United States Army Corps of Engineers Gives Green Light to Long Beach Breakwater Study

Once upon a time, before the construction of the breakwater off the Long Beach coastline in the 1940s, the city was renowned for its waves, which drew surfers from across the region to a beach that had been dubbed the “Waikiki of the Southern California.”

Since then, the bay has been transformed into a waveless, swimmer-less and pollutant-filled body of water that advocates have pushed for years to have restored, partially or completely, to its former glory.

Now, a process that has been trudging on for close to two decades seems to be inching closer toward a resolution, as Mayor Robert Garcia confirmed today, after meeting with Brigadier Gen. Mark Toy, that the United States Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has agreed to commence with a feasibility study concerning the future of the Long Beach Breakwater. 

Dubbed the East San Pedro Bay Ecosystem Restoration Study, it is projected to begin in early 2016 and last about three years. The cost of the study is estimated to be around $3 million. Long Beach, as the local sponsor, would be responsible to fund half of the study. It will evaluate opportunities to possibly restore aquatic ecosystems and improve water circulation through the reintroduction of waves. Both the city and the USACE have noted that they are committed to making sure negative impacts to any changes to the breakwater will be mitigated so to not affect the Port of Long Beach or any coastal homes and infrastructures. 

Garcia had met with the USACE six times over the last year regarding the breakwater study, making it a point of emphasis during his mayoral campaign in 2014. Today’s meeting was somewhat of a culmination for Garcia and the city after nearly 15 years of advocating for the study.

“I can’t thank the Army Corps enough for working with us to start this important and groundbreaking study,” Garcia said in a statement. “Improving the coastal experience and ecosystem in our city is a win for residents, visitors, and will be a boost to the Long Beach economy.

The 2007 Reconnaissance Study approved by the Long Beach City Council and later signed off on by the USACE was seen as groundbreaking because it was the first time a municipality had undertaken an initiative that sought to determine whether or not there was a federal interest in modifying the breakwaters in Long Beach. The breakwater long-served a purpose, to create calm waters for the United States Navy while it called Long Beach home, but was left behind after the Navy left.

Because the breakwater sits in federally-controlled waters, the city has little, if any, control over modifications made to it. 

During the course of the USACE’s review of the city’s study in March 2010, the breadth of it was expanded to include the Los Angeles River, as both impact the ecosystem in the bay. The study found that a federal interest did exist in the form of an ecosystem restoration project that could work to mitigate pollution pushed downstream and out into the East San Pedro Bay by possibly realigning the breakwater to allow waves to naturally circulate the water. The study also identified several measures that could be taken to reintroduce kelp beds and underwater habitats that support a variety of fish species.

“Based on the preliminary screening of alternatives, there appears to be potential project alternatives that would be consistent with Army policies, costs, benefits, and environmental impacts,” the study read. “The reconnaissance study finds that there is a Federal interest in continuing the study into the feasibility phase.”

It also noted that there could be room for “incidental” benefits for recreational improvements—namely surfing—that could potentially meet the calls for the breakwater to be “sunk” by the Long Beach Surfrider Association. Former Fourth District Councilman and current State Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell has advocated alongside the foundation for years to reconfigure the breakwater. Since 2012, he’s hosted “Breakwater Awareness Month” events which include paddle outs in memory of the waves that used to crash down on the shores of Long Beach.

“It used to be the radicals were the ones who said, ‘Let’s take a look at this,’” O’Donnell said of a possible breakwater reconfiguration before his event this June. “Now the radicals are the ones who want to maintain the status quo.”

Garcia has advocated for the breakwater issue to be addressed, even bringing up the topic during his first visit to Washington, D.C. as mayor. And during the reconnaissance study carried out by the city, advocates on both sides of the breakwater discussion made their voices heard as stakeholders in any reconfiguring or eliminating of the breakwater. He said that while the focus will be on ecosystem restoration, it will look at the breakwater as it has served as the biggest contributor to the changes in the bay, including the uptick of trash and pollutants that are unable to be circulated by the waves that the breakwater blocks. 

Any action taken after the feasibility study conducted by the USACE would likely have to weigh the interests of several stakeholders, including the Port of Long Beach (POLB), homeowners on the peninsula that could potentially be impacted by further erosion of the coastline if waves are reintroduced, the man-made oil islands that are currently protected by the breakwater and the ecosystem which stands to benefit from increased circulation of the waters off Long Beach and the potential for restored aquatic habitats.

Then there are the economic impacts that are evident when taking a trip north or south of Long Beach on a warm summer day, where crowded beaches and their surrounding beaches in Huntington and Manhattan bookend the sleepy coastline of Long Beach. The study will involve more stakeholder input, much like the previous reconnaissance study, that allowed for potentially affected parties to voice concerns over potential changes to the breakwater. 

“I don’t think it’s going to be that difficult,” Garcia said. “As long as you give people a chance to be involved in the process from day one. At the top of this list is protection of coastal homes and the Port which is an economic engine for the city so we want to make sure that those things are protected. As we move forward that’s going to be a big part of this.”

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.