Publish 8/31/2007 on The Orange County Register
LONG BEACH, Calif. (AP) — Over seven decades of body surfing, Ed Hendricks has mastered the art of catching the perfect wave: kick as fast as possible, get a deep gulp of air and make like a bullet as the wave arches up and thrusts you along its face toward shore.
Most importantly, don't look for your wave in Long Beach.
"I don't like to go down there because I can see what it was," said Hendricks, 82, who learned to ride the waves there in the 1930s.
The world's biggest breakwater wiped the "Waikiki of California" out more than 50 years ago and replaced it with a stagnant pond that rarely kicks up any surf – something Hendricks and the Surfrider Foundation have been working to change.
The decadelong effort got an unexpected boost this year when the city gained the dubious distinction of having the state's most bacteria-polluted beaches, prompting embarrassed city officials to fund a study that could be the first step in reconfiguring the breakwater to let in some surf.
"Some action needs to be taken to restore our shore," said Councilman Patrick O'Donnell, who promoted the study. "I was down at the beach at 11 a.m. and it was just me and the lifeguard."
In better days, Long Beach hosted the first national board surfing contest in 1938 but has seen only sporadic surf since Harry Truman was president. In 1949, the federal government completed a 60-foot-tall, eight-mile-long wall of sand and granite boulders to protect a Navy base.
The breakwater reduced the famed 10-foot-high breakers into grayish brown, listless ripples that crawl up the sand and retreat just as pitifully. Only on rare days can a swell sneak through a small opening in the breakwater to create rideable waves.
The enclosure has also trapped urban debris that floats down the Los Angeles River and dumps into Long Beach harbor.
The first time Robert Palmer took his 7-year-old daughter to the beach she emerged from the murky water with plastic bags wrapped around her legs.
"You can walk out to the water here, be knee deep and you can't see your toes," Palmer said.
Over time Long Beach went from seaside resort to thriving port town. The silhouette of giant cranes and cargo containers are now fixtures in its skyline.
In the mid-1990s the Navy moved to San Diego but left the breakwater behind. Changing any part of the federally owned rock wall, however, will be tough.
It helps protect one of the country's busiest ports, as well as housing and businesses that have grown up near the beach. Orange garabaldi fish thrive near the breakwater along with lobster, birds, sea lions and other animals.
"The biggest concern for us is if it created all these waves in here and made it difficult to move cargo all the time – it would be a disaster for us," said Art Wong, a spokesman for the Port of Long Beach, which reported annual revenue of $400 million to $450 million.
The initial $100,000 study is expected to begin within the next few months to determine, among other things, if changing the breakwater would restore the ecosystem and improve water quality by opening up the flow of water.
More in-depth studies could eventually determine the cost and whether parts of the breakwater could be removed or partly knocked down.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican who represents part of Long Beach and bills himself as the surfing congressman, is doubtful the breakwater will ever be changed unless it would dramatically improve the water.
"I don't think it will because the expense of it is enormous – we're talking hundreds of millions of dollars," he said.
And even if they are successful, Tracy Egoscue, a Long Beach resident who heads a nonprofit group working to ensure clean water in Santa Monica Bay, said it would be unrealistic to expect a quick fix to "the toxic soup we've all created." Egoscue, the executive director of the Santa Monica BayKeeper, believes the focus should be cleaning up the Los Angeles River upstream.
"Dilution is not the solution," she said. "If you open up the ocean and push the problems out, you're just pushing the problem out."
On a recent summer day the city's beaches and parking lots were largely empty in stark contrast to other Southern California beach cities famous for their bluish-green waters and classic curls. Just south, in the self-dubbed "Surf City" of Huntington Beach, idling cars waited for coveted spaces.
Members of the Long Beach chapter of the Surfrider Foundation realize 10-foot waves will never roll back into town, but bringing cleaner waters and an occasional set of breakers would be just fine.
"Best case scenario another 10 years," said the octogenarian Hendricks. "At least I'd be able to be here to watch it. I might not be able to walk but they could roll me into the ocean and away I'd go."