In Closed Session

A couple of weeks ago, the Long Beach chapter of the Surfrider Foundation conducted a meeting primarily to get an update on a three-year-long study of potential changes to the Long Beach breakwater.

For the past couple of decades, pretty much the sole purpose of the Long Beach group has been to "Sink The Breakwater." The idea is to bring waves back to Long Beach to increase water circulation, improving the water quality. Oh, and there's that return to the surfing good old days thing, too.

Those "good old days" were before World War II, when the breakwater was created to protect the Navy's Pacific Fleet. There were other reasons for portions of the rock pile, but the Feds kept control of the whole thing.

There have been multiple studies over the last quarter century about breakwater impacts, beach erosion, etc., with some even involving the Army Corps of Engineers. Feasibility studies ended with no action; there were a couple of experiments to try to keep sand on the Peninsula Beach, but ultimately hauling it from the wide beach to the west remained the only real option.

This last study by the Army Corps — three years for $3 million, almost all paid by the city — was supposed to be near its end. Last September, six alternatives for ecological restoration of San Pedro Bay (the euphemism used to give the Corps sufficient reason to be involved) were unveiled. Only two of those options even touched the breakwater.

The following month, the U.S. Navy killed any possibility of removing the eastern breakwater with a letter stating waves would jeopardize operations at the Seal Beach Weapons Station, and that wouldn't be allowed. It seems national security trumps surfing.

That letter was less clear about impacts of changing the western part of the rock wall, at least when it comes to the Navy. The last of the six Army Corps alternatives consider "notching" the breakwater there, allowing waves through while still offering some protection.

The Port of Long Beach has weighed in on that in the past, saying even a small increase in waves would jeopardize operations at many of the port's terminals. But the study continued.

The city manager's office prepared a memo, "East San Pedro Bay Ecosystem Restoration Study: 2019 Progress Report," just before the Surfrider meeting, sending it to the mayor, the City Council and other government department heads. Diana Tang, the city manager's Manager of Government Affairs, used part of the memo for her presentation to the group.

A critical explanation of the study's current status can be found in that memo. It isn't exactly buried, but it isn't highlighted either.

It says that more study may take place regarding the western breakwater notching alternative.

That statement is what proponents are hanging their hopes on that there may be waves in the future. But there are some important caveats to that statement that haven't been discussed, at least publicly.

Specifically, it says the city would be conducting, and paying for, the study. Talks are taking place now about whether the city will be able to use the Army Corps' modeling results from the current study to move forward.

According to the memo, a potential expanded scope of study would go beyond the Army Corps mandate of ecosystem restoration. The goal, the memo says, would be "to address local interests in ecosystem health, water quality improvements and the recreational value of the City's beaches."

There are some qualifiers that could give the city an out if the powers that be decide to drop the quixotic quest. And there are a couple of statements that say dropping the study would be a good idea, albeit not directly. To quote: 

"The Army Corps has indicated the City will be responsible for 100% of increased study costs… Unmitigable risks to national security and maritime operational capabilities will render any breakwater modification infeasible."

There was some sentiment, at least here, that the $3 million the city was spending on this latest study was a waste. Others argued this would give Long Beach the definitive answer regarding whether the breakwater could be sunk, lowered or have holes punched in it.

While it hasn't quite been signed, sealed and delivered, it would appear that answer has been given. Is it really prudent to go out on our own to keep trying to get an answer some people desperately want to hear?

Harry has been executive editor of Gazette Newspapers for more than 26 years. He has been in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, with experience on both weekly and metropolitan daily papers in Colorado and California.

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