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Will Breaking Up the Breakwater Give Long Beach a Better Beach?

Long Beach Breakwater in 1955
Long Beach Breakwater in 1955 | Photo courtesy of theLos Angeles Public Library - Kelly-Holiday Collection of Negatives and Photographs"Terminal Island is to the extreme left (barely visible), and is connected to the Port of Long Beach (middle left, "claw-like" area). The white "thread" seen horizontally in the foreground is the Middle Breakwater, and the river running down the middle of the photograph and spilling into the ocean is the Los Angeles River. The city of Long Beach spans far into the distance." LAPL

The breakwater that separates the Long Beach coast from the turbulent currents of the Catalina Channel is eight miles of rock and fill that give cargo ships calm sailing into the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. But if Long Beach city officials and the Army Corps of Engineers can ultimately agree on the costs and the risks, a third of the breakwater could come down one day.

And the beach at Long Beach, after more than 60 years, would be open again to the sea.

The Long Beach portion of the breakwater extends 2.5 miles along the city's southern edge between the mouths of the San Gabriel and Los Angeles rivers. The breakwater was intended to shelter the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet during and after World War II. It was completed in 1949. In time, naval facilities at Long Beach supported as many as 50 ships and thousands of officers and sailors.

Ships and sailors are gone, carried away by post-Cold-War military cutbacks. The breakwater remains, no longer guarantor of "Navy town" prosperity for Long Beach and increasingly seen as a barrier to a healthier beach.

The Navy Landing
The Navy Landing | Photo courtesy of the Loyola Marymount University, Department of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library"Although Long Beach was not officially designated as a port until 1932, the Navy began anchoring its ships there as early as 1919. As an enticement for the Navy and the economic benefits they brought to the city, Long Beach built its own Navy Landing in the inner harbor in 1926. In 1932, the city was officially chosen as the home anchorage for about 50 ships in the Pacific Fleet, and a new $80,000 Navy Landing was built at the foot of Pico Street." LMU

The effect of the Long Beach breakwater is a little like the stopper in sink. Trash and toxic runoff reach the coast from the Los Angeles River and gather in the still waters behind the giant rock wall. Waves and tides have little effect on this stew. It lingers and worsens after every rain.

Concerned Long Beach officials have invested years and the city's limited funds to evaluate the effects of removing at least part of the breakwater. They've lobbied the Army Corps of Engineers and Congress. Some progress at the planning stage was made (the reports are here).

But progress in breaking down the breakwater has been slowed by federal cutbacks and the limits of the Corps' resources. In response, the Long Beach City Council has agreed to contribute at least $1.5 million toward the $3 million cost of a new feasibility study. It would take the Corps of Engineers an estimated three years to complete. The Corps' decision to undertake the study might be as much a year away.

The wide, level strand that hugs the coast from downtown to Alamitos Bay was once one of the grand tourist attractions of Southern California. It was our Copacabana, our Waikiki (including excellent surfing).

Municipal ambitions in the 1930s and 1940s - oil, the Navy, the port -- distracted Long Beach from its greatest natural asset until, landfilling, the breakwater, and artificial islands disfigured the beach beyond tourists' recognition. Taking the breakwater down now makes both economic and ecological sense.

But the effort -- if it succeeds one day -- will be a sobering example of the limits of environmental restoration. We've meddled with the coast of Los Angeles for more than 100 years, remaking it into the image of our desires, and now in need of remaking to meet new demands.

I'm reminded of some verses from chapter three of Ecclesiastes: There is a time build up and a time to break down; a time to gather stones together, and a time to cast stones away. The stones of the Long Beach breakwater are waiting for Congress and the Corps.

The Surf at Long Beach, ca 1890s
The Surf at Long Beach, ca 1890s | Photo courtesy of the Sourisseau Academy for State and Local History