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Ch. 7  Coastal Zone Pollution

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Chapter 8

Los Angeles and Long Beach Harbors




The term harbor refers to the physical area protected from the open ocean waves and currents, whereas the term port links the harbor to a particular coastal city where significant amounts of cargo are loaded onto or discharged from ships, stimulating the local economy.   Locally, in the Southern California Bight (SCB), the largest and most productive harbors are called ports - the Port of Los Angeles, the Port of Long Beach, and the Port of San Diego.   An exception to this is Port Hueneme, a small but long-time commercial port that expanded its cargo capabilities in 1997 when it annexed the U.S. Navy's port facilities there.   Lesser SCB harbors such as those at Santa Barbara, Marina del Rey, and Oceanside primarily serve recreational vessels, with little trade occurring.   So, these harbors are not ports.

A harbor is a body of water that is deep enough to provide anchorage for ships, and that is protected from ocean waves and currents.   Natural harbors along the west coast of North America are rare, with San Francisco Bay and the many inlets of Puget Sound being notable exceptions.   In the Southern California Bight, the only truly natural harbor is San Diego Bay.   The rest of the SCB's harbors are artificial, relying on large rock walls, called breakwaters, to protect a portion of the coastal zone from waves and currents.   The coast behind the breakwater is then modified by a combination of dredging of wetlands to form channels and basins, and filling operations to create land for roads, storage, docks and piers.

Since this web book is oriented toward understanding the coastal systems and human impacts in the Southern California Bight, our focus will be on the artificial harbors of the SCB, and especially the major harbors/ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.


Los Angeles Harbor

Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors are located within San Pedro Bay, which is protected from the dominant northwest swell by Palos Verdes Peninsula.  San Pedro Bay's coastal region was originally a tidally dominated coastal system, with broad, channelized mud flats and wetlands that were occasionally impacted by flooding of the Los Angeles River.   The map below, from Ecology of the Southern California Bight, shows the natural state of the Los Angeles/Wilmington/Long Beach coast prior to development of Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors.


Prior to 1871, ships visiting San Pedro Bay either anchored offshore and ferried goods ashore in small boats, or beached themselves during a low-high tide to unload cargo onto long wooden docks.   Below is a description, from the official Port of Los Angeles web site, of the conditions that existed for discharging cargo in the late 1840's, before the harbor was improved for trade purposes.

Still relatively undeveloped, the harbor did not offer deep-water access, forcing merchants to send small boats and rafts to meet cargo-carrying ships at anchor in the bay. This method was particularly cumbersome in transporting lumber which, as a result of the growing towns surrounding San Pedro, was in enormous demand. Once ashore, there was the added obstacle of expeditiously transporting the lumber to various markets in the region. Recognizing these shortcomings, one inexhaustible man was instrumental in bringing innovative changes to San Pedro Bay changes that marked the first steps toward developing the bay into one of the great seaports of the world.

Phineas Banning arrived in Los Angeles in the 1850's, and soon set about to develop a harbor and port for the Los Angeles region.

The Los Angeles and San Pedro Railroad began service between San Pedro Bay and Los Angeles in 1869. This 21-mile stretch of track was the first railroad in Southern California and marked the beginning of a new era of development for the harbor region. As the nation recovered from the Civil War, and with business booming, Banning led the crusade to solicit Congress for the first harbor improvements. These included dredging the shallow Main Channel in 1871 to a water depth of 10 feet and constructing a breakwater between Rattlesnake Island (now Terminal Island) and Deadman's Island (formerly located near Terminal Island). In that year alone, 50,000 tons of lumber, coal and other types of cargo moved through the Port as the railroad became the dominant mode of transportation.



By 1900, port business had grown to the point that major infrastructure changes became necessary.

By the turn of the century, the City of Los Angeles had grown to a population of 100,000 residents. City officials knew that the existing infrastructure could not handle further growth in either population or commerce. With that in mind, the City in 1906 annexed a 16-mile strip of land on the outskirts of San Pedro and Wilmington towns that three years later would join the City of Los Angeles. The Port of Los Angeles was officially founded in 1907 with the creation of the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners.

While City officials were primarily concerned with port infrastructure and how to encourage and utilize regional economic development, they also understood the importance of developing a port of global prominence. This was reflected in additional improvements to the harbor between 1911 and 1912. During that period, the first 8,500-foot section of the breakwater was completed, and the Main Channel was widened to 800 feet and dredged to a depth of 30 feet to accommodate the largest vessels of that era. Concurrently, Southern Pacific Railroad completed its first major wharf in San Pedro, allowing railcars to efficiently load and unload goods simultaneously.


Other notable developments for Los Angeles Harbor included the completion of the 3.5 mile long Middle Breakwater in 1937, construction of the Vincent Thomas Bridge which alleviated the need for the ferry system that connected Terminal Island with San Pedro, and construction of the largest single-user container storage facility in the world - Pier 400 - in 2004.   The photographs below provide different perspectives of the modern Port of Los Angeles/Los Angeles Harbor.


Long Beach Harbor

Long Beach Harbor is an extension of the harbor channels and infrastructure initially established in Los Angeles Harbor.   Long Beach Harbor was founded in 1911 when the State of California granted the City of Long Beach ownership of tidelands three miles inland from the high-tide shoreline along the coast of San Pedro Bay.   Channels and turning basins, dredged from salt marshes and tidal flats, were completed in 1916.   

Long Beach Breakwater      The final portion of the Los Angeles/Long Beach harbors breakwater system, the Long Beach Breakwater, was completed in 1949 eight years after construction began.   When initially conceived, the Long Beach Breakwater was designed to form protected water for Navy vessels.   During the years following World War II, increasing numbers of Navy ships were assigned to ports in Honolulu and San Diego, eventually leading to the closure of the Long Beach Naval Base and Long Beach Naval Shipyard on Terminal Island in the 1990's.   


Today the Long Beach Breakwater is seen by many as a negative for the City of Long Beach.   It breaks the force of incoming waves to the once-gorgeous beaches for which Long Beach was named.   Lacking the natural wave energy, little wave mixing and generation of longshore currents occurs, reducing circulation within this part of San Pedro Bay.   In addition, the breakwater acts as a trap for surface-runoff pollution coming from the Los Angeles River.   The combination of poor circulation, and introduction and trapping of pollutants in the harbor leads to the formation of harmful algal blooms and high bacterial counts within the harbor.   Notice how green the water is in Outer Long Beach Harbor in the photograph below.   This is likely a product of excess nutrients from the river feeding an algal bloom in the harbor.


Surfrider Foundation as well as other environmental advocates strongly recommend removing or reducing the breakwater to mitigate its harmful effects on the coastal ocean, and to allow waves to once again break along the beaches of Long Beach.   Almost certainly this would result in added tourism dollars for the City of Long Beach, and increase the enjoyment of this portion of the coast by the residents of southern California.   The vintage photograph below shows the surfing that used to be available along the Long Beach coast prior to construction of the Long Beach Breakwater.   (Photo credit is unknown.)


Below are three Surfrider Foundation proposals to reduce the negative impact of the Long Beach Breakwater on coastal Long Beach: 

flatten breakwater

Remove the top 20-30 feet of rock and spread the excess boulders flat along the ocean floor close to the area of the existing breakwater, thus creating an underwater marine sanctuary while still allowing ocean currents and pleasure craft to flow freely in and out of Alamitos Bay.

convert to island

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Gather boulders from the top 20-30 feet of the breakwater and create an island in the vicinity of the existing structure.   The island would serve as both a submerged and above-ground habitat for marine life and a bird sanctuary.

recycle breakwater rocks

PROP3.GIF (1584 bytes)

Re-deploy boulders from the top 20-30 feet of the breakwater to other breakwater projects currently underway or being considered by the Port of Long Beach.   The rocks which comprise the existing breakwaters in the Long Beach and Los Angeles harbor areas were quarried on Santa Catalina Island at substantial cost.   Redeploying this material within the harbor would significantly reduce the costs of projects planned or underway.   This approach to altering the breakwater would likely be spread over many years, as harbor projects arise and rocks are needed.   This would enable the monitoring of the outer harbor and changing of plans if necessary.

Opposition to reconfiguration of the Long Beach Breakwater comes from three different perspectives:

A. Opponents to removal/reduction of the Long Beach Breakwater cite the cost of removal as being prohibitive.   Surfrider Foundation estimates that the cost to reconfigure the breakwater would run between $20 and $30 million dollars.   However, this could be funded by Environmental Mitigation Accounts mandated by law when a project causes harm to an environment.   

B. The Port of Long Beach is in opposition to removal of the breakwater because it may want to expand into this portion of the harbor in the future.   Clearly, if the Long Beach Breakwater is gone, then port expansion will be severely impacted.

C. Shoreline residents of Peninsula Beach are opposed to this change because they fear flooding that might occur once the breakwater is removed.   Since flooding already occurs due to the combination of high tide and storm surge, their concerns seem to be unfounded.   Beach erosion, a long-term and significant problem along the ocean side of Peninsula Beach, may cease to be an issue once normal longshore current flow is re-established.   The longshore current will then carry sediment eastward from the rest of Long Beach, widening Peninsula Beach and reducing the possibility of flooding.   Currently, south swells produce a longshore flow that moves westward, taking sediment away from the southeast end of Peninsula Beach, narrowing the beach and exposing homes there to  flooding and wave damage.   This effect is illustrated in the photograph below.

In July, 2005 the Long Beach City Council voted to inquire about Federal interest in reconfiguring the Long Beach Breakwater, which is property of the Federal government.   At that time, California congressmen declined to support the inquiry, so it was never considered.   In July, 2007 the Long Beach City Council again took up the matter of reconfiguring the breakwater.   They voted to fund a reconnaissance study of the role of the Long Beach Breakwater on the Port of Long Beach and the Long Beach shoreline.   $100,000 was appropriated from coastal-project funds to consider the economic and environmental impact of the breakwater, its effects on water quality and beach erosion, and its significance regarding national security.   Only data previously collected is being used for this study. 

Meetings held during the summer of 2008 were open to all interested parties, and guided by engineers of the firm Moffat and Nichol Engineering, hired to do the study.   Many participants strongly favored altering the breakwater, but to varying degrees.   Most thought it wise to retain some of the breakwater, reducing its size by 1/3 to 2/3.   Some favored forming a series of small gaps in the breakwater, but concerns about complex wave interference patterns tip the balance to a simpler approach - removing the western 1/3 to 1/2 of the Long Beach Breakwater.   This would both reinvigorate wave action along the beaches of Long Beach and return longshore current flow to the coastal system of Long Beach outer harbor.   As of early 2009, Moffat and Nichol Engineering has not made a recommendation to the Long Beach City Council on this important matter.

Below is a June 2008 Los Angeles Times article which addresses many of the points made above concerning the Long Beach Breakwater.

Long Beach at Sea Over Breakwater Removal Plan

Some fear flooding if the barrier is removed, but others say waves would attract visitors to the city.
By Deborah Schoch, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
June 30, 2008

Long Beach has been preening its oceanfront image for more than a decade by pouring money and support into a wealth of new projects on its shores: a $117-million aquarium, gleaming Miami Beach-style condominium towers, a waterfront shopping center with sea-themed eateries, such as Gladstone's and Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.

What's missing amid all this sea fever, some say, is a Southern California style seashore.


Long Beach Breakwater site

One of the world's largest breakwaters stands between Long Beach and the Pacific Ocean, reducing mighty waves to mere lake-like lapping along the city's beaches. Without surf to cleanse them, those beaches were recently graded among the dirtiest in the state.

Surfers, environmentalists and some residents believe that restoring the surf would improve coastal water quality and draw visitors to the shoreline. They want officials to consider altering or removing the 2.2-mile eastern portion of the 8.4-mile San Pedro Bay breakwater -- the portion that sits offshore from the city's downtown, Bluff Park, Belmont Shore and Naples.

Known as the Long Beach Breakwater, that piece helped protect the U.S. Pacific Fleet when it was stationed in the city. (Not accurate.   The Naval installation was already protected by the Middle Breakwater.)   After the Navy and its ships left in the mid-1990s, some began to wonder if the breakwater had become obsolete.

This month, the Long Beach City Council voted 6 to 2 to hire Moffatt & Nichol Engineers to conduct a $100,000 preliminary study of the federally owned breakwater, to be funded equally by the city and the California Coastal Conservancy.

Some local officials say that the key cause of the dirty beaches is not the breakwater but the Los Angeles River, which drains 51 miles' worth of trash, urban runoff and sewage into Long Beach Harbor. They said cleaning up the river, not just improving water circulation in the bay, would be a better solution.

The city's surf-free beaches are among the least popular in the region. Even families within walking distance drive their children to cleaner beaches in nearby Seal Beach and Huntington Beach.

"If you take the hottest day of the year and you go down to the ocean side of the beach, it's empty," said Councilman Patrick O'Donnell, who sponsored the June 18 motion to conduct the study.

Robert Palmer of Long Beach recalls that when he first moved to the city and bought a house three blocks from the ocean, he walked his 7-year-old daughter to the beach to test the water.

"She wasn't out there 20 minutes when she came back with two plastic bags around her legs," said Palmer, chairman of the local chapter of Surfrider Foundation, a national environmental group.

Surfer lore has it that the sport got its start in California in 1911 when two men returned from Hawaii with surfboards and began surfing at Long Beach. Early surfers ranked the city's beaches among the best for surf in Southern California, and the city hosted the first National Surfing and Paddleboard Championships in 1938.

Old black-and-white photographs show the city's pre-World War II beaches teeming with swimmers, surfers and sunbathers. Then came the breakwater. The Long Beach segment was finished in 1949, and the waves ebbed.

Some believe that a return of waves would bolster the city's economy by drawing more beachgoers and tourists and recast the former Navy town as more of a beach city. The Long Beach chapter of the Surfrider Foundation has suggested three options: remove a piece of the breakwater, create holes in it large enough to let in part of the surf or remove the segment's upper 20 feet and place it on the ocean floor as an artificial reef to foster sea life.

Now, C.P. "Bud" Johnson, a local retired engineer, is proposing lowering 1,800 feet of the breakwater in one or two spots to sea level at low tide, so water can circulate twice a day at high tide.

News of his 44-page plan broke last week on two local news blogs, one trumpeting it with the headline, "The Man Who Solved the Breakwater."

Even before the city's proposed study has begun, numerous concerns are being raised.

Councilman Gary DeLong, who represents Belmont Shore and other beach areas, opposed it, troubled by the lack of guarantees that federal funding would be available for further study.

Some wonder how changing the breakwater would affect navigation into the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the nation's first and second largest seaports.

Long Beach port spokesman Lee Peterson said the facility had not taken a formal position on the breakwater issue. Ships can safely anchor outside the breakwater, although some prefer to anchor closer to shore for convenience, he said.


Terminal Island      Terminal Island (formerly Rattlesnake Island) is the heart of both port facilities.   During the early to mid 1900's docks, warehouses, fishing canneries and terminals were constructed as port business boomed.   U.S. Navy docks and piers established on Terminal Island during World War II were turned over to the Port of Long Beach in the late 1990's, then converted into container storage and crane terminals for efficiently unloading and loading cargo containers.    Note the large metal containers stacked on the docks next to the cranes in the photograph below.



Beginning in 1943, petroleum extraction from the Long Beach Harbor area gradually lowered the land surface there.   In 1945 this subsidence was recognized as a potential threat to some harbor facilities.   By the late 1980's, subsidence of the east end of Terminal Island reached 20 feet, subjecting it to flooding from the ocean.   Large dikes were constructed to keep this from happening.   Recent injection of wastewater into well holes has stemmed the subsidence to where it is no longer detectable.   The east end of Terminal Island received land-fill material in the late 1990's to raise it up to the level of the rest of the island.



The middle and outer portions of Long Beach Harbor began to expand in the 1940's, with piers F through J being added over a twenty-year period.   This massive land-fill project cost millions of dollars, but has formed the basis for a modern and efficient port complex.   Channels connect the inner and middle harbor areas to the outer harbor and open ocean.


Wave reflection within the small side channel in the middle of the photograph above, where white container cranes are located, caused docked ships to rock back and forth.   Construction of the hooked breakwater has dampened that effect, reducing the likelihood of damage to ships, dock and cranes.




Hydrography of the Harbor Complex

Movement of water within the harbors of Los Angeles and Long Beach is complex, but generally slow due to the protective nature of the external breakwater system and the many channels and terminals within the harbor complex.   Generally speaking, the hydrography of the harbors is as follows: the outer harbor regions are more energetic and have better water quality than the inner harbor basins and channels.   This is mainly due to the three gaps in the breakwater system, Angels Gate, Queens Gate, and the open eastern end of Long Beach harbor, which allow some movement of waves and currents between the open ocean and the outer harbors.   Secondarily, the Middle and Long Beach breakwaters are somewhat porous, enabling some wave surge and water movement to exchange from the open ocean into the outer harbor area.

A. water circulation in the harbors

1. The inner-harbor channels and basins are primarily circulated by tidal currents.   This circulation is sluggish at best, allowing toxic materials like fuel to settle and accumulate within sediment.   Freshwater inflow from residential and industrial channels introduce sediment and pollution into the harbor area.   Boat traffic keeps fine sediment suspended within the harbor, reducing water clarity.

2. The outer harbor is mainly influenced by shelf circulation, which is primarily eastward.   This weak nearshore current is a product of dominant onshore flow of wind, which drags surface water shoreward, and the Coriolis effect, which diverts the current toward the east.   The nearshore current enters the harbor through the gaps in the breakwater system, exiting the harbor from the large gap between the Alamitos Bay jetties and the eastern end of the Long Beach Breakwater.   Minor eddy currents spin off from the outermost harbor piers, promoting circulation to central portions of the harbor complex.

B. waves in the harbors

1. The dominant swell direction for waves that strike the Southern California Bight coast is from the north-northwest.   Waves refracting around Palos Verdes Peninsula tend to approach the breakwater at a slight angle from the west, with little wave energy entering the harbors through Angels Gate.   This is illustrated in the photograph below, showing the swell sweeping past Angels Gate.   If large, this cross-swell can be problematic for small vessels entering/exiting the harbors.   Queens gate opens directly southward, so waves tend to enter through this gap a bit more than through Angels Gate.   Due to diffraction, the waves' energy is spread throughout the Outer Long Beach Harbor area, reducing them to ankle height as they wash ashore.


2. A strong south swell, generated by distant storms off the coast of Baja California or beyond, can send significant waves passing through the breakwater gaps.   Though the waves lose considerable energy due to diffraction, which spreads out the wave front over a greater area, they can still churn up sediment in the outer harbor, clogging ship channels and forcing the ports to expend money for dredging operations.

A south swell also enters through the broad gap at the eastern end of Long Beach Harbor, between the east end of the Long Beach Breakwater and the jetties that protect the entrance to Alamitos Bay/Long Beach Marina.   The south swell diffracts from the end of the west jetty, focusing some of its energy where the jetty meets the beach, eroding and narrowing the beach there.   Longshore current produced as the south swell breaks at an angle to Peninsula Beach, carries sediment eroded from the end of the beach toward the northwest where it settles near Belmont Pier.   Annual and expensive beach reconfiguration replaces the the beach sand back to the southeast end of Peninsula Beach, shown below. 



3. Wind waves within the harbor tend to be small due to the short fetch of the harbor.   Yet, they help to mix the outer harbor enough to maintain a healthy level of primary productivity and therefore dissolved-oxygen content within the water.


C. freshwater influx into the harbor

1. The primary source of freshwater flowing into the harbor complex is the Los Angeles River.   It introduces significant sediment and pollution loads into the eastern portion of Long Beach Harbor.   Entrances to several small-boat harbors must be dredged after significant rainfall events, and local shorelines are posted as no-swimming areas year around.   (Outflow of the San Gabriel River at the far eastern end of Long Beach Harbor rarely impacts harbor water.   Instead, the San Gabriel River's pollution flows southeast to Seal Beach and beyond.)

2. For Los Angeles Harbor, the main source of freshwater is the Dominguez Channel, which drains the densely populated and industrialized area north of the harbor.   The Dominguez Channel enters Los Angeles Harbor at the inner harbor area, which is poorly circulated by tidal flux.   Needless to say, the inner harbor/Dominguez Channel water is highly polluted.

3. Rainfall over the Los Angeles coastal plain tends to spike pollution levels within the harbor complex as runoff flows directly into the harbor from piers and docks, or enters via the Los Angeles River or Dominguez Channel.   After significant rainfall it can take days to weeks for harbor water quality to return to normal conditions.


Impacts of the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach on the Southern California Bight

A. Initially, the negative impact associated with port development was destruction of roughly 15 square miles of tidal flats, wetlands and marshes of the Los Angeles River estuary.   Undoubtedly this has had a far-reaching effect on coastal ecosystems of San Pedro Bay, reducing local fisheries and habitat for indigenous and migrating water fowl.   Ultimately, the effects are unknown because no scientific studies were attempted before the coastal habitat was modified for human activities.



B. Water pollution from thousands of ships, a dozen canneries, a naval base and airfield, surface runoff from piers, and the past sewage outfall from the Terminal Island Treatment Plant have greatly reduced water quality within inner harbor channels and basins.   The better-circulated outer harbor is far less polluted.   The maps below, from Ecology of the Southern California Bight,  illustrate the improving conditions in the harbor area from the 1950's to the 1970's.   Water quality continues to improve, especially in the outer harbor regions.


C. The influx of nutrients, especially nitrates, from the Los Angeles River promote rapid plankton growth within Long Beach Harbor.   These algal blooms are most prevalent during the springtime when days are longer and temperatures are higher, aiding their explosive growth, called "blooming".   As the plankton die off, pigments in their tissues color the water brown to red, forming a so-called red tide.   Since the blooms are not associated with tides, they are now referred to as harmful algal blooms (HAB's).   Decay of the dead plankton removes oxygen from the water, threatening the survival of benthic organisms unable to flee the harbor.   A strong HAB event can travel as far south as Huntington Beach before it is dispersed by waves and currents.

Lesser HAB events can occur within inner harbor channels and basins.   These can be associated with illegal discharge of sewage from ships, or pollutants introduced by Dominguez Channel.

D. Water pollution from the ports is confined to the shelf of the Bight, carried southward by the dominant surface coastal currents, both longshore and nearshore.

E. Port air pollution, derived from ship and truck diesel emissions, is carried north and west over the Los Angeles coastal plain.   Together the ports form the single greatest source of air pollution in the region!   During offshore wind events, port pollution moves out across the SCB, with particulate matter settling onto the ocean surface.   Exact harmful effects to marine organisms are unknown, but low-level toxicity and the shading effects of pollution probably inhibit primary production within the surface zone of the Bight.


Impact Mitigation of the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach on the Southern California Bight

A. Reduction in port air pollution is an ongoing effort.   Plans are to hook up ships at dock to "green terminals", where ship-energy needs are supplied by onshore power plants versus a ship's onboard diesel generators.   Cleaner-burning diesel trucks, which transport containers from terminals to inland warehouses and distribution centers, are being subsidized to remove older more-polluting trucks from roads.   A new rail service has been proposed to ferry containers from the ports to an inland terminal where they would then be loaded onto trucks.   Victorville and Riverside have both been mentioned as possible terminal locations.

B. Little has been achieved to diminish pollution into the Los Angeles River, but future plans for river recovery and beautification will significantly improve river water quality by adding floodplain and wetlands to stretches of the river that are presently confined within a concrete channel.   Wetlands will slow the flow of water, enhancing natural filtration of particulate matter from the water, and the natural floodplain will enable percolation of water to recharge local groundwater supplies.

C. The Terminal Island Treatment Plant was recently upgraded, adding another level of treatment to remove bacteria before discharging treated water into the harbor.   The outfall location has been shifted from its original inner-harbor location to where it now discharges into the outer harbor, as shown on the map below.   Outfall "undertreatment events" are very rare, but when they occur contaminants are readily dispersed by outer-harbor current and wave action.


D. Removal of the Long Beach Breakwater, if and when it occurs, will restore northern/western swell influence along the coast of Long Beach, returning the normal southeastern flow of longshore current to the local coast.   

1. This combination of renewed swell and longshore current will:

a. efficiently dilute and spread out pollutants otherwise confined within the harbor.

b. reduce harmful algal blooms by rapidly dispersing the growing blooms, and with increased wave mixing, add oxygen to the water.

c. restore beach equilibrium along Peninsula Beach that was upset by construction of the breakwater in the 1940's.   To review, the breakwater has eliminated swell coming from a westerly direction, preferentially allowing southern swell to produce longshore current which has carried beach sediment from the southeast end of Peninsula Beach toward the northwest, where it settles near Belmont Pier.   The removal of the breakwater will enable the return of swell out of the west, reinvigorating the once-normal southeastern flow of longshore current.   This will allow the beach to return to typical width, which would be maintained by natural processes.

2. Potential negative effects of "sinking" the Long Beach Breakwater include:

a. damage to oceanfront homes and property due to a combination of high tide and big waves.   (It is likely that the natural widening of the beaches of Long Beach, due to renewed southeasterly longshore-current flow, would largely eliminate property damage from wind waves during a high-tide event.)

b. loss of protected water used by day-sailors and for overnight anchorage by ships of all sizes.

c. the upfront expense of dismantling the breakwater, which may exceed $50 million dollars.

d. loss of future economic development - port expansion - into eastern Long Beach Harbor.   (This is seen as a definite plus by residents of east Long Beach who are not pleased with the prospect of noise, light and air pollution that would come with port expansion.)



Other Harbors of the Southern California Bight

For many Californians and tourists, the smaller harbors of the Southern California Bight are the primary way they experience the ocean.   They provide ready access to the ocean for small sailing and power vessels, and for limited commercial-fishing and whale-watching businesses.   

Generally these small-boat harbors' entrances are oriented toward the east or south, away from the dominant direction of approaching waves.   Inspection of ocean-floor maps that show the bathymetry of local harbors reveals that many harbor entrances coincide with the upper ends of submarine canyons.   This is beneficial for two reasons: 1) the deeper water above the canyon will not allow waves to break at the harbor entrance because the waves don't feel bottom there, and 2) sediment will not accumulate at the harbor entrance because it is diverted into the submarine canyon and away from the harbor, negating the need for dredging.

Below are photographs of many of the small-boat harbors of the Southern California Bight, from Santa Barbara to San Diego.

Santa Barbara Harbor and Stearns Wharf      Note the spit that exists at the entrance to the harbor, formed due to longshore current that transports sediment, form west to east (left to right), along the outside edge of the breakwater.   Sediment is constantly dredged to keep the channel entrance open for harbor craft.


Ventura Harbor      Ventura Harbor opens to the ocean toward the west, so it is susceptible to the occasional strong west swell.   Note the two jetties that protect the harbor entrance from swells from the northwest and the south, and the breakwater offshore to break the force of the west swell that would otherwise cause problems for vessels entering or exiting the harbor.        


Channel Islands Harbor      This small harbor is similarly oriented like Ventura Harbor which is northwest of Channel Islands Harbor.   So, it is protected in a similar manner.   Note the large amount of sediment in the coastal zone here, a product of excessive runoff due to the wettest rainy season on record, in the winter of 2005.


Port Hueneme      This small port specializes in the rapid unloading of cargo, especially cars, for transport to the rest of the United States.   Hueneme Submarine Canyon comes right up to the harbor entrance, providing deep-water access for large ships.   Channel Islands Harbor is visible above (west of) Port Hueneme.


Marina del Rey      This is the principle small-boat harbor along the coast of Santa Monica Bay.   Its entrance opens toward the southwest, so it is protected like Ventura and Channel Islands harbors, with jetties and a breakwater.

Below is a reverse-angle view of Marina del Rey showing the layout of channels and docks, and the channel for Ballona Creek adjacent to the harbor's main channel.


King Harbor      King Harbor, at Redondo Beach, is protected by a long, curved breakwater.   When initially formed in the early 1950's, its breakwater was much shorter, providing only a small protected anchorage area for small boats (see the second, vintage photograph).   Sedimentation, from longshore current and wave diffraction reduced the anchorage area even further, so the breakwater was eventually extended to its present size.   Redondo Submarine Canyon comes right up to the harbor entrance, eliminating the need for dredging of the entrance area.

Below is another perspective of King Harbor as it is today.


Cabrillo Marina      This large marina is tucked into the extreme western end of Los Angeles Harbor.   It's protected by the San Pedro Breakwater, as well as its own small breakwater which guards against small wind waves created in Outer Los Angeles Harbor, and the rare storm event that sends surge and waves into the outer harbor.


Downtown Long Beach Marina      This small-boat harbor is inside of Long Beach Harbor, protected from the open ocean by the Middle and Long Beach breakwaters.   The Downtown Long Beach Marina has a long wharf/breakwater and smaller entry breakwater to protect against the rare storm surge event, and the small wind waves that often form within Outer Long Beach Harbor.   At its entrance is one of four human-made oil islands within Outer Long Beach Harbor.


Long Beach Marina      This small-boat marina is safely nestled behind Peninsula Beach, which itself is protected from the open ocean by the Long Beach Breakwater.   Access to the ocean from this marina is particularly easy, via the channel formed by the two jetties.


Anaheim Bay/Huntington Harbor      Anaheim Bay's jetties protect the entrance to the Naval Dock and Huntington Harbor, as shown in the first photograph below.   The second photograph shows the layout of well-protected Huntington Harbor.   Only sailboats that can lower (step) their masts can access Huntington Harbor, due to the low bridge crossing of Pacific Coast Highway over the channel to Huntington Harbor.


Newport Bay/Harbor      This small-boat harbor is protected by Balboa Peninsula, a large spit formed where the Santa Ana River empties into the Pacific Ocean.   The spit/peninsula is stabilized by a number of groins that break up the longshore current, trapping the sediment instead of letting it move on to the end of the spit.   The opening to this fine harbor is protected by jetties (lower right corner), which divert longshore transport of sediment out to the mouth of the Newport Submarine Canyon at the end of the jetties.   Note that much of the western harbor is not included in this photograph.   The smoke visible in the upper left corner of the photograph is from a wildfire at the northern end of the Santa Ana Mountains.


Dana Point Harbor   This tiny harbor is well-protected from the north swell by the Dana Point headland.   Refracting waves are muted by the long breakwater, which juts outward a bit to protect the harbor entrance from west and south swells.

The entrance to Dana Point Harbor, and Capistrano Creek and sediment plume.

Below is a better view of the layout of Dana Point Harbor.   It is a good launching area for kayaking this stretch of the southern California coast.


Oceanside Harbor      The next three photographs show the layout of Oceanside Harbor.   The right side of the harbor is open to the public, but access to the western side of the harbor is for the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base only.   Note the unusual T-shaped jetty easily visible in the second and third photographs.

The T-shaped breakwater is designed to mute wave diffraction, from a strong south swell, from traveling unimpeded into the public channel to the right side of the photograph.


Mission Bay and Marinas      Mission Bay is protected by a long spit that extends southward from Pacific Beach.   Two small-boat marinas are present within the calm bay water.


San Diego Bay marinas and piers    This large, natural bay includes six small-boat harbors and numerous piers for cruise and cargo ships, as well as naval vessels.   Though not as impacted by pollution as Los Angeles and Long Beach harbors, San Diego Bay does have its share of problems related to the population and industrial density along its shores.   It is naturally circulated by tidal currents, and occasionally flushed out when heavy winter rains send large volumes of freshwater into the bay via the Sweetwater and Otay rivers, and Chollas Creek.



The harbors of the Southern California Bight vary in size and configuration.   Except for the harbors naturally protected from waves and currents by spits or prominent headlands, local harbors employ breakwaters and jetties to protect harbor slips, docks and terminals from wave action.   Harbors that function as ports experience severe pollution problems, but help to power the southern-California economy.



Daily, M.D., Reish, D.J. and Anderson, J.W., 1993, Ecology of the Southern California Bight, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California, 926 pages.

Eichbaum, W.M. and panel, 1990, Monitoring Southern California's Coastal Waters, National Academy Press, Washington, D.C., 154 pages.

Phillips, C.A., 2003, Los Angeles Harbor Report, Chapter 1 Introduction.

Surfrider Foundation web site, .


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