Hope's Up : Despite Hurdles, Surfers Think They Have a Chance to Build a Ride-Enhancing Reef

A surfing organization is studying the possibility of building off the Ventura coast what it believes would be the world's first permanent artificial reef for surfing.

The $2-million submerged structure would reshape waves breaking off of Emma Wood State Beach, just north of Ventura. While natural waves can be choppy and inconsistent, the reef would create smooth, flowing waves with machine-like precision, offering surfers rides of as long as 100 yards, according to officials of the Surfrider Foundation, the group behind the idea.

However, the reef is a long way from reality. More detailed studies must be performed, despite a favorable $25,000 initial study commissioned by the foundation and financed by Yvon Chouinard, president of Ventura-based Patagonia Inc. And the project would have to be approved by numerous local, state and federal agencies.

Encouraging Report

Still, the report, known as The Patagonia Surfing Reef Feasibility Study, has encouraged officials of the Huntington Beach-based Surfrider Foundation, a surfers' advocacy group that has opposed oceanfront development that interferes with waves or blocks surfers' access to them.

Surfrider executive director Tom Pratte said the Ventura reef would ensure a permanent surfing site along a coastline rapidly being altered by marinas, breakwaters, harbors and other intrusions.

"The number of high-quality surfing breaks are really limited," Pratte said, using the surfers' term for a choice spot. "And with the mass popularity of surfing, they're overcrowded."

In addition, the reef would serve a political purpose, according to Chouinard, who said he was drawn to the cause by the destruction of a popular Ventura County surfing spot known as Stanley's during construction of a freeway off-ramp several years ago.

"This project will, for the first time, give value to a surfing break," he said. "The next time the state or the Army Corps of Engineers has to decide to bulldoze another surfing break, you can go up to them and say, 'OK, go ahead, but build us a new one--and it's worth this much.' Then they can balance it out."

Concrete Blocks

The reef would be 100 yards offshore and one-half mile north of the mouth of the Ventura River. A rounded, triangular structure, it would be 300 feet from tip to tip and constructed from five- to 10-ton concrete blocks encased in fabric and lashed together with polyethylene and steel chains. Even at low tide, at least four feet of water would cover it.

Its precisely designed contours would keep the waves from quickly folding over themselves, as they do now, according to Pratte. Instead, the waves would lengthen for a long, continuous gliding effect.

Others have toyed with the idea of building surfing reefs, and a few have even gotten as far as construction. In the late 1960s, surfing legend Hoppy Swarts, who also was an MIT-schooled engineer, built a reef of sandbags just off Hermosa Beach only to see it sink into the sandy ocean floor. Most efforts never have progressed beyond the conceptual stage, dying off because of opposition or lack of interest.

However, Pratte said, an engineering analysis as detailed as the Patagonia Feasibility Study was not performed on previous proposals.

"People have talked about building reefs before, and there have been reports written on the concept of building surfing reefs, but nobody's ever put dimensions on it--orientation, slope, length, width, height, anything like that," he said.

Cobblestone Bottom

Emma Wood State Beach was chosen for several reasons, according to the report, which was compiled by the Long Beach engineering firm of Moffatt & Nichols. The site's cobblestone bottom offers a firm foundation for the proposed reef, and has done little shifting over the past century.

Emma Wood is also comparatively isolated, so construction of the reef would offer little conflict with other beach-goers, the reef's backers contend. Finally, the site has consistent surf--summer south swells and winter northwesterlies--giving the reef something to work with.

The preliminary cost estimate for the reef is $2 million, and the issue of fund-raising methods has yet to be addressed. Patagonia's Chouinard, however, foresees little difficulty.

"Two million dollars isn't a lot of money these days, especially considering what you're going to get," Chouinard said.

But the money is just one concern.

Approval Process

The project must be approved by the Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the State Lands Commission, the California Coastal Commission, the state Department of Fish and Game, and the state Department of Parks and Recreation, as well various city and county agencies.

"Essentially, placing anything in the water, diking or filling of open coastal waters, is contrary to the policies of the Coastal Act," said Virginia Gardner-Johnson, coastal program analyst for the Coastal Commission. "While we have approved of artificial reefs for fisheries in the past, I don't think we've done any real recently. I think we'd have to look real carefully at something established in this location."

Jim McGrath, a Coastal Commission engineer, agreed that obtaining approval may prove difficult, but cautioned that the proposed reef is "not a black-or-white question." By acting as a barrier to incoming surf, McGrath said, the reef could actually ease beach erosion in the same manner as an offshore breakwater.

Erosion Concerns

At least one expert agreed that the reef's potential for beach erosion is minimal.

"I can't say we have a lot of experience with this sort of thing, but my guess is it wouldn't have a lot of impact on sand transport," said James Bailard, technical adviser for BEACON, a collaborative effort studying beach erosion along the Santa Barbara and Ventura County coastlines. "It's hard to say without actually seeing it in place, but I suspect it will have a negligible effect."

With the reef's design not even off the drawing board, it is difficult to forecast potential ecological impacts. Pratte acknowledges that there would be short-term impacts during construction, but said that the reef in the long haul would be an ecological plus, providing additional living surfaces for bottom-dwelling fish and other organisms.

Liability is also a concern. Emma Wood State Beach is managed by the state Department of Parks and Recreation, but its jurisdiction ends at the high-tide line. The near-shore waters where the reef will be located fall under the jurisdiction of the State Lands Commission. Neither entity is likely to jump at the chance to assume responsibility for the reef.

"I don't see any state agency taking any kind of responsibility for this type of thing . . . we wouldn't even consider it," said Steve Treanor, district superintendent for Parks and Recreation's Channel Coast District, the district responsible for Emma Wood State Beach.

Liability Problems

Pratte acknowledged that liability presents a problem but contends that surfers will not be taking their lives in their hands when they enter the water.

"This is going to be designed as a safe surfing reef," Pratte said. "It's going to be a gently breaking wave. It's going to have quality, it's going to have a spot where the wave breaks fast, but it's not going to be a wave like the Wedge," a dangerous but popular surfing wave in Newport Beach. He added that "it will be a fun wave and a safe place to ride."

If the Surfrider Foundation can obtain conceptual approval from various agencies, engineers will return to the lab to conduct stability, design and materials tests. Environmental impact reports and a reef maintenance program would be written. If all goes smoothly, Pratte thinks the first wave could break in 1992, in spite of the large amount of work that remains.

"We don't finalize our design and propose the project and go for permits until we have everything worked out, until we've investigated every angle of this," Pratte said. If it's not done right--if there's some kind of failure involved--then it won't be tried again for a long time. We're serious about this. We know it's feasible, we know it can be done and we're going to do it."

Proposed Surfing Reef Making Waves Ocean swells approach the reef from deep water and begin to form waves upon reaching the shallower depths created by the reef. Its sloping, triangular shape forces the waves to break evenly to both the right and left as they pass over it. Once past the reef, they die out as they reach deeper water again.

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