A 14-year study of options to change or remove the breakwater barrier between the Long Beach shoreline and the open ocean has likely come to an end. Over the course of the past decade and a half, the city conducted several studies, including an in-depth ecosystem study in collaboration with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, to consider the issue.

On Monday, November 25, the Corps, which had been tasked with studying the feasibility and environmental impact of several modifications to the breakwater structure, released its final draft report on the issue. While suggesting alternative solutions to the issue of decreasing bio-habitats in the San Pedro Bay, the Corps did not include any modification of the breakwater in its list of proposed actions. Instead, researchers are proposing a $140 million project to create additional rocky reefs near the Chaffee oil island and the replanting of eelgrass, creating 200 additional acres of underwater habitat.

East San Pedro Bay Ecosystem Restoration Plan
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ preferred plan for East San Pedro Bay habitat restoration includes nearshore rocky reefs that would slow down shoreline erosion on Long Beach’s peninsula. (Image courtesy of the Army Corps of Engineers)

Initially kicked off as a study of possible breakwater modifications in 2005, the project eventually morphed into a broader review of potential changes to the bay’s infrastructure. According to Acting City Manager Tom Modica, the reason for this shift in focus was the desire to involve the Army Corps of Engineers, which brought its expertise and federal funding to the project.

To qualify for participation by the Army Corps, a project has to fall within one of the agency’s focus areas, such as flood prevention or navigation improvement. “The breakwater [study] didn’t really fit into any of those,” Modica said. But by expanding the focus from studying only breakwater modifications to the larger issue of rehabilitating underwater habitat, “It did fit into the bucket of ecosystem restoration and that was really what the city was interested in: how do we improve water quality, circulation, habitat,” he explained.

As a result of the adjusted focus, researchers began modeling different modifications to the bay’s infrastructure that could help restore habitats for underwater critters such as the bright orange Garibaldi fish still commonly spotted around Catalina Island, spiny lobsters, sea stars and whelks.

And the breakwater? Any changes to the decades-old structure were ruled out as unfeasible, especially out of concern for the U.S. Navy’s operations nearby. In addition to its base in Seal Beach, the Navy maintains an anchor point for ammunition transfers in the bay, designed to protect city residents from the impact of an unexpected detonation. That anchor point is protected by the breakwater structure.

In October 2018, Captain Noel Dahlke, the commanding officer of the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station at the time, shared his concerns with the city in the form of a letter. “Any modification to the breakwater would bring on increases in wave energy affecting vessel motion and increasing the risk to safety of personnel and damage to vessels and equipment,” the letter read. “This unwanted effect would severely impact the Navy’s ability to respond during a time of national or international crisis.”

Eileen Takata, the Army Corps’ lead planner on the East San Pedro Bay Ecosystem Restoration Study, provided additional reasons why the various options that included changes to the breakwater structure did not make the final round of recommended solutions. “Those modifications would not contribute to or benefit those habitat types that we want to restore,” Takata said. Additionally, she noted, “The two breakwater plans were screened out because they were very inefficient, frankly, cost-wise.”

In a statement following the release of the draft report, Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell, who represents the 70th District, suggested that forces other than science may have played a role in the Army Corps’ decision to exclude breakwater modifications from its final list of proposed solutions. “I am not confident that suggestions such as planting kelp beds and eelgrass near the breakwater will improve and restore the ocean ecosystem,” O’Donnell said. “I hope that the outcomes of this study were dictated by science, not political science.”

Army Corps staff vehemently denied the assertion that politics had influenced their findings. “We watched the study [progress] over all these years, our commanders have come and gone, and that has not been a factor at all,” Plan Formulation Branch Chief Raina Fulton told the Business Journal. “The reason why the Army Corps of Engineers is involved is because of the fact that we are not biased as to what’s happening with the local agency,” project lead Chris Lee added. Modica said O’Donnell’s comments were “speculation” and declined to comment on them further.

Despite its findings suggesting that any changes to the breakwater wouldn’t be feasible, the Corps still included an analysis on those options in the final draft report. “We hope that the public sees that we did analyze and include breakwater modifications,” Takata said. “We want to hear what people think about those habitat restoration measures. Not all of them made it into the tentatively selected plan, but they’re in the report to be evaluated by the public.”

The report will be made available for public comment on November 29. Once the 60-day public comment window has closed, it will be up to the city council to select one of the proposed options.