A 23-year push by surfers to remove the Long Beach breakwater and return waves to the area is evolving into something else altogether.

Instead of removing any of the 2 1/2-mile offshore structure, an Army Corps Of Engineers study favors building new marine-life habitat — including kelp beds and rocky reefs — to restore habitat lost to the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

“In the end, the environmental benefits of modifying the breakwater did not merit federal approval,” Army Corps Col. Aaron Barta said during the first of two public meetings about the plans that took place Monday, Dec. 9.

Barta then pitched the upside of the Corps’ proposal: “This is an environmental restoration treasure that provides direct benefits to the city of Long Beach and its people, and to the underwater ecosystem in the bay.”

The Long Beach chapter of the Surfrider Foundation has led the charge to remove the breakwater and previously has expressed disappointment in the Army Corps direction.

But at Monday’s afternoon meeting at the Aquarium of the Pacific — a second session was scheduled for Monday evening — only one of the 11 members of the public who speak about the proposal was a surfer, while most of the others endorsed the Army Corps approach.

Supporters included those who said marine operations and homes on the Peninsula would be jeopardized by removing even parts of the breakwater in east San Pedro Bay.

“Letting more waves into the bay will have serious consequences,” said Tom Jacobsen, president of a company that pilots cargo ships into the port.

The most commonly expressed concern with the Corps’ plan was that proposed kelp beds, near the entrance of Alamitos Bay, would snag recreational boaters.

Upsides, Downsides

Removing portions of the breakwater, which was completed in 1949 to protect Navy ships then harboring in the area, would cost between $670 million and $1 billion.

It also would jeopardize structures built after the breakwater, including oil extraction islands, marinas and homes, according to the Corps’ report released Nov. 25.

Additionally, the Corps’ listed a national security concern, noting that the Navy uses an area just inside the breakwater to transfer munitions from ship to ship.

Instead, the Corps’ top three alternatives would introduce varying amounts of rock reefs, kelp and eel grass habitat, and oyster beds to the east bay.

The Corps preferred alternative, dubbed the Reef Restoration Plan, would create open water and nearshore rocky reefs, kelp beds and eel grass habitat. It would cover a total of 201 acres in several portions of the bay and would cost an estimated $141 million to construct.

Another alternative would cover 162 acres and cost $84 million; a third would cover 372 acres and cost $561 million.

But the plan is not yet a done deal, as the Army Corps is taking comments before finalizing its proposal. The Long Beach City Council also will have a say, as the city and Corps are partners in the $3 million study and in any subsequent construction.

“The council can pick a different alternative, but if they pick the breakwater (removal), it’s not supported by the data,” Acting City Manager Tom Modica told the Southern California News Group upon release of the Nov. 25 report.

“Ultimately, it comes down to science. And the Army Corps determined that (removing the breakwater) wasn’t viable.”

Praying For Surf

The Corps’ study stems from a push launched in 1996 by surfers who wanted to remove the entire 2.5-mile rock structure and let surf-friendly waves return to the area. Before the breakwater was built, the city’s beachfront was dubbed the ‘Waikiki of the West Coast’ and, in 1938, it hosted what’s been billed as the first surf contest on the mainland United States.

The breakwater is the easternmost — and most recent — of three such barriers in the bay. Naval ships that it was built to protect have since moved out of the area.

The Long Beach chapter of the Surfrider Foundation was formed in 1998 with the motto, “Bring back the waves” and a mission of removing the breakwater.

In 2009, the city completed a study that found removing the breakwater would return surf to the area and improve the quality of both the water and the local beach.

That, in turn, could spur a resurgence of beach-related tourism that would generate an estimated $52 million annually in local spending and economic activity, along with nearly $7 million in taxes and parking fees, according to the study.

In 2012, the Army Corps study was launched. Barta said construction was likely to take place from 2027 to 2030.

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