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So the task force has taken the matter into its own hands, becoming certified water testers and developing a beach report card, grading chemical and bacteria levels along the shoreline — a page out of the playbook of Santa Monica’s Heal the Bay.
Despite all the breakwater bashing, the 50-year-old structure has staunch defenders. Foremost among them is Preston Smith, former chairman of the Alamitos Bay Beach Preservation Group. Smith’s contingent is made up of residents of Long Beach’s easternmost Peninsula Beach — situated between Belmont Shore and Seal Beach to the south. There, houses are built on a milelong sand spit. When the rivers were paved and the breakwater erected, the natural flow of sand that created this peninsula ceased. Now Peninsula Beach loses sand to the ocean as fast as the city replaces it.
To make matters worse, the peninsula is sinking. Chalk this up to another Long Beach anomaly — those armies of giant, rusty grasshoppers that haunt the landscape. They’ve pumped so much oil from underground that the peninsula has dropped two feet. Now some residents are getting a closer ocean view than they bargained for.
That gives Smith a sinking feeling when he hears talk of sinking the breakwater.
"These people don’t know the history," says Smith, a retired dentist with a boat captain’s tan and bearing. "They flash nostalgic black-and-whites of people frolicking in the breakers. They get everyone longing for the good old days."
But the sandy swaths that earned Long Beach its name were the beaches downtown — "the ones the city gave to the Navy, or covered with landfills for the Convention Center," as Smith points out.
Smith says the remaining 4.4 miles of beach were too narrow to be used in the old days; he has photos from the era showing waves lapping up to the bluffs of Belmont Shore. And of peninsula homes perched above water on stilts.
"Take away the breakwater, and our beach will be under-water," says Smith. "What good are waves if there’s no beach?"
But the thing the peninsula group dreads most is storms. Preservation group board member Brigida Knauer says the breakwater is the main protection against the big ones, like the tempest of 1939 that left some of the peninsula underwater or afloat.
"Tear down the breakwater and you put our homes in jeopardy," says Knauer. "Is that a fair price to pay so people can surf in Long Beach?"
Coastal engineering consultant Peter Gadd, retained by the city to study the problems at the peninsula and the proposed breakwater bust-up, offers another argument against demolition — environmental equity.
While Gadd has technical differences with Morris’ study, he concedes that breakwater configuration would return waves and water circulation to Long Beach and cut down debris and chemicals.
But, he says, "You have to question the ethics of flushing the trash out to sea. Is releasing pollution into a wider area responsible?"
Gadd also believes the project would cost a mint. And that re-configuring the breakwater is just the beginning.
"Right now, certain users of Long Beach’s shoreline — the peninsula, oil islands and port — benefit from the breakwater. They depend on it for protection from storms, so they’d have to be fortified to withstand open ocean conditions. Where will that money come from?"
Gadd suggests the sum would be better spent on the source of the problem: the filthy rivers.
"What it comes down to is what kind of shoreline does Long Beach want?" says Gadd. "Now, the city has an active port, a predictable shoreline and an unused beach. Bringing back waves can be achieved. But there are major ramifications."
Leaders of the breakwater task force don’t believe the peninsula residents and the city are truly interested in cleaner water. Or in giving citizens a decent beach.
"It’s business as usual — selling out the city for the port and peninsula," says Diana Mann, chairperson for Eco-Link, a network of 20 regional environmental groups.
"The entire city and much of south L.A. County would benefit from a usable beach here. The peninsula’s afraid if we had a beach people used, they wouldn’t have theirs to themselves anymore."
Mann contends that taxpayers are subsidizing the affluent lifestyle of peninsula residents.
"Don’t forget that lots of city officials and bigwigs live down there. They get a disproportionate share of city funds. We pay thousands to bulldoze their beach, hundreds of thousands to haul sand down there, $150,000 for [Gadd’s] silly beach study."
As for funding the breakwater re-configuration, Mann says the money is ready and waiting.
"The Port of Long Beach has to put away millions every year for environmental mitigation. Every time they displace habitat, they have to create it somewhere else. So far, they’ve funded projects in other counties. It’s time they put the money back into the area they damage — Long Beach."
Yet Long Beach has never been a mecca for environmentalism. City politics have long been dominated by industry concerns — the Navy, the Port, McDonnell Douglas (now Boeing). In recent years, the focus has been on downtown development to combat Long Beach’s seedy-Navy-town image. The big winners have been hotel chains, restaurants, and attractions such as the new Aquarium of the Pacific.