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Shore Wars 

Will Long Beach bring back its breakers?

Wednesday, May 19 1999
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Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

Another perfect Sunday in the Southland. You can almost hear the mantra rise above 100,000 coffee cups: "Yo, let’s go to the beach!"

But does anyone mean Long Beach? On this ideal spring day, the beach is deserted save for a few immigrant fishermen scattered along the water’s edge.

This comes as no surprise to Mike Murphy, a Long Beach resident and soft-spoken engineer in his mid-30s.

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"Behold the lovely cesspool view."

Murphy upbraids the beach as if it were a wayward son.

"Look at it. Trash everywhere. A scummy oil film up and down the sand. When the wind comes up, plug your nose."

Indeed, industry shadows this shoreline. Oil platforms, feebly disguised with fake palm trees and Jetsons-style façades, dot the water. Steel cranes loom over the port. A stone-and-mortar breakwater spans the horizon.

"Every year [the city’s] Marine Department does a study on how to get people to use the beach," says Murphy. "What’s the mystery? It’s a smelly, dirty embarrassment! With no waves. And that breakwater’s to blame."

The focus of Murphy’s disdain is the easternmost reach of the largest man-made breakwater in the world, a 50-year-old engineering feat that forms the outer boundary of the West’s largest port. The complex consists of three sections with narrow gaps between them, and stretches eight miles — from San Pedro’s Cabrillo City Beach almost to Orange County’s Seal Beach. The Federal Breakwater section shields the Los Angeles Harbor. The Middle Breakwater protects the Port of Long Beach. And the 2.6-mile-long Long Beach Breakwater is the easternmost section. About two miles offshore, it fronts the city’s remaining sandy beach.

Contrary to popular belief, the breakwater wasn’t built to protect the shoreline from waves. The federal government rushed the project through during World War II to defend the Navy fleet from potential Japanese attacks. In those days, torpedo nets stretched between breakwater segments.

Now, according to Murphy, it’s become a nuisance that has drastically altered the physical characteristics of nearby beaches.

When the region’s dominant northwesterly swell bends around Palos Verdes and heads for Long Beach, the breakwater blocks it. Ninety-four percent of the wave energy is dissipated. What makes it to the beach wouldn’t be called a wave by Tom Thumb.

Murphy and a growing throng of south-county residents are determined to reverse the tide and bring back the surf. Their strategy: Dismantle the breakwater.

So far, more than 3,000 people have signed on with the Long Beach Breakwater Task Force, founded in 1997 as an adjunct to the Surfrider Foundation, an international group dedicated to preserving coastal habitat. Since then, the task force has added members from other environmental groups and Long Beach neighborhood organizations.

But the breakwater only partly explains why Long Beach waters are so rank. The problem is also geographic. The city lies smack between the mouths of the San Gabriel and Los Angeles rivers — two of the most polluted rivers in the Western states. According to the city of Long Beach, they flush 11,000 tons of L.A. County trash, sewage and storm runoff into Long Beach waters each year.

Once they arrive, the breakwater acts like a plug, damming up the chemicals and garbage. Since waves can’t get through, none of their natural mixing and dilution action takes place.

And Long Beach residents don’t love that dirty water. Like everyone else, they head for other beaches.

The campaign to tear down the breakwater got a key strategic boost when it was studied, and then endorsed, by Seal Beach native Kalon Morris, a marine biologist now working on his Ph.D. in applied ocean science at San Diego’s Scripps Institute of Oceanography. Morris became intrigued by the vision of blasting the breakwater while home from Harvard on his 1997 summer vacation, and he decided to study the project for his thesis.

The re-configuration plan Morris investigated calls for toppling the huge rock walls of the Long Beach Breakwater segment — it stands 13 feet above the waterline — and spreading them on the ocean bottom about 50 to 60 feet below. This would leave the underlying clay foundation exposed to natural wave action. The clay would soon erode into sea-floor sediment. Then breakers could again tumble toward the beach. Eventually the waves would deposit new sand on the beaches, as they did in days gone by.

Morris says the resulting underwater landscape would create a reef — superb habitat for marine life. His computer models also show that sinking the breakwater would drastically increase water circulation and clean up the sea floor. According to the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, Long Beach sediment is teeming with toxic metals including lead, zinc and mercury — and such carcinogens as arsenic, DDT and chlordane.

What’s more, the L.A. County health department has long warned against eating certain Long Beach fish. It seems that local black croaker, queenfish, surfperch and white croaker have so much metal in them, you can practically catch them with a magnet.

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