Breaking the Long Beach Breakwater

In 1938 Hawaii’s surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku held the first US national surf contest on the shores of San Pedro Bay in Long Beach, California.

For a variety of reasons, including development of Long Beach as a deep water port and use of Long Beach by the US Navy, a nine mile 50 foot deep breakwater extending nearly 12 feet above the ocean was built between 1932 and 1949. The breakwater is owned by the US government, and thus the city of Long Beach has been merely an observer in the process over the past 60 years, and has suffered the negative impact of a breakwater which has significantly altered the eco-system of San Pedro Bay.

Google Maps View of Long Beach Breakwater

Impacts of the Long Beach Breakwater

The ocean has a natural flow, developed over millions of years. Currents keep runoff from the land, and other sources such as the Los Angeles River from stagnating in the bay, recycling the water through nature’s own system of environmental maintenance.

lb-surfingSince the natural current of water coming into San Pedro Bay was changed, the current has moved further south along the beach area near the Long Beach Peninsula, resulting in accelerated beach erosion. Property owners are in danger of flooding due to this erosion, and are now being forced to pay for a beach replenishment project needed to protect property when heavy southern swells push massive amounts of water through the narrow inlet created by the breakwater.

While Long Beach has one of the most impressive beaches in the Southern California area, on any given summer day the beaches are nearly deserted. The water, lacking any real recirculation or current, is stagnant and much higher in pollutants than other beaches around the area. The “Save the Bay” organization has a monthly review of all beach areas around Los Angeles County, and routinely fails Long Beach’s coastal areas.

Just a few minutes away, the beaches at Seal Beach, Huntington Beach, or even the South Bay area around Redondo Beach are close enough to provide a much better alternative than spending an afternoon in an unhealthy, sometimes smelly beach such as most of Long Beach.

Legitimate Concerns

Of course, as with all things, this is not a simple issue. The THUMS oil islands would need to be reinforced to withstand additional surf. The areas around Shoreline Village would need some reinforcement, although the breakwaters on the Long Beach Harbor side of the bay would probably not be affected, and Shoreline would be secure.

Since the Naples area was heavily built and populated after construction of the breakwaters, there would also be a potential of higher water levels and flooding within this rather opulent section of town. There is also some disagreement on the potential effect on the Long Beach Peninsula, with some believing removing the breakwater would increase the risk of flooding in that area as well.

Breakwater Politics

On July 24, 2007, the Long Beach City Council directed staff to fund a Long Beach Breakwater Reconnaissance Study. “This reconnaissance study is the first step in answering the community’s questions about the impact and role of the Long Beach Breakwater, and could help determine the future of the City’s coastal areas.” LB Gov

Other organizations, with the “Surfrider Foundation” at the top of the list, have done extensive studies on the oceanic, climate, environmental, and social impacts of the Long Beach breakwater. The Surfrider Foundation has been successful in bringing public attention and awareness to the debate. Their studies are available as detailed reports at:

As an emotionally charged issue, politicians are naturally attracted or forced into the discussion. The congressional district of Long Beach falls into the 42nd congressional district, a seat held by Dana Rohrabacher. Rohrabacher has fallen on both sides of the issue, recently bending to the volume of discussion favoring removal of the breakwater.

Long Beach Councilwoman Rae Gabelich is in favor of doing a detailed study of the issue, not making a definitive statement one way or the other.
Frank Colonna, a former council member and resident of the city’s peninsula area was also the lone vote against approving a study two years ago.

On Friday, 26 June (2009) Congresswoman Laura Richardson announced she had secured $100,000 in federal funding to evaluate the Federal interest in a reconfiguration of the Long Beach Breakwater.

After requesting funding last year, conducting several meetings with the Army Corps and intense negotiations with Appropriations Committee leadership, today all of Long Beach once and for all can review the facts of the longest urban breakwater in the country,” Congresswoman Richardson announced. “This $100,000 allocation for the Army Corps’s reconnaissance report is one of the most vital allocations this region will receive and it is particularly vital in these economic times to ensure an objective evaluation is made so that all resident, business and government issues and concerns are considered.”

Next Steps

The federal announced by Congresswoman Richardson is only the first step in a fairly lengthy process. This first step only funds the Army Corps of Engineers to initiate the “Reconnaissance Study,” which will determine if there is US Government interest in removing or altering the breakwater. If the Army Corps of Engineers determines breakwater alterations are in the government’s interest, they will then create a Project Management Plan (PMP).

The PMP documents the purpose of a feasibility study for the alteration, and tasks needed to complete the project. The PMP may include the City of Long Beach, and recommend a potential agreement that would outline the relationship between the city, the Army Corps or Engineers, and the federal government to complete the project.

This would include items such as who pays what percentage, which agency completes the tasks, and the overall plan to complete the project. This could take years.

On the other hand, we have to start at some point, and Congresswoman Richardson has taken the lead in representing the people of Long Beach in addressing the issue.

What We Can Do

Regardless of which side of the Long Beach Breakwater issue we stand, we need to take a stand. The result of this study and debate will potentially cost the city and government a lot of money, change the environment, and change the value of property near the waterfront. There will be an impact on surrounding communities, and an impact on the oil industry.

On the other hand, maybe someday in the future surfers will return to Long Beach and the city will regain its historical nickname as the “Waikiki Beach of California.”

John Savageau, Long Beach

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