Wave goodbye to reef experiment that failed

Times Staff Writer

Surfers just can't catch a break at Dockweiler State Beach.

An ambitious effort to use an artificial offshore reef there to create ridable ocean waves is a washout, its organizers concede.

Disappointed long-boarders watching workers remove the sandbag-sided Pratte's Reef say the last big wave action was 26 years ago, when a spectacular wintertime El Nino storm system pounded the El Segundo shoreline.

But the same monstrous swells that had surfers flocking to the ocean south of Los Angeles International Airport swept away much of the broad, sandy beach. Particularly hard hit was a pipeline that connects the Chevron oil refinery with ocean tankers moored offshore.

After the storm, the oil company constructed a 380-foot rock jetty into the ocean to shield the pipeline from future damage. Unfortunately, the rock wall also shielded nearby Dockweiler Beach from large ocean swells.

Surfers -- who long ago had come to grips with the loud jets taking off over their heads and the Hyperion sewage plant effluent beneath their boards -- quickly complained about the sudden disappearance of Dockweiler's ridable waves.

After a lengthy study, Chevron acknowledged that its jetty was responsible for flattening the surf. The company agreed to help pay for the artificial reef after experts suggested that an underwater barrier might restore at least some semblance of the beach's previous surf.

The firm's contribution was calculated in an appropriately artificial manner: the number of "lost" surfing days caused by the jetty were multiplied by the cost of an admission ticket to the Raging Waters theme park. The final amount came to about $300,000.

Surfers working through the Surfrider Foundation came up with a reef design proposal and set out to get approval of what would be the country's first man-made surf-inducing structure.

It turned out that 23 agencies had to sign off on the project, however. That took six years, and in the end it was agreed that the reef would be removable in case it didn't work or caused unexpected environmental problems. The permit specified that the reef would be reviewed in 10 years; the agreement could be extended after that.

That meant the structure couldn't be built out of rock, steel, wood piers or even junked cars stacked on the ocean floor. Instead, it would be made of sandbags.

By the time the first 14-ton sandbag was dropped from a barge about 300 feet offshore, the cost of filling them with clean construction sand had tripled. Organizers were forced to scale back the reef's size

When 110 of the behemoth black polypropylene sandbags were in place, surfers named the place in honor of legendary surfing activist Tom Pratte. He had championed the reef but died of cancer at age 44 before it was built.

As the 2000 surfing season arrived, wave riders waxed their boards and waited for the man-made reef to whip up the surf. It never happened.

Proponents of the reef decided to build it bigger. And they cautioned that Pratte's Reef was an experiment.

"Nobody ever promised the Banzai Pipeline," said the reef's designer, Encinitas marine engineer David Skelly, himself an avid surfer. "Everyone knew there wasn't enough money. What blew me away was that the surfing industry didn't come up with a million bucks for this."

The Surfrider Foundation set out to raise $50,000 more to increase the reef to its originally intended size and put out a call for donations of clean sand. The Coastal Conservancy kicked in a $200,000 grant. Soon, 90 more bags -- this time made from a tougher white polyester -- were used to enlarge the reef to its 245-foot-wide V shape.

For a time, the reef seemed to produce a slight bump on the water, raising hopes for shapely waves to come. But that didn't last long either.

Divers who surveyed the reef earlier this year found that many of the bags had been dislodged by wave action, sunk in the muck or covered over by the ever-shifting ocean bottom.

"The reef is completely buried most places. In other places it's only a foot and a half high. It's in about 10 to 14 feet of water," said Craig Leidersdorf, whose Chatsworth engineering firm has monitored the reef for the Surfrider Foundation. "The reef would have worked if it was higher and wider."

Leidersdorf, who has surfed for 40 years, said some of the bags are ripped and deteriorating. Those of black polypropylene have fared the worst.

Foundation leaders decided to remove the reef now to prevent chunks of the bags from breaking loose and washing up on the shore. A $300,000 anonymous donation is being used to pay for a four-person team of divers from Alaska working from a 70-foot boat to pull up the bags. The intact sandbags are dragged ashore by a cable attached to a bulldozer on the beach.

Delays in getting a permit to use equipment on the beach stalled the project last week. Divers were able to haul up only small pieces of sandbag to their boat, said Chad Nelsen, the foundation's environmental director.

Nelsen, a Laguna Beach resident who has 30 years of surfing experience, wrote a thesis on Pratte's Reef for his environmental management master's degree at Duke University. He labeled the reef a success -- even if it didn't produce the peeling wave that surfers were looking for.

"Approval of the reef was the first time the state Coastal Commission recognized surfing. It's just that it took 17 years to get it built," he said.

That sentiment was echoed by 43-year surfing activist Glenn Hening of Oxnard Shores. "It was monumental having every agency signing off on creation of a surfing park," he said.

Hening, a teacher and environmental consultant who was a co-founder of the Surfrider Foundation before leaving in a dispute with its leadership, said he fears the organization is turning its back on the sport.

"I think Tom Pratte would be appalled that Surfrider is walking away from what at the time was an extremely important victory," he said. "Surfrider should look at the explosion of surfing in the last five years. Surfers are trying to find an uncrowded wave to surf. I would think it would want to expand the footprint" at Dockweiler rather than abandon it.

At the El Segundo beach, 21-year-old surfer Tom Pear agreed. "There's a lot of technology out there that could stimulate bigger sets of waves. It's just a matter of directing the way they break."

A good reef could lead to "some serious surfing" there, he said.

For now, though, Pratte's Reef is a wipeout.

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bob.pool@latimes.com

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