Published 7/5/2007 on the District Weekly
A determined group of dreamers envisions a day when waves will return to Long Beach. It could happen sooner than you think
Members of the Long Beach chapter of the Surfrider Foundation understand how weird that name sounds. They like to joke that Long Beach is one of just two Surfrider chapters in the world that don’t have any surf to ride (the other one located in Bozeman, Montana). In fact, they like that joke a lot. Bear with them.
If not for its surflessness, Long Beach might not have a chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. The flat and dark water that barely ripples along four-and-a-half miles of the city’s mostly wide and almost empty beach has been the focus of every meeting since the group first formed in 1996. That’s 11 years ago this summer. Maybe it goes without saying that most of the active members don’t know how to surf.
“I finally had my first surfing lesson three months ago in Mexico,” admits Gordana Kajer, a warm but precise woman who runs a consulting business for importers and exporters out of an office in her Belmont Heights home. “I still haven’t gotten to the standing-up part.”
“Me and my wife are longtime surfers,” says Seamus Ian Innes, a sandy-haired coastal engineer who looks laid-back in his shorts and flip-flops until he gets to talking, when he might as well be wearing a three-piece suit. “But most of our active members just have a love of the ocean and a desire to see changes in Long Beach.”
That, and very long attention spans.
“I’ve always liked to body surf,” specifies Ed Hendricks—and when he says “always” he means as far back as 1928, when he was four years old and came to Long Beach with his family from Pendleton, Oregon. “As a youngster, I spent my whole summer on the beach.”
Hendricks is 82 now, and at Surfrider meetings he often sets off on stories about a long-ago Long Beach waterfront that was known for its curving, crashing waves and served as a hub of the city’s social life. The others in the room usually let him go, even though those topics aren’t actually on the group’s official agenda. Yet.
“We lived at Fifth and Temple, and we loved to run down to the beach and swim in the big waves,” says Hendricks. “It seems as though everybody was there. People talked. People played. There were lots of beach parties. A lot of events were associated with the beach—beauty pageants, surfing contests. . . . The surf was strong and clean. In those days, Long Beach was known as the Queen City of the Beaches. Maybe you didn’t know that. Not many people do. I’m the last of the breed.”
Well, he is . . . and then again, maybe he isn’t.
Like everybody else, Hendricks hasn’t experienced a natural Long Beach wave since 1949, when the Army Corps of Engineers placed the last massive boulder in the third and final section of the 8.14-mile breakwater that has sealed off the local shoreline from the ocean’s life-giving currents.
Like nearly everybody else, Hendricks can’t remember the last time he so much as stuck a toe in the ever-more-filthy water—now so bad that the respected environmental group Heal the Bay recently ranked Long Beach’s ocean water quality as the worst in California.
But the breakwater has not stopped Hendricks from swimming in the ocean. It’s just redirected him—and so many others—to not-so-polluted beaches in Orange County, where waves still tumble unimpeded to the shore. Nor has the breakwater stopped Hendricks from passing down what he considers a family legacy.
“I’m very proud that my two children and four grandchildren know how to body surf,” he says. “I love it when they say, ‘Grandpa! Let’s go to the ocean!’”
Hendricks hopes to live long enough so that he can bring his family back to the beach of his childhood, at the foot of the bluff at Temple Avenue. And after helping local activists educate and pressure the local populace and its politicians, there are signs of a shift in thinking about the breakwater—and a distinct probability that its reconfiguration may move from its longtime home on the agenda of Surfrider meetings to the political agenda. The way Hendricks sees it, that’s progress.
“Heck, this issue is about 90 percent politics, and the rest is what’s good for the people,” he says. “Once you get to talking to these elected people one on one, prove to them that this could be tremendously beneficial to them in many ways, they begin to come around. And I think we’re doing that.”
Several members of the Long Beach City Council say they are leaning toward funding a comprehensive study of
the breakwater—the first step toward whatever changes may come next.
“My goal is to swim in the waves of Long Beach again,” says Hendricks. “It’s something I’ve wanted ever since I got back from World War II—to return the beach to the way it was, to convince people how important it is to clean up the water, to clean up the sand, to get rid of that breakwater. Can you believe that some people still don’t even know there’s a breakwater out there?”
The largest man-made breakwater in the world is a set of three gigantic walls of rock that between 1935 and 1949 were quarried from Catalina Island and carried to San Pedro Bay, where it currently demarcates the place where the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles end and the open ocean begins. Contrary to conventional wisdom, however, the breakwater complex was built less to block waves for commercial shipping than to stop submarines and torpedoes during World War II. The Navy’s entire Pacific Fleet was anchored in the bay, and protective nets were stretched across the openings between segments of the breakwater. Sitting in about 50 feet of water, the breakwater complex rises between 10 and 13 feet above the surface—depending whether the tide is high or low—and basically provides the horizon for anybody standing on shore and looking out to sea. It’s pretty incredible.
But a lot of it—specifically, the easternmost section that extends about two-and-a-half miles in front of Long Beach’s recreational beaches, the part actually named the Long Beach Breakwater—appears to have been unnecessary. The war had been over for four years by the time it was completed. While there was talk about some role it might conceivably play in national defense or port expansion, the Long Beach Naval Station has been closed since 1994 and there is no new port on any drawing board.
“All these years later, the only real impacts of the Long Beach Breakwater have been negative,” Innes says with an engineer’s definitiveness. “The breakwater has ruined the waves, which has added to pollution by depriving the water of the cleansing action of circulating tides. The dirty water and flat surf have reduced beach usage—from local citizens to vacationers to conventioneers—which hurts businesses. There’s also evidence that it has depressed home values.”
Those down-sides sound pretty obvious today. But until former Press-Telegram columnist Bill Hillburg laid them out in a long Sunday piece on June 16, 1996—under the headline: “Should L.B. bring back the surf?”—the idea of removing or reconfiguring the Long Beach Breakwater doesn’t seem to have seriously crossed anybody’s mind.
Hillburg’s revelations provoked a large response, so many letters and phone calls that he didn’t have time to handle them. So he contacted the Huntington Beach/Seal Beach chapter of Surfrider . . . you know, since Long Beach didn’t have one of its own. In turn, the Surfrider group created the Long Beach Breakwater Task Force.
After the initial flurry, however, the general membership of the Huntington Beach/Seal Beach group began to lose interest. They had their waves. Besides, a mission to remove—or at least reconfigure—a piece of work as massive as the Long Beach Breakwater seemed rather quixotic. Okay, nuts. Even after the Long Beach Breakwater Task Force broke away to become its own chapter of Surfrider, momentum was hard to sustain. Although the Long Beach chapter has hundreds of members, its mission has been moved forward by a core group of less than a dozen people. Interestingly, many of them were latecomers to Long Beach.
“I think so many people in Long Beach had grown up with the breakwater that they didn’t really consider that it could be any other way,” says Kajer, who was born in Torrance and grew up in Orange County. “But I moved to Long Beach 20 years ago—into a place only a few blocks from the water—and when I first went to the beach, I was stunned to discover there was nobody there. Maybe it takes somebody who wasn’t born here to say, ‘Gee, there’s something different about this beach.’ Maybe it takes people who have a normal perspective of water quality to say, ‘There’s something wrong here.’”
The executive board of Long Beach’s Surfrider chapter arrives for its monthly meeting so promptly and with such enthusiasm that it’s hard to believe this is the 132nd time they’ve convened—and that despite all their dedicated work over 11 years, they have not managed to get even one small stone removed from the Long Beach Breakwater. How do they carry on?
“I’m a starry-eyed optimist, I guess,” giggles Kajer.
Innes, however, insists he’s being completely realistic.
“I don’t know what everybody else’s angle is,” he says, “but when I first joined the fight against the breakwater, I kept saying to plan on it taking 20 years. If you look at it that way, we’re probably right on schedule.”
Progress shouldn’t be measured in the size of the breakwater or the size of the waves, say the Surfrider activists. Not yet. Instead, it should be measured in the size of the change they are trying to pull off—and in the growing sense among a growing number of people that it is the right thing to do.
“There is no local precedent for the scope of what we are trying to do—a small group of people with no connections trying to bring about the reconfiguration of one of the Army Corps of Engineers’ biggest projects,” says Innes.
“At the beginning, it was seen as the impossible dream of a bunch of tree-huggers. People’s most-common reaction was to laugh and ask us why we were wasting our time. People aren’t laughing anymore. They aren’t ignoring us. We’ve got most of the Long Beach City Council on board. People around town are always asking us when the breakwater is coming down.”
Again, however, that isn’t on the agenda. Yet.
“We’re not ready for somebody to go out and blow up the breakwater,” says Kajer. “We’ve talked about having holes drilled through it, we’ve talked about having sections removed, we’ve talked about knocking off the ends of it, we’ve talked about lowering it. But we’re not ready for any of that, either.
“We just want to have a little science thrown at the project. That’s what’s on our immediate agenda. We want somebody to fund a comprehensive scientific study of the breakwater—the problems it may or may not be causing and the solutions that may or may not be available.”
They thought they were close in July of 2005, when the Long Beach City Council voted 8-1 to ask the federal government to direct the Army Corps of Engineers to undertake a reconnaissance study of the breakwater that would explore the value of reconfiguring it.
But the request has gone nowhere except to the desk of Congressman Dana Rohrabacher. The right-wing Republican, who likes to call himself the Surfin’ Congressman, technically represents Long Beach’s waterfront. But he consistently ignores the area, instead catering to the Orange County base that ensures his re-election.
“It takes $100,000 for the study to go forward, but this is the second fiscal year in a row that Rohrabacher has taken no action to get it funded,” says Kajer. “So now we’re looking for alternate funding. We’ve had a series of our own meetings with other elected representatives, from the federal and state level to the Long Beach City Council and Mayor Bob Foster, as well as various environmental groups.”
They seem to be getting close. Councilmembers Suja Lowenthal and Gary DeLong, whose Second and Third Districts cover the Long Beach shoreline, have both signaled their support for studying possible reconfigurations of the breakwater.
“I am very interested in conducting the reconnaissance study,” says Lowenthal, who works for the Water Replenishment District. “We should all be interested.
“From a water-quality perspective it is a priority for me, professionally and personally. It would be unconscionable to do otherwise. It’s also important as somebody who represents a city that prides itself on tourism. There is a possibility of enhanced tourism revenue if the beach and wave quality are different.”
And then, finally, the agenda can change to include exactly what kind of waves and currents and beach—what kind of waterfront—might be possible for Long Beach.
“I doubt anybody is ever going to really go surfing in Long Beach,” says Kajer. “We’re never going to rival Huntington Beach or Seal Beach or Manhattan Beach or any of these places where a real ocean runs unimpeded to the shore. But we certainly can restore our beach to make it somewhat natural.”
It’s 1:30 on a weekday afternoon, a few days into summer. The sun burned off the morning low clouds hours ago and it’s shining so brightly, so perpendicularly, that people’s shadows look like nothing so much as puddles of sweat that have collected around their feet. It’s a perfect beach day.
But the view of Long Beach from the railing at Bluff Park, where Temple Avenue T-bones into that grassy strip along Ocean Boulevard, looks less like a Southern California waterfront playground than a desert mirage.
This is the beach that teemed with activity—and rumbled with waves—when Ed Hendricks was a kid. Today there are exactly two blankets on the sand, one of them shared by four people playing cards, the other by a woman and a paperback novel. Meanwhile, the periodic cyclists, skaters, or joggers follow the bike path across the blazing sand in a strange aerobic caravan.
Down the steps at Orizaba Avenue, over the wide beach to the water’s edge, squishing barefoot through the gooey black sand, into the water until it’s knee deep. Already, you can’t see your feet. A meringue of foam clings to your calves. Exhausted remnants of the once-mighty tide fling themselves feebly toward shore, and as they slide back they leave squiggly black marks on the sand to mark their unimpressive achievement. Gazing across the sea, surveying the industrial panorama—the oil wells, the landfills, the huge cranes unloading ships in the port—the dark water is occasionally shaded with ominous swathes of maroon, the feverous-looking red tide.
This isn’t all because of the breakwater, not per se. Long Beach’s recreational waterfront happens to lie between the San Gabriel and Los Angeles rivers, which flush the detritus of dozens of inland cities into the bay. But the breakwater corrals it, collects it, allows it to stagnate in waters kept nearly motionless.
Long Beach earned its bad-water championship from Heal the Bay mostly on the basis of its fecal counts—that is, the amount of shit in the water.
“Nobody measures the other stuff—the chemicals from upriver manufacturing, the fertilizers from lawns, the pesticides,” says Innes. “Nobody measures the birth-control pills and the anti-depressants and all the other medicines people take and then ultimately send down their toilets to sewer systems that aren’t designed to remove pharmaceutical waste.
“Red tide is a normal phenomenon up and down the coast. But ours is abnormally high, and it’s been attributed to the nutrients coming down the river.”
Up the strand about a half-mile from Temple Avenue, children are playing in the water near the parking lot at Cherry Beach. Down about as far the other way, fishermen are casting lines from Belmont Pier. Don’t those people know any better?
Apparently, no better than the people who run the Long Beach Sea Festival. Last week they sponsored the Pacific Challenge Open Water Swim, which sent people thrashing up to three-point-one miles through this water. In August they’ll hold the Kids Fishing Rodeo, in which children 16 and under will compete to catch whatever uber-species can survive conditions beneath the Belmont Pier.
Meanwhile, the marketers of Long Beach’s new tourism-based economy tiptoe around the subject of the city’s beaches—and the discussion over whether the breakwater ought to be reconfigured so that the waves can crash again.
“We sell Long Beach as a place with a protected, secure beach,” says Bob Maguglin, director of public relations for the Long Beach Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. “You know, you sell the good points of what you’ve got—and in Long Beach people don’t have to worry about riptides or rough surf. But if the breakwater were ever to come down and the waves were to return, we’d sell it as a surfers’ beach.”
And leave Bozeman, Montana, as the only Surfrider chapter without any surf to ride . . . except that it turns out that Bozeman, Montana, doesn’t have a Surfrider chapter anymore: it dissolved seven years ago.
“Aw, that was always kind of a shoot-the-shit joke, anyway,” shrugs Innes, not disappointed at all. “I don’t think anybody ever actually researched it.”