Shore Wars

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.

"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.


And Murphy says what’s bad for the fish is bad for people. Task-force members have measured fecal bacteria counts at the beach more than double EPA limits. Yet Murphy claims the city doesn’t warn the few swimmers who brave the water — mostly non-English-speaking minorities. Nor does the city health department test the water regularly.

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.

"Ironically, the aquarium teaches respect for marine environments," says the task force’s Murphy. "But if you go there, don’t turn around and look at the ocean. They can’t fill their tanks with Long Beach water. The fish would die."

Three shipping-industry groups — the Long Beach Board of Harbor Commissioners, the Steamship Association of California and the Propeller Club — issued a formal statement saying they want the breakwater left alone. They claim the anchorage area it provides is needed so ships can refuel, repair and ride out storms. And they call the plan to create an underwater reef an accident waiting to happen. "If a ship were to hit the reef and tear out its hull, the environmental, economic and human loss would be catastrophic," wrote Propeller Club president Gerald Fisher.

But Gordon LaBedz, of the Breakwater Task Force, thinks such concerns are ill-founded.

"Captains know how to navigate ships," says LaBedz. "All they’d have to do is mark the area with buoys and chart it on maps."

And LaBedz says Long Beach doesn’t need to become an overflow parking lot for ships. "Containerized shipping put an end to that. These days, the ships are offloaded by cranes so fast, they’re in and out. They never line up anymore. The Port’s just being greedy."

To date, City Hall hasn’t warmed to the task-force plan. Phil Hester, director of Parks, Recreation and Marine, says the city hasn’t formed an official position.

Mayor Beverly O’Neill, a peninsula resident, would not comment. But mayoral Chief of Staff Randal Hernandez says sinking the breakwater would rock too many political boats: "We just can’t go out there and blow it up. Many interests are at stake."

And the head of the city’s Convention and Tourist Bureau, Linda Howell DiMario, says waves could be bad for Long Beach’s economy.

"Our future cannot depend upon day-trippers who park their van and grab a doughnut and coffee on their way to surf the big one," says DiMario. "We’ve always been forthright in marketing our beaches the way they are. We tell people that we have a safe and nonthreatening beach."

Still, the task force says it isn’t going away. Over 70 percent of Long Beach residents support sinking the breakwater, according to polls by the Surfrider Foundation. And surveys by the Belmont Shores Improvement Association and the Bluff Park Neighborhood Association reflect that bringing back waves is a popular idea.

And Morris at the Scripps Institute says the cost for re-configuration won’t be that high. He insists that port structures and the oil islands were all designed for open-ocean conditions.

"A natural beach doesn’t need our protection," says Morris. "It’s been protecting itself for millions of years. Besides, Long Beach doesn’t experience storm waves as large as most of Southern California. It sits in a protected bay. That’s why it was picked for a harbor to begin with."

No breakwater in the world has ever been torn down. But Long Beach’s Breakwater Task Force hopes to join the trend in removing once-prized public-works proj-ects — such as dams — that have outlived their usefulness.

"What the city and peninsula don’t see is that we’re really on their side," says Murphy. "Sinking the breakwater would restore the shoreline and increase tourism. People would want to visit this beach again. But it’s hard for some people to see removing something as progress. Especially those who grew up thinking progress meant pouring more concrete."


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