The water is calm — as it always is in Long Beach. It is a quintessential and relaxing moment on the beach, but the silhouettes from the Port of Long Beach to the north and five giant cargo ships looming in the distance are a reminder of the city’s early history, its industrial reputation and what lies below the water.
Although it’s been 20 years since the closure of the Long Beach Naval Shipyard, the 68-year-old breakwater still stands beneath the waves. Originally created to protect ships in the harbor, the underwater barrier continues to keep the waters calm just as it did decades ago.
In April 2016, the United States Army Corps of Engineers launched the East San Pedro Bay Ecosystem Restoration Study, a three-year study aimed at restoring the aquatic ecosystem and analyzing the geotechnical engineering design of the Long Beach breakwater.
Nearly a year after its initialization, the study is already facing a setback, according to USACE.
“The study is experiencing delays in getting necessary technical support, including the start of hydrodynamic modeling,” said USACE lead planner Eileen Takata in an email. “This is a critical component of our analysis.”
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, hydrodynamic modeling is a tool used to study hydrodynamics, or the motion of water in a range of coastal environments.
Takata said that without the analytics of wave circulation via hydrodynamic modeling, it was not feasible for the study to move forward.
“There will be a schedule impact of at least an 8-month delay in the Tentatively Selected Plan milestone release of the public draft Integrated Feasibility Report,” she said.
According to Takata, the delay will not affect the allotted $3 million cost of the study.
“We are working with USACE to update the milestone schedule and determine when the next community meeting would be appropriate,” said Long Beach Public Works Program Manager Joshua Hickman in an email. “I anticipate this could be as soon as summer or fall in 2017.”
While gentle waves can paint a serene picture in most people’s minds, the stagnant water from the breakwater has done little for the water quality off the shores of Long Beach over the last several years.
According to the Heal the Bay Beach Report Card letter, graded from A-F, Long Beach consistently scores “F” during wet weather.
After drawing much attention throughout the years, Long Beach environmental activists such as the Long Beach Surfrider Foundation finally got their wish to address the breakwater when the USACE and the City of Long Beach announced the study that would determine the next steps surrounding the long-standing breakwater.
Constructed in the 1940s in the midst of World War II, the Long Beach breakwater was built by the U.S. Navy as part of a deep water port project, according to the Long Beach Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. While the shipyard operated throughout the 1940s and ‘50s, it was used sporadically in the years following for special projects before ultimately closing in 1997. The last of three breakwaters developed in the East San Pedro Bay, the Long Beach breakwater stretches as far north as the Queen Mary, down to just before the Alamitos jetty.
“I didn’t know how bad the water quality was at the time,” said Robert Palmer, executive committee member of the Long Beach Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. “Our beach was dead, people would go to the beach and maybe play volleyball or take a walk, but hardly anyone went in the water.”
Dedicated to water quality and shoreline conservation, the Long Beach Surfrider Foundation has been a long-time proponent of sinking the breakwater. A Long Beach resident since 1988, Palmer has been concerned with the city’s water quality since his surfing days.
Palmer recalls when he first moved to Long Beach in the 1980s and visited the beach with his seven year-old daughter. One day, he watched her emerge from the water with two plastic bags on her legs.
“We need waves back,” Palmer said. “It’s important to remember what the beach once was … We had the first national surfing contest right here in Long Beach in 1938.”
Palmer acknowledges concerns that have been raised by Long Beach residents – fear of high tides and erosion that could threaten their homes – but says that wave circulation is essential to dilute pollution that stems from the Los Angeles River, which empties into Long Beach.
According to the USACE Community Update that was presented in October 2016 as a checkpoint to the study, “increases in shoreline erosion, wave related damages and coastal flooding to existing residences, public infrastructure, marinas, existing jetties, other structures and recreational beaches” were just a few of the points of contention listed.
“The main concern of the residents is how altering the breakwater would impact the infrastructure that has been built since the breakwater has been in place,” said Long Beach City Councilwoman, Suzie Price, who represents the areas that would be most affected by removal of the breakwater, namely the Long Beach Peninsula, Naples and Alamitos Bay residents.
Price states that she looks forward to seeing the results of the study, but refuses to support any plan or proposal that would put residents and the Port of Long Beach in jeopardy.
“We have a lot of infrastructure to consider: homes, the port of Long Beach, the pier … all of those areas might be impacted with any modification of the breakwater,” Price said. “That’s the biggest concern that residents have had and their fears are genuine, and their fears are real.”
Long-time mariner and avid sailor Will Paul has docked his boat in Long Beach since 2003 and echoes the same apprehension as residents.
“I’m not really for taking it down,” Paul said. “It keeps the waters calm and keeps the swells out of the marina … I know the water is not as clean as other beaches, but taking down the breakwater would really affect the homes on the peninsula. I’d prefer to keep it.”
Although proponents of removing the breakwater and residents have remained steadfast on their ends of the spectrum, both parties remain realistic.
“You never want something or oppose something so badly that you’re not open to reading the study with fresh eyes,” Price said. “I’d like to really have an open mind, but the safety of the homes and the Port of Long Beach in terms of its operations are my primary concern in regards to any modification.”
Since cofounding the Long Beach Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation in 1996, Palmer has had patience, but hopes that something will be done sooner rather than later.
“There are certain things that involve government decisions whether it be on the city level, the state level or the federal level … Here in Long Beach, the breakwater is all three,” Palmer said.
“Strong tides will always come, with or without the breakwater, and we need people to be realistic about it. I really don’t want people to be in jeopardy, but the bottom line is that we need to do what is best for Long Beach.”