Long Beach’s Coast is Polluted. This Pile of Gnarly Rocks is Part of the Reason.

LONG BEACH, Calif. – There’s a 2-mile rock wall off the coast of Long Beach that’s been one of the most important — and controversial — pieces of infrastructure in Southern California for the past 70 years.

The barrier is a breakwater, and it was designed primarily to stop treacherous ocean waves from regularly flooding the city’s coastline and destroying property.

It transformed the area from a sleepy beach suburb — and surfer’s paradise — to a bustling port city.

But the barrier also led to widespread trash and pollution along the beaches, fueling an ongoing debate about the environmental costs of development.

Detail of the Long Beach breakwater. Photographed on April 26, 2019 in Long Beach, California. (Photo by James Bernal/LAist)

For decades, environmentalists, homeowners, and city officials have sparred over what to do with the breakwater. But that fight is now coming to a head.

In 2016, the city of Long Beach and the Army Corps of Engineers — the agency that has jurisdiction over the breakwater — commissioned a study to determine whether it would be feasible to modify the breakwater in some way.

That study wrapped up late last year, and came up with six different options (you can read about all of them here).

Essentially, they boil down to three approaches: leave the breakwater as it is, create deep notches to allow some waves through, or plant marine vegetation to help clean up the water.

Both the city and the Army Corps of Engineers are expected to select the option they prefer sometime this summer, though officials presented an update on June 25th.

But whatever both sides choose, it will have to strike a balance between protecting property and revitalizing the local ecosystem.

“We have to be guided by the science of it,” Mayor Robert Garcia told us in April, “Not just by what we want, or what we think is best.”

The Original Surf City

Early 20th century postcards show large waves and an active beach culture in Long Beach. That mostly died after the construction of breakwater. (Courtesy Curt Teich & Company, Chicago)

Judging from historical data and archival photographs, waves that once reached Long Beach could swell up to six feet high, comparable to some areas farther down the coast in Orange County.

That made it a choice spot for the first generation of surfers on the West Coast.

“Before Huntington Beach was Surf City, Long Beach was Surf City,” said Craig Hendricks with the Historical Society of Long Beach. “The city’s nickname was ‘Queen of the Beaches.'”

But that swell came at a cost. Neighborhoods built close to the shoreline, especially the downtown area, were subject to flooding from storm surges.

Once the breakwater went up, the waves virtually vanished. The occasional big set can that sneak through, but you’d be hard-pressed to find waves any higher than 2 to 3 feet.

A few surfers paddled out last October to take advantage of a rare window of swell generated by the remnants of Hurricane Sergio.

Video courtesy The562.org

Nevertheless, stopping wave action allowed development to continue in seaside communities like the Alamitos Peninsula, and the breakwater continues to protect billions of dollars worth of private and city property from the ocean’s destructive power.

But environmentalists argue that it does that job a little too well.

More Harm Than Good?

A pile of debris raked up by Long Beach city maintenance crews at Granada Beach, April 2019. (Photo by Lita Martinez/LAist)

While groups like the Surfrider Foundation have fought for years to bring down the breakwater and return Long Beach to its former glory, they also argue that it’s contributing to the city’s ongoing pollution and trash problem.

Most of it comes directly from the LA River, which funnels tons of debris downstream. And because the breakwater cuts off natural ocean circulation, much of that refuge ends up lingering close by.

Trash-collecting booms have been in place at the mouth of the river since the 1990s, but according to the latest city budget, maintenance crews raked up over 2,100 tons of trash from the city’s beaches in 2017 alone.

And that’s just the stuff you can see.

Turbid water flows from the LA River into Long Beach. (Photo courtesy Sergey Gussev/Flickr)

While many areas of Long Beach regularly receive A or B grades for water quality from the environmental watch group Heal the Bay, that’s because those tests only look for fecal indicator bacteria and other harmful organic substances.

But those grades become D’s or F’s when it rains, or when there’s a sewage spill somewhere upriver.

State water officials have also found traces of pesticides, herbicides, and heavy metals in sediment in the city’s inner harbor area.

An Unlikely Marine Habitat

Sandy Trautwein of the Aquarium of the Pacific collects urchins from the base of the Long Beach breakwater. (Photo courtesy JJ Soski/Aquarium of the Pacific)

Despite its detrimental effects on the environment, the breakwater has gradually become a fixture in the local ecosystem.

Because the seafloor in the San Pedro Bay is mostly a featureless, sandy bottom, the breakwater acts like an artificial reef, attracting several local species of marine animals.

The structure gives this wildlife a place to feed, breed, and rest, and is now home to a variety of seabirds, fish, and invertebrate species.

“Many of these animals wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the breakwater,” said Sandy Trautwein, vice president of husbandry at the Aquarium of the Pacific.

Juvenile gorgonians growing at the base of the Long Beach breakwater. (Photo courtesy JJ Soski/Aquarium of the Pacific)

The abundance of life here makes it a popular spot for local fishermen and freedivers during spiny lobster season.

The breakwater is also a prime spot for marine vegetation.

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Aquarium staff make frequent trips to the structure to collect kelp and algae, which they use to feed many of their exhibit animals – including the broodstock of their white abalone restoration project.

It now seems this vegetation could be key to restoring the local ecosystem, giving the breakwater a new role in the process.

A Little Kelp Goes a Long Way

JJ Soski shows off a feather boa kelp sample they brought up to the surface after scuba diving along the Long Beach breakwater. (Photo by James Bernal/LAist)

One option in the breakwater plan calls for planting kelp and eelgrass beds, along with installing artificial reefs for oysters and other bivalves.

Biologists consider these organisms “ecosystem engineers” because of the way they can modify or maintain the surrounding environment.

And in this case, they act as a sort of underwater clean-up crew.

Kelp, for instance, is a primary food source and habitat for many fish and invertebrate species, but it also acts as a carbon sink. In other words, it can absorb and recycle dissolved carbon dioxide, which causes ocean acidification.

Eelgrass has similar properties, and it’s also proven useful for stabilizing shorelines and clarifying water.

A round ray swims through a patch of eelgrass at a shoreline restoration site in Newport Beach, Calif. (Photo courtesy Orange County Coastkeeper )

Oysters are especially good at scrubbing out impurities.

“They’re filter feeders, which means they feed through taking in water,” said Katie Nichols with Orange County Coastkeeper, an environmental group that conducts similar restoration plans. “They can filter several gallons in a matter of hours.”

Timelapse Video courtesy Oyster Recovery

But there’s a hitch.

Restoration vs. Enhancement

Before the breakwater was built, the East San Pedro Bay wasn’t a hot spot for many species of marine life. Bottom-dwellers and pelagic fish like mackerel may have been the only animals that lived here full-time.

And it’s that detail that’s made some environmentalists skeptical about the kelp and reef restoration options.

“The only thing that used to be here [in Long Beach]….was a sandy beach with waves,” said Seamus Innes with the Long Beach chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. “So we fully support restoration of what was here – which was that.”

In other words, patches of kelp, eelgrass, and oyster beds, didn’t occur here naturally, so technically, it might be a stretch to call it “restoration.”

“It’s not necessarily restoration to put in a Disneyland-type, non-native habitat,” said Orange County Coastkeeper senior staff attorney Colin Kelly, who is also a member of the Long Beach Marine Advisory Board.

Kelp floating by the Long Beach breakwater. (Photo by James Bernal/LAist

Surfrider argues that it’s actually an enhancement of the breakwater — something the Army Corps of Engineers is not allowed to do (they’re only allowed to do repairs and restoration) — and told us that if this scenario comes to pass they might consider legal action.

Whatever the city and Army Corps decide could have a profound impact on L.A. County’s second largest city as it strives to become greener, sustainable, and more resilient to the effects of climate change.

This story also aired on KPCC. You can hear those segments by clicking the links below:
Part 1: More Than Just a Pile of Rocks
Part 2: Protection vs. Pollution
Part 3: The Decision That Could Radically Clean Up Long Beach