The Big Flush

A plan to clean up Long Beach harbor might foul OC beaches

photo by Jack GouldEnvironmentalists behind a proposal to "sink" the Long Beach breakwater acknowledge their plan to bring waves back to the city's shoreline might also flush 60 years' worth of toxic gunk onto Orange County shores.

The breakwater—two parallel walls of stone that tower up to 20 feet above the waterline, extend a quarter mile from the shore and run about the length of the entire Long Beach shoreline—was built in the late 1940s to create a port in a city with no natural bay. It also created stagnant beaches that rank among California's dirtiest. Fed by the San Gabriel and Los Angeles rivers, those beaches are getting dirtier.

Under the most likely scenario, dismantling an eastern section of the breakwater would produce a big flush, allowing ocean currents to carry accumulated trash, effluent and other waste away—probably to Sunset, Surfside and Seal beaches and possibly even as far south as Bolsa Chica State Beach and the Huntington Beach Pier.

"With removing the breakwater, several factors are detrimental," said Don Schulz, an engineer and member of the Huntington Beach/Seal Beach Surfrider Foundation chapter's executive committee and Bluewater Task Force. Removing the breakwater "will let effluent flow out farther into the ocean pattern," he said. "That poses a threat to water quality in southern beaches, particularly Sunset, Surfside and Seal beaches."

Schulz also worries about mammoth south swells—like the ones that knocked down Newport, Huntington and Seal Beach piers—bearing down on beachfront homes if the eastern seawall comes down.

Schulz says his chapter hasn't taken a formal stand on the plan. But activists now say the question—to sink or not to sink—is among the reasons Huntington Beach/Seal Beach Surfrider split off from Long Beach a few years ago. Long Beach now has its own chapter, and its vice chairman says his comrades in OC are overreacting: sinking the breakwater and keeping Long Beach's polluted water from spoiling Orange County beaches do not have to be mutually exclusive endeavors.

"If our campaign to reconfigure the breakwater and restore the shore brings other issues to light, such as the toxicity of the sediment, then let's face this head on," said Mike Murphy, who's also an engineer. "We may have to bite the bullet and clean this up before proceeding."

He considers the concerns of the Huntington Beach/Seal Beach Surfrider chapter "legitimate, but a bit reactionary."

"There is nothing to worry about," Murphy said. "There will be a long, debated, studied process before any action is taken. Also, rest assured that we in the Long Beach chapter of Surfrider Foundation are cut from the same cloth as all other Surfrider chapters—we are environmentalists first. We are not interested in simply letting our pollution problem become someone else's."

The breakwater plan being weighed at Long Beach City Hall would involve removing rocks from the top of the eastern breakwater and spreading them along the base to create an underwater reef or relocating them to a different area where the port authority believes another breakwater is needed.

Until recently, removing the breakwater faced strong opposition from politically connected port and ship industry concerns. They want to ensure harbor waters remain calm and worry that submarine remnants of a demolished breakwater might shred the hulls of incoming vessels. Many beachfront residents also fear El Nino-driven waves might swallow their homes if the seawalls are gone.

But now the city wants to enlarge the port, and officials recognize they'll need the blessing of local environmentalists who managed to hold up Carnival Cruise Lines' recent expansion in the port. The cruise operator later agreed to drop its opposition to sinking the breakwater.

Murphy said his chapter's strategy is to persuade a majority of the Long Beach City Council—five members—to proceed with a breakwater-reconfiguration study. So far, three council members favor reconfiguration, one opposes it and five are undecided.

But even if the council agreed to proceed at its next meeting, Murphy figures it will still take another three to five years before a single seawall rock is removed. There will be plenty of opportunities to air the pros and cons, he maintained.

While that's going on, he vowed his chapter will harp on the public and bureaucrats to keep inland pollution out of coastal waters.

"But by the time we or the government are successful at changing the minds and behavior of 10 million-plus residents of this watershed, our patient, the Long Beach shoreline, will have died on the operating table," Murphy said. "We must restore natural processes to this ecosystem that has been misused and abused for decades."

 
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