Long Beach, pre-breakwater. (Photo: Long Beach Historical Society)
From an environmental perspective, the battered coastline that butts up against Long Beach, California is something of a tragedy, a remnant of an idyllic oceanfront that once was.
It's an old tale, but it's relived daily here in sunny Los Angeles County. Completed shortly after World War II, a breakwater was constructed a mile and a half off the coast of Long Beach, California as a sort of pseudo-protector for a US Naval fleet. The notion was simple: protect Navy ships from Japanese underwater missiles and big waves. Eventually the Naval base relocated to San Diego but it left its obstructionist wall behind. Now this stone barrier- which stretches over two miles in length - acts as a water prison: no waves make it in and none flow out. The result is apparent to anyone who walks this littered stretch of sand.
Long Beach's waterfront is filthy.
Of course, this wasn't always the case. Dubbed the "Waikiki of California" for its long, curling waves, Long Beach held one of the Golden State's first-ever surf competitions back in 1938. Located just 20 miles south of sprawling Los Angeles, the beach was a popular destination for old-time wave riders and other beach bunnies. In fact, lifeguard rescues prior to the breakwater's construction were higher than anywhere else in all of California. It was a happening place, but no longer.
Aside from a few brave souls who play around in the water's edge on summer's hotter afternoons, the beach is a virtual dead zone, in more than one way. The only visible action is a few manmade oil drilling islands off the coast that were designed by the same architects as Disneyland's scrofulous "Tomorrowland." Behind the illuminated neon lights, the obscure walls and the faux palm trees, the drilling equipment is hidden from view. What's left is a bad trip of sorts, a hallucination that won't retreat.
Fortunately times are changing, thanks in large part to an obscure, grassroots effort from Long Beach surf enthusiasts and other clean water supporters. What started out as a small group of ragtag ocean-loving enviros has sprouted into an actual movement. Small as it may still be, the local Surfrider chapter has led the charge, raising awareness and deflecting criticisms that their mission to dismantle the breakwater was a wasted effort. Their work is beginning to pay off.
In 2005, after relentless pressure, the Long Beach City Council approved the initial $100,000 reconnaissance study to look at exactly how to take down the breakwater. Then in June 2010, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers piggybacked on the city's efforts and announced that there was federal interest in continuing the study into the actual feasibility of taking down the great wall of stone. The Army Corps was primarily interested in one thing: would removing the breakwater help restore the historical ecosystem that existed in the region? The answer was a resounding yes.
With the Army Corps' announcement came the commitment that the feds would allocate $4 million toward the feasibility study, or half of its total cost, at which point the City of Long Beach had to commit the same amount to move on with the next stage. The feasibility portion of the effort is expected to take at least four years to complete.
"It's been a long time coming," says Long Beach Surfrider member Seamus Ian Innes. "We certainly have a long way to go, but we are gaining traction. One day this wall may well come down."
The breakwater may reside in Long Beach's waters, but it's the federal government's property, which actually gives those who want to "Sink the Breakwater" some legs. With California's severe budget crisis, funds for any future demolition will have to be footed in large part by the feds, but inland cities may also be interested in helping to finance any efforts to clean up Long Beach's waters, as it is, in large part, their trash that frequently washes up on Long Beach's shores.
The 51-mile-long Los Angeles River, which was recently designated as navigable by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and runs through 16 California cities, drains directly into San Pedro Bay and Long Beach Harbor. Runoff from these towns enters L.A.'s stormwater system and, eventually, the ocean near Long Beach. As a result, Long Beach pays the price on rainy days when the river, one of the dirtiest in the nation, dumps its toxic soup directly into the harbor. Once these waters are polluted, they have a tough time recirculating because the water's natural ebb and flow is abruptly halted by the big stone wall.
The Port of Long Beach, one of the busiest in the nation, sits adjacent to the breakwater and has two wave-blocking walls of its own. However, it's not the Port's breakwaters that are the focus of the current efforts to clean up Long Beach.
"Sure, we want waves back here in Long Beach, the place my family calls home," Graham Day tells me. "But this is more than about what's good for the surf community. It's about what's good for the ecology of this special place. Clean water is the main reason we are fighting to take down the breakwater."
Graham and his wife own Shelter, a boutique surf shop in the heart of Long Beach's retro row, where they often host art shows and even Surfrider fundraisers. They actually sell "Sink the Breakwater" t-shirts to help fund the effort. Truly, Shelter has become an eclectic refuge for creative surf-heads and others who wish their local beach had clean water breaking on its shores and a healthy habitat thriving underneath.
Last winter, during an unusual off-coast storm that brought some rare curling waves to Long Beach, Graham and other locals paddled their boards out to catch whatever they could find. "It was filthy to be sure," admits Graham, who says it's the first time he'd seen waves break in Long Beach. "It made me sicker than a dog afterwards, but I'd do it again in a heartbeat. There's nothing like being able to surf your own beach. Magical stuff."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers seems to believe removing the breakwater will improve Long Beach's water quality immensely, improving the natural ecology of the area. The Corps wrote in their report brief that this section of "California's ocean fisheries and near coast habitat are experiencing substantial ecological stress. A potential project would improve significant habitat for various rockfish species, ling cod, various invertebrates, kelp and sand bass."
The Army Corps also admits that Long Beach's waters support migratory birds and could again sustain a healthy kelp bed habitat, which in turn would ensure healthier aquatic conditions should the wall come down.
Grant Eads, a Long Beach resident, surfer, artist and environmental advocate, made a short film about the history and politics of the breakwater called "Mother Wants her Beauty Back". The movie is beginning to make waves around Southern California, and may soon be screened in schools in the area with the help of the local Surfrider Foundation chapter.
"I just wanted to give a face to an obscure issue," says Grant, who drives south into Orange County to catch waves on a daily basis. "Long Beach has for so long been off the map in terms of surfability and cleanliness. A lot of people here have given up on the idea that it can ever be clean again, but a lot of us disagree."
A few private property owners near the coast have raised concerns that their land could be affected by any breakwater reconfiguration. Part of the forthcoming feasibility study will directly address each and every possible issue, claims the Army Corps of Engineers. However, the only visible impediment along the way to Long Beach's recovery has been Long Beach's fiscally conservative Chamber of Commerce. "Long Beach's current fiscal crisis does not warrant spending up to $4 million for a study," stated Randy Gordon, president of the Chamber, prior to the City's approval of funding half of the future feasibility study.
Fortunately for those who want to see the breakwater in ruins, they have an unflinching ally on the City Council in Patrick O'Donnell, who believes the initial investment to study the issue will pay for itself in the long run once Long Beach's waters are clean. A feisty O'Donnell personally attempted to deliver a voucher for a free surfing lesson to the Chamber's Randy Gordon.
"O'Donnell, a high school teacher, is confident that after a good lesson, Randy will be bitten by the surfing bug and gain more respect for the effort to increase recreational opportunities and secure clean water in Long Beach," a statement from O'Donnell's City Council office read.
The next big hurdle after the feasibility study reaches the finish line will be to come up with the cash to carry out the breakwater project, which could cost as much as $300 million to complete. This, of course, depends entirely upon which option is recommended and chosen by the City of Long Beach and the federal government. This could include anything from a partial reconfiguration to a total dismantling of the breakwater. Nonetheless, that is a ways down the road and advocates are taking it one step at a time.
"We just have to keep up the pressure and not lose sight of our goal," adds Graham Day of Shelter Surf shop. "Sure, we should be realistic about it all, but ultimately if this community wants the breakwater to come down, it'll come down. This is a real test of our local democracy in action, and I believe Long Beach will one day have clean waves breaking once again."