Stab Magazine | Long Beach's Hope For Less Shit Waves
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Long Beach’s Hope For Less Shit Waves

A proposed removal of the Long Beach breakwater could bring surf back to the LBC.

news // Aug 9, 2018
Words by stab
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Southern California, as far as consistent swell is concerned, sucks. 

I feel for you poor folk up there in the Northern Hemisphere. A lack of swell almost year round, and when you do get one, a hefty amount is absorbed by those shark ridden Channel Islands. 

Apart from those several swell soaking land masses, some parts of Southern California also have breakwaters to blame for their lack of rideable waves. If you’re at Long Beach, a 2.2 mile long one.  

Long Beach surfers however might have something to celebrate in the near future; the Surfrider Foundation is continuing calls for the removal of the most recently constructed of three breakwaters at Long Beach. A proposal which has sat before the city and US Army Corps for almost 22 years, starting when the Long Beach Surfrider branch was first founded back in 1996 to address this issue.  

The breakwater in question sits the furthest east of the three breakwaters and was constructed back in 1949. It was initially built to protect the now closed naval base in the port, but is no longer needed as no naval vessels have used the port for a number of decades.  

Prior to the breakwater’s construction in ’49, Long Beach actually had swell – by CA’s standards anyway. It was the home of the National Surfing Championship back in 1938, and according to The Log  (which surprisingly isn’t a longboarding magazine) was deemed the ‘Waikiki of the West Coast’ in its hey day.

The Surfrider Foundation hopes that the removal of the breakwater could return Long Beach to it’s former surfable status. 

Aside from allowing swell into the currently lake-esque Long Beach, the Surfrider Foundation also believes the breakwater’s removal will create a more natural and diverse ecosystem in the region.  

“The ecosystem to be restored within the Surfrider Alternative consists of a restored sandy bottom benthic invertebrate habitat, with increased water circulation, improved water quality, increased mixing, decreased pollutant loading, a change from silty bottom to sandy bottom habitat, and increased oxygen content (due to breaking wave induced aeration),” Seamus Ian Innes from the Surfrider Foundation said about their plans in a 2016 letter to the US Corps. 

In the letter, Innes also claims the breakwater is a navigational hazard, and small craft would benefit from it’s removal: “It is a common occurrence for small craft to lose propulsion outside the Breakwater and drift onto the rocks. This has resulted in countless rescue and hazardous agent or spill containment operations by the Coast Guard, Lifeguards, Long Beach Fire Department, Long Beach Health Department, and Vessel Assist.” 

Plus, from an economic standpoint, more swell and cleaner waters will result in greater foot traffic, which in turn equals more coin for the city. A 2009 study estimated that the economic benefit could be up to $52 million a year in “local spending and economic activity” if the breakwater were to be removed.

Although, on the negative side, there would need to be smaller breakwaters constructed to protect an oil island further north in San Pedro Bay. 

The Surfrider foundation met with the US Corps again in June to discuss their plans, but remain sceptical whether these ‘plans’ will involve the initially intended breakwater modification for a number of reasons. 

In 2009, after years of discussions surrounding a solution, Army Corps spokesperson, Jay Field, announced that modifications to the breakwater were no longer been considered, before hastily revoking those “inaccurate statements” a few weeks later. 

More recently, in 2015, the US Corps and the city set aside $3million to investigate the situation and determine an appropriate plan to solve Long Beach’s marine problems, in the process changing the project’s name from the ‘Long Beach Breakwater Study’ to the ‘East San Pedro Bay Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study’—implying the projects focus was no longer oriented around the breakwater itself.

The US Corps and city are aiming to resolve some of the issues present, but unlike Surfrider, their primary concerns don’t revolve around waves; their concerns are instead centralised around managing the deteriorating ecosystem.

The Surfrider Foundation are concerned about the shift in the project’s focus, and in more technical terms, the difference between a ‘restorative’ approach and an approach focused on ‘enhancement’. 

Restoration would involve returning the region’s ecosystem to a more natural state, similar to its existence prior to the breakwaters; whereas enhancement attempts to create an environment which may in fact be better for the species residing there than the current or previous environment. 

Surfrider Foundation have argued that the US Army Corps are bound by their own mandate to focus on ‘restoration’ rather than ‘enhancement’, but at this stage, believe that their possible approaches are tending more towards ‘enhancement’ which will involve no breakwater removal.   

“Right now, it’s just rumor,” Innes told Press Telegram. “We’re not going to threaten a lawsuit until we see something on paper.”

In terms of cost, while ‘enhancement’ might imply significant expenditure, it’ll actually be much cheaper than removing the breakwater, estimated to cost in excess of “hundreds of millions of dollars.” Instead, an enhancement solution would primarily involve the placement of kelp beds and eelgrass to support the damage marine ecosystem. 

At this stage, there’s been no official announcement by either the US corps or the city as to which plan of action will be taken, but the Surfrider Foundation remains optimistic that it will involve some change or removal of the breakwater.

Both types of approaches will likely improve the currently stagnant marine ecosystem at Long Beach, but only Surfrider’s solution will do anything about the flatlining surf situation. 

For the sake of all of the poor Californian surfers that call Long Beach home, here’s hoping there’s some removal or modification that will allow at least a smidge of swell to roll up on your shores for once.  

The US Corps final plans are set to be detailed until September.

For more information on the debacle, head over to Surfriders site here.

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