Long Beach Revival

Removing the Long Beach Breakwater could bring back the city’s long-lost surf

| posted on February 04, 2014
Before the breakwater was built, Long Beach was a popular place to surf in the 1930s. Photo: Lind Family Collection

Before the breakwater was built, Long Beach was a popular place to surf in the 1930s. Photo: Lind Family Collection

Anyone bold enough to paddle out for a surf in Long Beach, CA, would be more likely to find plastic bags and six-pack rings than any kind of decent wave. But that wasn’t always the case.

During the early 20th century, Long Beach had regular, consistent surf. The city even played host to a number of surf contests, including the Long Beach Surfing Contest in the late 1930s. But Long Beach’s days as a surf town were numbered. In 1949, to help protect the U.S. Navy’s burgeoning Pacific Fleet, the 2.5-mile Long Beach Breakwater was constructed. It was the last of three, eight-mile breakwater sections in the area that cut off the city’s public beaches from ocean swells.

“When our guys came back at the end of World War II, they came home to basically a dead sea,” said Robert Palmer, chair of the Long Beach chapter of the Surfrider Foundation.

The Long Beach Breakwater—which stretches between the outlets of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers—not only stops wave action, but also traps pollutants dumped by the ports and rivers. The Navy relocated most of its vessels in the ‘70s, and for the last 17 years Palmer has been working to reconfigure the Long Beach Breakwater, with the hopes of restoring the region’s surf and improving its water quality. Palmer’s fight started after he took his then 7-year-old daughter to the beach for a swim, only for her to emerge a few minutes later with two trash bags wrapped around her legs.

“When I first raised the issue, our local representatives basically laughed at me,” said Palmer. “We’ve been fighting them ever since.”

But times have changed and the Long Beach City Council has switched its stance, albeit tentatively. “The city is in favor of doing a federal study,” said Vice Mayor Robert Garcia. “If we were able to protect homes and bring back surf it would be a huge benefit to the community.”

A lack of surf, coupled with close proximity to more popular Orange County and LA beaches, hinders the city’s minimal beach tourism. According to a study by Surfline, without the breakwater, surf in Long Beach would be comparable to Seal Beach. An additional study estimates that restoring surf to Long Beach could result in nearly 400,000 annual visits.

The city has set aside $2.25 million for a $3 million feasibility study. Once the breakwater’s owners, The U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, are able to secure the rest of the funds, they can begin a study to analyze several options for reconfiguration—the goal is to begin the study in 2014, with the selection of the most feasible reconfiguration option by 2017.

There were plenty of eager competitors at the Long Beach Surf Contest. Photo: Photo: Lind Family Collection

There were plenty of eager competitors at the Long Beach Surf Contest. Photo: Photo: Lind Family Collection

Some locals, however, have concerns about reconfiguring the breakwater—namely a group of residents who live on the Peninsula, a stretch of sand near Alamitos Bay. Rick Brizendine, chairman of the Peninsula Beach Preservation Group (PBPG), wants to make sure that beachfront homes would not be subjected to further erosion due to increased wave action. “We’re constantly replenishing that beach,” said Brizendine. “Additional replenishment would have to occur if you increased the wave action.”

PBPG board member Phil Osterlind also argues that the Federal Clean Water Act has helped improve water quality in the region’s rivers, which many believe are a greater cause of pollution than the breakwater itself.

It’s true that Long Beach’s water quality has improved over the last few decades, in part because upriver cities have worked to stem river-borne pollutants, yet Dr. Chad Nelsen, the environmental director for Surfrider, noted that addressing river pollution is only part of the solution to the environmental issues. Increasing circulation off the coast, in his opinion, could help disperse trapped pollutants.

“Natural circulation is just good for a coastal environment, you need to do both to address the problem,” said Dr. Nelsen, adding that even knocking down a portion of the breakwater and spreading some its rocks along the ocean bottom could encourage a return of kelp growth and rocky reef life.

“Usually when we lose or degrade a wave it’s gone forever,” added Dr. Nelsen, “Killer Dana is a good example. But this is different. This is a case where the idea has some direction.”

  • surferreader

    Get rid of the breakwater!

    • LBT

      Growing up here. We always made dares to each other as to who would attempt to blow up a least a few hundred feet of breakwater. Too big of a feat. All talk, I but we wanted it to be a reality.

  • gbroagfran

    My dad used to surf L.B. in the 1920’s. I was born there. My opinion is that the whole city should be shoved into the ocean. It is an ugly, nasty, foul, terrible place. Let it die.

    • ttot

      You’re an idiot.

    • MysticMagicks

      Ouch. You must have lived in West Long Beach, because the long beach of today is really nice and clean — taking down the breakwater and allowing the surf/tourist revenue add up will do nothing but good for the city.

    • jetcity747

      You might want to pass through the Orange Curtain and check it out again sometime. Long Beach is a vibrant city with more culture in its pinky finger than the all the cities in the OC combined. All it’s missing is surf.

      • gbroagfran

        Sorry, they call Long Beach “Iowa by the Sea” for a good reason. Berkeley, San Francisco, Oakland, and Laguna Beach are cultural centers. Long Beach always has been nowhere and always will be. It’s fine to stand up for your home town, but in this case, sorry, it is nowhere with a capital N, starting with Colorado Lagoon, Alamitos Ave, and ending with Northtown. Where I now live is no great cultural center either, but there are several great point breaks blocks from my house, and towering redwoods five minutes away. Life is a beautiful experience here every day. Try living somewhere beautiful or interesting for a while before you decide Long Beach is such a great place. California is a very large state, and there are so many better places than the suburbs.

        • JP

          I live 2 minutes from th Colorado Lagoon and love my neighborhood more than any place I’ve lived in OC. The Belmont Shores area is the closest thing to Berkeley (where I used to live) in southern California. Even downtown LB is clean, interesting and feels pretty safe. If your dad surfed it in the 1920s, I suspect you haven’t seen Long Beach in a while. . . . I think it has changed from what you remember.

        • JEHOMER

          The fact that you live in “Northtown”, says it all.

        • LBC DINO

          Well aren’t you high and mighty now that you don’t live in the LBC. Since you don’t, keep your attitude up north. We’re trying to better our city here and you’ve no right to say otherwise.

        • LBCspark

          I just moved to Long Beach after living in the Sierras and Berkeley. I’ve traveled to Tokyo, Santiago, Boston…plenty of major cities and I have to say that on the whole Long Beach is really nice. My neighborhood near 7th St really suits my walking/biking-oriented lifestyle. My neighbors are friendly, the taco stands are amazing, and there is actually a great, little art scene. Plus, although LBC used to be called Iowa by the Sea because of its large number of Midwestern transplants, it’s now a very diverse city. Is Long Beach as romantic as San Francisco? No. Is it as expensive and snobby as San Francisco? Also, no.

        • Long Beach Cleanup

          I’ve lived all over the world – East Coast, Santa Barbara, Dubai, Paris, Austin… and I love Long Beach. gbroag where do YOU live? Perhaps there’s something wrong with YOU.

        • Ian

          Things have changed… I’ve never heard anyone call that

    • Chris Linden

      It’s fantastic here, you were just a dork nobody liked


      Lets just shove you into the ocean you ugly, nasty, foul, terrible person. Let you drown

    • Bryce Henderson

      It’s ok, gbroagfran is going to die a bitter person while long beach will live to see its golden age.

    • pedanticinlb

      You are so correct gbroagfran! This is a terrible, miserable place. You should steer clear at all costs. Topeka is much safer bet for you. If you reply with your address we’ll send some more people your way that need saving. In the mean time I’ll tough it out here to make sure others that are thinking of settling here know the dangers. You’re awesome 🙂

  • Jenna

    Great article. I moved from Hawaii to Long Beach to finish college and do an internship at SURFER Magazine- I had no idea there was no surf in the city! Worst discovery ever. I hope they take down the breakwater!

    • Gus

      I keep my boat in Long Beach and sail there often. The wall
      can stay or go the city will always by very cool. It’s a city full of grate restaurants,
      Bars, shops, and people.

  • Eddie Hoffmann

    All in favor !!!

  • 00souljah

    Beach front homeowner’s in a small part of Long Beach against break water removal deserve a polluted dead beach but the rest of the city deserves a healthy beach with the benefits of tourism, not to mention property taxes as the property rate will double.

  • Bill Hedy

    they should remove a portion of the break wall, at least down at the seal beach end of long beach. i know the wall protects the port and the oil islands but it would be awesome to see waves in long beach. even just in belmont shores.

    • Long Beach Cleanup

      lets get rid of the oil islands too…. long beach should have waves throughout. The port has money to deal with it. The oil islands have money to figure it out. They’ve been polluting our water and air for 60 years

  • scartastic

    they can name the new spot LGBT’s

  • ichorousmedia .

    A very good portion of the Belmont Shores residents are regulars at Seal Beach, so I’m guessing no more than 50% of the homeowners on that stretch actually care about the extra cost of replenishment considering the benefits. They should put it to a vote in town hall because that would be an easy way to silence that extreme minority opinion. Taking down the belmont breakwater is a start, but the best waves would be up by the pier…

  • the professor

    Patience surfers, something lacking among many!
    In time Long Beach will move north and obstruct Santa Cruz’s surf.

  • tacosandenchiladas

    it will never happen because of the old cronies down on the peninsula and the fact that they don’t want anyone around their beach and houses. Money talks, connections talk and those people have all of that. However would it be good for the health of the city’s water and coastlines heck yes. would there be more sand to make their house’s safer, yes. would bringing surfing to long beach again change the dynamic of our social structure and the face of our economy, oh yes. Maybe in 20 years when all those old people move on it will happen….. as for the hater of long beach, its people with your attitude that soil our planet and i suggest you go lock your self in a cave until you have some profound self realizations.

    • beach swimmer

      Seal Beach, without breakwater, has consistently lower water quality than Long Beach. The idea that the breakwater is “trapping” pollutants is just a myth. The breakwater is necessary for the harbors — both Long Beach and Los Angeles — so removing it is an illusion. When you let people build homes along the shore, you really have to maintain the conditions which allow them to be viable. There are plenty of places to surf in Southern California. People swim in Alamitos Bay and in the Mediterranean all the time and they do not have waves!! Long Beach should do its best to keep its water and sand clean, and people will come. Surfing is not the only thing one can do at the beach!

      • Josh

        They aren’t talking about removing the portion of the breakwater that protects the port – the port will be just fine. Get your facts straight. They are only discussing the 2.5 mile breakwater directly off of LB’s coast. Also, Seal is dirty because of the San G river mouth – Long Beach is dirty because of the LA River. Seal Beach would be even worse if it had a breakwater – no doubt. And Seal is not as dirty as LB overall according to Heal the Bay’s last five years of records. Also, opening up the breakwater will actually disperse erosion all along the beach, and as a result should decrease erosion along the Peninsula because erosion won’t be centralized there like it is now. The Army Corps’ future study (like Surfline’s) will show this, which will silence the vocal minority who own homes on the Peninsula. The breakwater will one day be gone, and I can’t wait to share a wave with you all.

        • stacerz02

          Great rebuttal , Josh! Tear it down!

        • RIck

          Seal Beach is nasty, infection central

  • norman

    if you notice the surf is all at the west end of long beach, only a very strong south swell broke on east of the pier. Of course what city in the world fills in the beach if front of their city and surf, only long beach. Use to be surf at 5th and 8th pl, then the jettys were put in on pier J and killed the surf. Oh, only the Feds (Corps of Enginers) can remove any of the breakwater. After at the very least 4 studies have been done, how many does it take and waste money. It’s not only the breakwater that killed surf but the expansion of the harbor. The LA River use to point pretty much south not it points east, with nothing but cement for about 90% of the river no more sand comes to the beach, just silt. Go look int the Santa Ana River and you see sand even in the area where it was cemented in, because most of the river is not filled with cement. There use to groins on the east side of long beach to help keep sand there, they didn’t help and were taken out. This was before the breakwater. I’ve observed the beach for 52 years and talk to people that live on the beach in the 20′ 30′ etc. and heard the stories of their parents from the 1800’s. Learn the history understand the history of the beach, it’s not only the breakwater that killed the surf.

  • Ryan Downey

    the water is gross there now. We brave it and practice tow surfing behind a small boat. Getting up was always the hardest part if you don’t have straps. It also conditions your biceps and forearms plus hands for the constant pulling. And its fun to do lots of floaters, even if they are tiny.

  • Mark Gregory

    There used to be signs around saying something like “Sink the Breakwater”. Uh, sink it? Its a pile of rocks, sitting on the bottom. Always got a laugh out of that.

  • Jawahar Mohanty

    What’s so insane here is there is no reason for the south end to have the breakwater. Everything would be positive for Long Beach but there is so much resistance.

    1. Open ocean waves would clean up the water as far as the water goes today it’s a great chance of risking getting hepatitis

    2. The remains of the breakwall could be used to build an artificial reef similar to the reef in Kovalam, India. The offshore reef would give us some good waves and also cause the waves near the shore to be calmer which should shut up anyone talking about issues with the houses near the shore and waves or sand erosion.

    3. Economics: The Big one! Property Value UP, Tourism dollar (non Long Beach residents) spend here UP, new business UP, more tax revenue UP

    THE NEGATIVE: Not much even beach communities like HB should be happy a little less people will surf there.


  • Tony B

    Removing the southern end of the brake water would be great.

  • LuckyT

    I would love to see the breakwater go away, I might just move back if there was surf there.

  • Sanne Berrig

    There is a petition started a little over a week ago. Please take a moment to sign.

  • Justin Speegle

    Great pictures! We moved there – 4 blocks from the beach – in 1968 when I was 4 years old. I had heard they used to surf there but had never seen a picture. The Pike is the amusement part in the background where I first experienced the thrill of roller coasters. Tear down the breakwater and I’ll be back.

  • Jeff M

    good idea, but if I see that in my lifetime, I would be very very surprised.
    That is a massive battle with huge $ behind keeping the breakwater.

  • nick

    #$%^ the houses and rip that mother #$%^&* down. All those houses are owned by out of town tourists who want a beach house to relax at. who cares if their houses erode, they shouldn’t have built there anyways. later %##$%@&.

  • Jh

    What was the surf like in Long Beach 100 years ago? With the two rivers dumping sand and the whole setup like a catcher’s mitt for south swells, I’d think it must’ve been pretty awesome. And it’d be protected from the W wind too. I’ve never seen an 1850s era photo of that bay. I did see an old map at the Pt. Fermin Lighthouse bookshop that kinda showed a setup, but it wasn’t real clear regarding surf able areas.

  • stacerz02

    SINK THE BREAKWATER NOW! What is Damon Dunn’s stance on sinking the breakwater?

  • David Carrillo

    We want our waves back! Get rid of the breakwater…. My family and I have to go somewhere else to get in the water, what a shame, makes me sad. Its time for the breakwater to go away.

    • Nelson_The_Cat

      A new ‘We the People’ petition asks President Obama to move the breakwater study forward. Sign it and share it.

      • Long Beach Cleanup

        hey nelson how come the link doesn’t work? can you set up another one? also join my facebook: Long Beach Cleanup. We support the taking down of the breakwater!

  • honest joe

    LB would be my dream city, if it weren’t for all the tweakers / homeless

  • Nelson_The_Cat

    Ask the President why the Long Beach breakwater study is still stuck in limbo. Sign the petition at “We the People”

  • LG LeBlanc

    Bring on the surf!!..Im ready for it!!

  • Long Beach Cleanup

    Time to stop talking and start doing. Lets see which mayor will knock this bloody thing down at any cost. We are not Long “Beach” until we have a real BEACH with WAVES

  • LG LeBlanc

    I want to start surfing in my hometown too, please remove the break wall…

  • scott o

    to the concerned residents. the “islands” will help disperse the wave functions, even serving to cancel some of them completely out. To further address your concerns with the water encroaching on your living quarters; that is why a Re-Purpose of the breakwater debris could serve as a Breakwater for the safety of your homes (place it on the water-side of the bike bath, let’s say…). But, more closely to reality, your homes are in no real or immediate danger. it would take a “serious” storm (think hurricane, cat 4-5) to create any possible concern.
    Let’s speak more to the improvement of the quality of life (and business, and property values – that are already very good…) as well as water quality, if most of, not necessarily all of, the breakwater is removed.
    Do not fear change. Do not fear helping the planet. Do not fear.

  • 3rdgen

    eventually long beach will get some waves whether the breakwater is there or not. Rising oceans.

  • Nicholas

    My wish for the city is that they get rid of the barriers so that the city has a real beach with waves again and that they bring back The Pike, amusement park that used to be in the city.