Long Beach Revival

Removing the Long Beach Breakwater could bring back the city’s long-lost surf

Before the breakwater was built, Long Beach was a popular place to surf in the 1930s. Photo: Lind Family Collection

Before the breakwater was built, Long Beach was a popular place to surf in the 1930s. Photo: Lind Family Collection

Anyone bold enough to paddle out for a surf in Long Beach, CA, would be more likely to find plastic bags and six-pack rings than any kind of decent wave. But that wasn't always the case.

During the early 20th century, Long Beach had regular, consistent surf. The city even played host to a number of surf contests, including the Long Beach Surfing Contest in the late 1930s. But Long Beach's days as a surf town were numbered. In 1949, to help protect the U.S. Navy's burgeoning Pacific Fleet, the 2.5-mile Long Beach Breakwater was constructed. It was the last of three, eight-mile breakwater sections in the area that cut off the city's public beaches from ocean swells.

"When our guys came back at the end of World War II, they came home to basically a dead sea," said Robert Palmer, chair of the Long Beach chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.

The Long Beach Breakwater—which stretches between the outlets of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers—not only stops wave action, but also traps pollutants dumped by the ports and rivers. The Navy relocated most of its vessels in the '70s, and for the last 17 years Palmer has been working to reconfigure the Long Beach Breakwater, with the hopes of restoring the region's surf and improving its water quality. Palmer's fight started after he took his then 7-year-old daughter to the beach for a swim, only for her to emerge a few minutes later with two trash bags wrapped around her legs.

"When I first raised the issue, our local representatives basically laughed at me," said Palmer. "We've been fighting them ever since."

But times have changed and the Long Beach City Council has switched its stance, albeit tentatively. "The city is in favor of doing a federal study," said Vice Mayor Robert Garcia. "If we were able to protect homes and bring back surf it would be a huge benefit to the community."

A lack of surf, coupled with close proximity to more popular Orange County and LA beaches, hinders the city's minimal beach tourism. According to a study by Surfline, without the breakwater, surf in Long Beach would be comparable to Seal Beach. An additional study estimates that restoring surf to Long Beach could result in nearly 400,000 annual visits.

The city has set aside $2.25 million for a $3 million feasibility study. Once the breakwater's owners, The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, are able to secure the rest of the funds, they can begin a study to analyze several options for reconfiguration—the goal is to begin the study in 2014, with the selection of the most feasible reconfiguration option by 2017.

There were plenty of eager competitors at the Long Beach Surf Contest. Photo: Photo: Lind Family Collection

There were plenty of eager competitors at the Long Beach Surf Contest. Photo: Photo: Lind Family Collection

Some locals, however, have concerns about reconfiguring the breakwater—namely a group of residents who live on the Peninsula, a stretch of sand near Alamitos Bay. Rick Brizendine, chairman of the Peninsula Beach Preservation Group (PBPG), wants to make sure that beachfront homes would not be subjected to further erosion due to increased wave action. "We're constantly replenishing that beach," said Brizendine. "Additional replenishment would have to occur if you increased the wave action."

PBPG board member Phil Osterlind also argues that the Federal Clean Water Act has helped improve water quality in the region's rivers, which many believe are a greater cause of pollution than the breakwater itself.

It's true that Long Beach's water quality has improved over the last few decades, in part because upriver cities have worked to stem river-borne pollutants, yet Dr. Chad Nelsen, the environmental director for Surfrider, noted that addressing river pollution is only part of the solution to the environmental issues. Increasing circulation off the coast, in his opinion, could help disperse trapped pollutants.

"Natural circulation is just good for a coastal environment, you need to do both to address the problem," said Dr. Nelsen, adding that even knocking down a portion of the breakwater and spreading some its rocks along the ocean bottom could encourage a return of kelp growth and rocky reef life.

"Usually when we lose or degrade a wave it's gone forever," added Dr. Nelsen, "Killer Dana is a good example. But this is different. This is a case where the idea has some direction."