‘Surf reef’ designed to make waves

Difficult project would also halt beach erosion

By Noaki Schwartz

April 23, 2007 ““ Union Tribune

VENTURA ““ Californians have created plenty of surf spots by accident with harbor jetties, power plant outflows and even drainage pipes.

Creating one on purpose is proving more difficult.

In Ventura County, engineers want to build the nation’s first successful artificial “surf reef” at a site known as Oil Piers, an accidentally created surfing hotspot that disappeared when a pier was demolished in 1998.

Surfers hope the project will revive the waves at what had been one of the most reliable surf spots on a strikingly picturesque stretch of the Southern California coast.

Environmentalists add that the reef is needed to stop massive erosion that’s eating away at the beach.

“It was the only place that when the wind really, really blew, you could still surf,” recalled Gary Ross, who heads Stanley’s Reef Foundation, a nonprofit group pushing for the project. “Besides that, it was kind of a cool spot ““ a little bit of a bohemian spot with a young group of surfers.”

The $4 million project is being proposed by a coalition called BEACON, or Beach Erosion and Clean Ocean Nourishment, a joint powers agency composed of Santa Barbara and Ventura city and county officials.

Under the plan, the Army Corps of Engineers would use 700,000 pounds of synthetic tubes filled with water and sand to build a submerged reef at just the right angle to create surfable waves. It would be 50 feet wide and 140 feet long.

Organizers hope Congress will pave the way for the project next year by passing the Water Resources Development Act, which would allow the corps to undertake work on the nation’s coastlines, rivers and harbors.

The coalition is seeking funding through a federal appropriations bill for innovative beach protection projects.

Erosion has become a key issue along the California coast, as rising sea levels threaten low-lying neighborhoods. The reef would protect the beach along Oil Piers by forcing the waves to break farther offshore, dissipating the energy of the water before it hits land.

But creating waves is a tricky business.

In 2000, the Surfrider Foundation, a group representing the nation’s surfing community, spent $300,000 to build Pratte’s Reef with bags of sand in El Segundo, near Los Angeles. The reef never created a single wave.

Several reefs have been built in Australia and New Zealand that eased erosion and helped produce waves, said Shaw Mead, an environmental scientist and director at New Zealand-based ASR Ltd.

The company specializes in surf reefs and pools and has been contracted to design the proposed Ventura County project and another one in New Jersey.

“There is no generic reef shape. Each must be designed for the specific environment,” Mead said.

The stretch of coastline near Oil Piers features a flat terrace that engineers believe can serve as a stable base for the heavy reef.

The waves were lost nine years ago when oil production stopped and Mobil Exploration and Producing U.S. Inc. removed the pier that had been built in the 1930s.

Surfers said then that the waves were caused by a sand bar against the pier, even though studies showed otherwise.

“The surfers were right and the experts were wrong,” Ross said.

Judging from the exposed boulders that separate the beach from coastal Highway 101, as much as eight feet of sand has slipped away since the pier was removed.

Still, the concept of an artificial reef remains controversial in some surfing circles.

Chad Nelson with the Surfrider Foundation, which built the failed reef in El Segundo, worries that successful reef projects could create a sense of complacency about coastal erosion and lead to more development along the shoreline.

But like any surfer, he also knows the strong lure of a good wave.

“It’s every surfer’s dream to build the perfect wave in their backyard,” he said.