the current pollution situation in the harbor, the biodiversity of organisms that have made the wall their home would be destroyed. A compromise is necessary, and unfortunate, but still necessary."

Third District City Councilman Gary DeLong said the breakwater is "a polarizing issue."

DeLong, representing the Peninsula, Naples, Belmont Heights and some of Broadway's business district, said, "I'm more concerned with pollution problems in Alamitos Bay than with the Pacific Ocean. We're doing so many positive things in Long Beach right now – protecting the Los Cerritos Wetlands, fixing Alamitos Bay. The breakwater is not a priority, mainly because no one can agree upon what to do with it."

DeLong further ensured that no hasty measures would be taken regarding the breakwater's reconfiguration.

"If there was a study done on the breakwater, we would move very cautiously to ensure that no action would ever be taken that could negatively impact the residents of the Peninsula, or anyone in Belmont Shore, for that matter," DeLong said.

A dynamic coast

No coast is a static environment. Sediment continuously moves up and down the shore by wind-generated waves.

Long Beach is not immune to this process, but is drastically affected by the breakwater system.

Marine science professor Kalon Morris at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo conducted his 1998 Harvard thesis study on the Long Beach breakwater's impact on waves and erosion.

"Breaking waves cause water to move and energy to be transferred," Morris said. "My report's finding was that the southeast section of the breakwater [the Long Beach breakwater] canceled a lot of the wave energy, resulting in a lack of substantial water circulation. This section also contributed to the erosion problems on the Peninsula."

Morris proposed in his report to remove and sell the boulders from the breakwater to help offset the cost of construction. However, because reconfiguration would require use of these rocks, others involved with the issue have developed different plans.

Licensed coastal engineer and Surfrider member Seamus Innes expanded on the notion of reconfiguration.

"It's not just about the breakwater," Innes said. "The key term in this scenario is 'dynamic equilibrium.' If you change one thing, like the breakwater, without changing other vital, interrelated things, you'll have negative consequences."

Illustrating his point, Innes said, "The Army Corps of Engineers would use current technology, not '50s technology, to find what is best for Long Beach's coast."

Innes said that increased circulation within San Pedro Bay would help dissipate pollution from storm drain runoff and the Los Angeles River into the open ocean.

"Fine pollution particles, being the majority of chemicals within Long Beach waters, would attach to fine-grained sediment and be carried far out to sea," Innes said.

In response to the biodiversity issue on the breakwater rocks, Innes said that although some kelp and juvenile fish would be displaced by reconfiguration, more organisms would benefit from the change in the long run due to better-oxygenated water.

"Sediment erosion and deposition are natural parts of every coastline," said CSULB geology professor Bruce Perry. "And a wide beach is the best way to protect homes against waves."

Perry also said reconfiguration may alleviate the current erosion problems on the Peninsula beach caused by the southern swell, which would then reverse westward transport of sediment by longshore current.

Erosion has been a longstanding problem on the Peninsula. Rick Davis, senior equipment operator for the Long Beach Parks, Recreation and Marine Department, has redistributed sand along the eroded shore for 17 years and is quite concerned about the pollution problem, but notes that the breakwater is not totally at fault.

"When a storm hits, we find all kinds of things floating in the water," Davis said. "Couches, refrigerators, all things plastic. And that's certainly not coming from the breakwater, but from the two rivers that are on either side of this city."

Not making waves

Surfrider's project has met a different sort of rock wall. The federal government owns the breakwater. Any modification to it must first be approved for funding in Washington, D.C.

Reconfiguration would require a lengthy and expensive three-step process, beginning with a $100,000 Army Corps of Engineers reconnaissance study.

Upon completion, the study would determine if the project's benefit-to-cost ratio is worthwhile for the federal government. If reconfiguring the breakwater would be cost effective, the next step – an Army Corps of Engineers large-scale model simulation – will begin.

Surfrider's plan hasn't seen any action yet. A reconnaissance study for the breakwater hasn't been included in the city's budget since it was approved in 2005 by Long Beach City Council.

Recent approval for the Belmont Veterans Memorial Pier buoy mooring project may further stall the momentum of the already-delayed breakwater study.

On May 3 of this year, the city of Long Beach's Department of Planning and Building approved the development of 45 new moorings off the pier and the north side of Island White.

However, Hendricks said he thinks this is "a step in the wrong direction. More development will make it harder to get the study funded."

Hendricks is, though, still hopeful for a compromise.

"My biggest legacy is I taught my son, my daughter and my grandkids to love the ocean," Hendricks said. "Now, I just want them to be able to love Long Beach. I know that the beach will never be what it was, but it can be more than what it is."

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