September 29, 2008

Surf’s Not Up, so Reef’s Coming Out

By Kristin S. Agostoni

An artificial reef that was supposed to help bring surfable waves back to Dockweiler Beach is slated for removal within the coming weeks, ending an experiment that began more than a decade ago.

The environmental group that constructed the V-shaped reef with 200 massive sandbags will start preparation Tuesday to pull the heavy sacks from the water, a spokesman said.

Despite hopes that the country's first artificial surfing reef would generate waves in a once-popular spot north of El Segundo's Grand Avenue, the reef built by the nonprofit Surfrider Foundation never did the job the group hoped it would.

Surfrider's regulatory permits allow for the geotextile sacks to remain in the water until 2010, but members figured there was no use in keeping them around if they weren't helping surf conditions, said Chad Nelsen, the organization's environmental director.

Because some of the bags are damaged and others are beginning to decompose, he said the group wanted to remove them before any synthetic materials are discharged into the ecosystem.

"We didn't effectively get our surf back," Nelsen said. "It's been eight years, almost nine (since the reef was constructed), and it didn't meet performance standards. We want to act responsibly. We don't want these big pieces of plastic affecting the marine environment."

Called Pratte's Reef, the structure is named for Tom Pratte, an activist who sought protection for the waves when Chevron was searching in the early 1980s for a way to shield its refinery and offshore oil pipelines from sea damage. The company eventually won approval to build a rock groin - or sea wall - along the shoreline.

But Pratte had convinced the California Coastal Commission that if a new groin was to be built to widen the beach, the company would have to make up for any loss of surfing waves.

Nelsen said it took years of research and documentation - often by counting surfers - to prove the sea wall's adverse effects on surfing in the area. And even when the Coastal Commission agreed the waves had diminished, he said, years went by as officials negotiated what should be built to help make them break better.

Work on the underwater structure finally started in September 2000 with the placement of 110 sacks offshore.

"They built this reef out of giant sandbags like the size of a van," said Nelsen, who wrote his master's thesis on the issue while pursuing a degree in environmental management at Duke University.

When it was determined that those bags weren't having much of an effect, 90 more were dropped in April 2001. But even those weren't enough.

In a 2005 Daily Breeze article, the coastal engineer who designed Pratte's Reef said it was clear in hindsight that the reef simply wasn't big enough to focus the swells into nicely breaking waves along Dockweiler.

Still, he pointed out that it was a victory just to be able to win permission from various agencies to build Pratte's, which sits close to the hang gliding area at Dockweiler.

Nelsen agreed, saying that "it did kind of put surfing on the map as a resource that needs to be contemplated when decisions are made."

The project was funded with $300,000 from Chevron and a $250,000 grant from the California Coastal Conservancy, Nelsen said.

Removing the bags will also prove costly and labor intensive.

"It turns out it's as hard to take it out as it was to put it in," Nelsen said.

The $300,000 removal operation - which Surfrider is funding through a large private donation - involves three companies and has required sign-offs from several regulatory agencies, including the Coastal Commission, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board and Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Department, Nelsen said.

The group is also hoping to receive final permission today from the county Department of Beaches and Harbors so that a bulldozer can be parked on the beach to assist with the bags, Nelsen said. The plan is to use a cable to pull the sacks to shore part-way, let the sand out, and then haul them in empty.

Beaches and Harbors officials could not be reached for comment Friday, when offices are typically closed.

Nelsen said the group believes the job could be conducted from a boat offshore if the final permit is not approved. He said the various agencies have agreed for the work to be done during a three- week window that starts this week through Oct. 17.

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