Artificial break gets 2nd chance

by Jason Dietrich

For months they gathered in the early morning light, in a parking lot opposite the Hyperion wastewater treatment plant in El Segundo. Sipping coffee and fingering the surfboards strapped to the roofs of their cars, they stared out to sea, and hoped.

They were looking at a stretch of water that covered a $300,000, 120-foot wide bunker of sandbags. Pratte’s reef, the United State’s first artificial surfing reef, lay directly offshore, the length of a football field from the low tide mark. What they were looking for were the peaks and barrels that the reef, built in September by the Surfrider Foundation, was supposed to create.

The promised waves never appeared. On many days the surf looked better where the reef wasn’t. One by one, the watchers stopped stopping to stare, heading to more established surf breaks, muttering about "flat’s reef."

But with this week’s ambitious addition of 80 more sandbags to bulk up the reef’s profile and bring it to within two feet of the surface during the lowest tides, the watchers may finally see the peaks and barrels they were waiting for.

A barge brought the massive sandbags to Dockweiler Beach from Los Angeles harbor this week. The addition was funded by a $200,000 grant from the Coastal Conservancy Commission.

"This should improve the performance of the reef. Hopefully we’re going to create a nice little summer break," said coastal engineer and reef designer Dave Skelly.

The expansion will both heighten and widen the reef. Bags dropped in front of the reef’s point give waves more of a chance to "feel" that the structure’s there and start to rear up, said Chad Nelson, Surfrider Foundation’s environmental director. Stacking bags closer to the surface will should make waves peak higher and thickening the reef’s walls will make them more likely to break, Nelson added.

"We’re almost doubling the reef’s size," Nelson said.

One of the reef watchers, Michael Durand, who runs the South Bay surfing website, has high hopes but low expectations for the project. He thinks the reef, which lies 150 yards south of another popular surf spot at the massive Hyperion outflow pipe, will not begin to produce waves until next winter when northwest swells originating from the Gulf of Alaska start rolling in.

"It’s going to have to be a pretty solid northwest swell for it to break. Pipes doesn’t start getting good unless there’s a good northwest. And if it does start to break it’ll draw in other surfers from all around the area. And of course, if they get here and it’s not what they expected, they’re all going to end up at El Porto," Durand said.

Low impact surfing

As part of the artificial reef project, Surfrider is conducting an ongoing study of the reef’s effect on the flow of sand along the shore. The results are available on the Surfrider website at

This winter’s storms built up a large sandbar off of Dockweiler Beach, about the same size and distance from shore as the artificial reef. According to the survey, sand filled in both behind and in front of the reef.

"The reef got buried. The bags didn’t sink, they just got covered with sand," Skelly said.

Winter waves broke along the sandbar, but the reef had no noticeable effect on their size or shape. Nelson said Surfrider hadn’t counted on the extreme underwater changes on that stretch of beach.

"The natural changes in the beach were on the same level of magnitude as the reef itself. When we started, we didn’t know how big those changes would be," Nelson said.

Reef designers are hoping to capitalize on those changes by building on top of the sand that filled in the open end of the V-shaped reef, trapping it and getting some extra height with the same number of sandbags.

Reefer madness

This week’s addition to Pratte’s reef is the latest chapter in a story that spans nearly two decades. In 1983 the Chevron Corporation was allowed to build the El Segundo Groin to help protect an underwater pipeline that ferries oil from offshore tankers to Chevron’s El Segundo refinery. The jetty-like finger of rock traps sand on its way down the coast, creating a buffer for the pipes, but also stopping the flow of sand down the coast and destroying the surf in the area.

Tom Pratte, a co-founder of the Surfrider Foundation, who lost his battle with cancer in 1994, managed to get a proviso included in Chevron’s agreement with the California Coastal Commission that included a study of the impact the groin would have on the waves.

The research came back showing that Dockweiler’s surf had suffered. Then Chevron and Surfrider spent years debating how to make up for the damage. After Chevron agreed to fund the $300,000 reef, more years were spent wrangling permits from just about every governmental agency that has authority over the coastline from the Army Corps of

Engineers to the Coastal Commission.

The original reef was made up of 110 polyester sandbags weighing 13 tons each and set in the shape of an arrowhead pointing out to sea. The arctic-tested bags were plopped in about 15 feet of water by a satellite-guided crane. The reef was designed so that the thickest pile of bags, at the business end of the wedge, would bear the brunt of the winter’s big swells. Designers hoped that on less-than-epic days, waves would break farther down the sides of the wedge, following the contours of the bags that lie in shallower and shallower water.

A $200,000 grant from the Coastal Conservation Commission came in just after construction had been completed on the reef. Its late arrival gave designers a chance to evaluate the reef’s performance over the winter and modify designs to cope with the changing conditions. Skelly said he thinks the reef’s initial design put it too deep to be affected by the area’s summer surf. By raising it closer to the surface they hope to catch more of the smaller waves, as the beach profile changes.

"We know now that we’re not going to affect the winter surf. So what we’re hoping is that this summer, as the sandbar disappears, all of a sudden the reef is going to be a prominent point that will get a wave," Nelson said. ER