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Tide turns toward breakwater study

Published 7/25/2007 on Press-Telegram 
Supporters say removal would clean beaches; opponents see waste of money.
LONG BEACH – With a small army of Surfrider Foundation members looking on, the City Council voted 7-1 Tuesday night to approve up to $100,000 in funds to study whether the breakwater should be reconfigured.

Council members Patrick O'Donnell and Rae Gabelich sought the funding, saying that it would be an important first step in answering whether changes to the breakwater could improve water quality and return surf to the city's shoreline.

"We need to get our beaches active again," O'Donnell said, adding that the study will help to determine a significant public policy. "This is a watershed day."

The city's portion of the cost will depend on whether Long Beach Harbor Commission President Mario Cordero can get the board to approve a suggested $50,000.

Also at Tuesday's session, the council approved a plan to expand the Aquarium of the Pacific's southern sector.

The Surfrider Foundation – looking somewhat like a football cheering section – flashed giant letters spelling out "RESTORE THE SHORE," and O'Donnell and Gabelich had a large picture projected onto the council screen showing two surfers entering the ocean clad in hazardous materials suits.

Joe Geever, regional manager for the San Clemente-based Surfrider Foundation, said modification of the breakwater could result in improved recreational opportunities and improved environmental conditions off the shoreline.

Health concerns over poor water conditions keep the beaches empty, he said.

"They don't come here to play in an unhealthy, polluted pool," Geever added.

There were only a few opponents to the study funding proposal.

Jeanne Muench, president of the Alamitos Bay Beach Preservation Group, predicted the study would be useless, saying the resources would be better spent on the city's infrastructure. The study would lead to more studies, pointing to a costly project out of the city's reach, she said.

"Why waste $100,000 on a study that cannot be culminated?" she pressed. "We don't understand how this breakwater has surfaced to the top of our priority list."

Larry Goodhue, a community activist, said council members needed to keep in mind devastation to the homes along the peninsula caused by waves prior to construction of the breakwater during WWII.

However, John Morris, a downtown businessman who owns Smooth's Sports Grille, countered that a 1932 brochure proclaimed the city a year-round aquatic paradise.

"We can use our water with boats, but no one goes in the water," he added.

Gabelich said the city should establish a legacy of beautiful beaches.

"Long Beach has the least desirable beach in Southern California," she emphasized.

Gabelich said the study might take about a year, adding that another follow-up feasibility study might require another three or four years – at a potential cost of up to $5 million, with the city's share ranging between $750,000 and $1.25 million.

"We've spent that type of money in a heartbeat," she said. "It's not a lot of money."

However, DeLong – saying he supports improving water quality – said he also has concerns about Alamitos Bay homes being threatened by changes to the breakwater.

"I'm not sure if this is the best use of $100,000," he added.

He reminded the council that a mayor's task force on water quality is expected to release a report in the near future and suggested that the council put off its vote.

Vice Mayor Bonnie Lowenthal agreed with the majority that a change is needed for the city's beaches.

"We're looking for a vision of Long Beach that's clean and inviting," she said.

The 7-1 vote, with DeLong standing alone in opposition to the study, restarts an effort that was first launched by the council in July 2005, when it voted to ask the federal government to study what would happen if the breakwater were reconfigured to return waves to the city's beaches.

The breakwater consists of three offshore barriers that protect the Port of Long Beach. They safeguarded the former Long Beach Naval Station and Shipyard during World War II until its closure in 1994.

Surfers and environmentalists contend that a breakwater reconfiguration could reduce or eliminate beach erosion and lead to better tidal activity and cleaner water.

However, some have cautioned that the study request might not lead to any change. If the federal government agrees to conduct it, the study would explore the breakwater's pros and cons. That, in turn, could then lead to an even larger study going into more depth on the issue.

Opponents, especially residents of Alamitos Bay Peninsula, assert that the breakwater protects the shoreline from erosion and homes from flooding, while helping secure the harbor.

Federal funding for an eventual study needs approval from Congress, including U.S. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach, whose 46th District includes Long Beach's shore and who has continued to oppose the move.

Meanwhile, the Aquarium of the Pacific received the council's approval to move ahead with an expansion and a new lease.

It has received grant and donor funding commitments of about $3 million for expansion of its southern area.

The expansion would include a classroom/community meeting room, watershed exhibit and a husbandry and veterinary care center.

The aquarium leases about 5.9 acres of federally protected Long Beach land and it is seeking a new lease that would include the southern expansion site of .45 acres.

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