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No One Says 'Surf's Up' In Long Beach Anymore, But The Waves Might Return

The active shore and beach culture made possible by ocean wave recreation is captured in early 20th century postcards. (Courtesy of Adolfo Guzman-Lopez)
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Old-timey postcards from a century ago show massive crowds and fun along the Long Beach shore and huge waves. It kinda looks like Huntington Beach this past Fourth of July. So, what happened?

The breakwater happened.

Completed 69 years ago, the miles-long stone wall was built to give the Navy -- then a major presence in the coastal city south of L.A. -- more protection and space for its fleet. It also made it possible for bigger ships to access the port.

The breakwater was great for port-related businesses such as cargo shipping and recreational fishing, but it killed the waves. And with the waves went a lot of the beach and resort culture that put Long Beach on the map in the 19th century. Also gone: a lot of the plant and animal life in what is officially known as the East San Pedro Bay.

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On Monday Long Beach and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials formally unveiled five alternatives to the status quo. The goal is to improve the bay's ecosystems. And for the first time, the Corps is considering a proposal to do away with part of the breakwater.

"It means returning the coastline, as close as we can, to where we were before the breakwater went in," said Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia at an announcement on a bluff overlooking waves less than a foot high. "We want Long Beach and our coast to be as active and as full and as used as any other beach up and down the State of California."

The six proposals are:

  • Breakwater Eastern Removal: Remove the easternmost third of the breakwater, add five rocky reefs with eelgrass and kelp near the breakwater and the open ocean.

  • Breakwater Western Notching: Remove two sections on the breakwater's western end, add rocky reefs near the shore with eelgrass and kelp.

  • Reef Restoration: Keep breakwater, add rocky reefs near the shore and in the middle of the bay, add kelp along the outside of the breakwater and in the open water.

  • Scarce Habitat Restoration: Build seven rocky reefs in the middle of the bay, and five near shore along with a sandy island and add kelp adjacent to the breakwater.

  • Kelp Restoration: build fewer rocky reefs along the shore and prioritize the addition of kelp along the outside of the breakwater and in the open water where the breakwater ends.

Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia announcing proposals to improve the Long Beach harbor's ecosystems, with a view to the existing bay. (Photo by Adolfo Guzman-Lopez for LAist)

  • Status quo: AKA do nothing.


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Longtime advocates saw Monday's proposals as a seismic shift in the decades-long discussion about the breakwater.

"This would be the biggest change to Long Beach since the port. It would change the face of Long Beach," said Seamus Innes, a coastal engineer who's a member of the Surfrider Foundation.

Innes said removing some of the wall -- which would bring back the waves -- would be transformative for the city of half a million people.

"On the beach, in the ocean and 20 blocks inland, everything would change, property values would go up, instead of being an awesome, beautiful, multicultural town, it would be all that plus a beach town," he said.

Crowds and large waves are depicted in early 20th century postcards of the Long Beach shore. (Courtesy of Adolfo Guzman-Lopez)

His group strongly prefers the proposal to remove ⅓ of the wall over other proposals that would focus on restoring the bay's ecosystems without wall removal.

That alternative is far from Surfrider's wildest dream: the removal of the entire breakwater.

That's not going to happen.

"There are so many things going on within the bay. You can look out there right now and you can name a dozen of them," said Eduardo De Mesa, Chief of Planning Division with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The Port of Long Beach is one of the busiest seaports in the Western Hemisphere, with billions of dollars in goods passing in and out of its facilities each year. Once a cargo ship makes its way past the breakwater, it is shielded from the open ocean.

"The breakwater was initially constructed to protect much of that operation. So without the breakwater, you can imagine, we cannot go back the same operation if we don't have the breakwater for protection," he said.

A lot remains up in the air. The Corps is expected to release a report in about six months with their preferred alternative and the public will get a chance to comment.

The City of Long Beach will come up with its own preferred option.

One thing to keep in mind: The removal of part of the breakwater would be expensive.

There's a cost-sharing agreement in place now that splits payment between the federal government and Long Beach. That plan calls for federal officials to pick up most of the cost, once a proposal is agreed upon.

For now at least, both entities agree on this: the ecosystems in Long Beach harbor need a lot of improvement to recover from decades of development.

Here's the full draft report with more details about the proposals.

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