Vol. 3, Issue 25, June 19-25, 2008
By Rebecca Nordquist
San Clemente Times
With construction under way on San Clemente’s artificial reef, we explore the backstory, how it works and what the future looks like
It’s Day Four of the Wheeler North Reef project, the artificial reef that’s being built off San Clemente’s coast, and the Echologic is puttering out of Dana Point Harbor to get a closer look. Pat Tennant, a marine biologist with Southern California Edison, is captaining the former research vessel-an aging boat he says was much more glorious in its day.
The project entered phase two of construction June 9 and, with it, came a derrick barge, a rock barge and a tugboat-clearly visible from the shoreline and making its way from San Mateo Point, also known as Cotton Point, to the San Clemente Pier. The idea is to create an artificial reef, which, in turn, provides a platform for giant kelp forests and a habitat for fish, lobster, crab and other invertebrates. “It’s going to provide a resource for everyone to enjoy-whether it’s the local boating community, local fishermen or local divers,” says Tennant. “To the marine community and the beach community, it’s going to be a nice project that everybody can be excited about.”
Though most visible now, the estimated $40 million project has been in negotiation since 1991 when the California Coastal Commission ordered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station to mitigate potential environmental impacts. The impact in question was a cloudy plume of water coming from the discharge sites-where SONGS releases water that is used to cool the nuclear reactors-that covered the San Onofre kelp bed just south of the plant. “[Coastal Commission] scientists hypothesized that the cloudy plume would block the sun from the kelp bed six out of 10 days, further predicting that the kelp bed would be smaller or less robust if the power plant didn’t have an impact,” says Dr. David Kay, manager of environmental projects for SCE, who’s worked on the project since its inception. Kay contends that the Coastal Commission was gathering this information based on modeling and prediction, and that in the eight years prior to 1991 the kelp bed was as large as it had ever been recorded.
Naturally, much debate ensued about its validity, but the Coastal Commission prevailed and the project was pushed forward-in addition to a wetlands project in Del Mar, which is under way. Kay and his team studied several locations along the California coast, from Point Conception to San Diego, and chose San Clemente because of the desired criteria: the right water depth, a sandy bottom without rock-or what’s referred to as substrate-and sand that wasn’t too thick. In 1999, the Wheeler North Project-named after the late Wheeler North, a renowned Caltech biologist and one of the first to study kelp in Southern California-was approved and construction on the 22-acre experimental reef began in fall of that year.
It started with 56 square modules or polygons that were 40 meters by 40 meters and consisted of quarry rock from Catalina Island and recycled concrete from the 1994 Northridge earthquake. The modules were then placed strategically .6 miles from shore along a 2.5-mile stretch parallel to the beach. “We used a single layer of rock that was low-density, so the rocks and concrete would get jostled about to keep other organisms off that would compete with the kelp,” says Kay, who notes that naturally occurring sea fans are detrimental to kelp. According to Tennant, another advantage of a low-density reef is that it doesn’t affect local currents or create or impact surfbreaks.
The sun’s now burning off the Thursday morning marine layer, and Tennant swings the boat around to get a good view of the canopy, where the kelp comes to the surface and floats. Just beyond the canopies a bulldozer on the derrick barge is dumping rock off the side. All said, 100,000 tons of quarry rock will be transported from Catalina-concrete won’t be used for this phase. Only four days in and 3,300 tons of rock had already been dropped. In essence, they’re filling in space around the test modules by adding 11 more and expanding the reef by 128 acres. “They’ve anchored themselves so that they can like a typewriter just go and fill in these polygons, that mosaic pattern,” says Tennant, adding that Connolly-Pacific Co. is constructing the project. “A full rock barge comes every two to three days.”
With the sounds of a construction site in the ocean background, Tennant declares phase one, the five-year test, a success. “Within two years, we were seeing canopy on the rocks that we dropped, and within five years, we had more acreage of canopy than we had of rock that we placed,” says Tennant, a Southern California native who’s been in the field for 15 years and specializes in wetlands and fisheries.
He explains that kelp from nearby reefs, the San Mateo Point Reef in this case, sends out spores that enter the water column and settle on hard substrate. He likens it to pollen in the wind. “As soon as they find conditions they like, they take root and send up these stalks,” he says. “They grow so quickly.”
That’s the hope for the Wheeler North Reef. When it’s completed in October-just in time for lobster season-they expect to see similar results. “If this reef produces like the test modules, you would see kelp from the pier in a year or two,” says Tennant.
But SCE’s responsibility goes beyond a year or two beyond completion. The Coastal Commission will be keeping a close eye on the project because the reef must count 40 years of being in compliance with permit standards. That figure comes from the operating life of SONGS, which was built in 1982 and is licensed to operate until 2022. If the commission says the reef isn’t performing to those standards-taking into account natural occurrences that effect the growth of kelp, including El Nino seasons, periods of high nutrients and sea fans-SCE can’t count that as a compliant year.
Steve Schroeter, a contract scientist for the Coastal Commission and a research ecologist at UC Santa Barbara’s Marine Science Institute, is leading the effort for the commission-and it’s a costly one. According to Kay, the commission’s budget for the oversight and monitoring of the reef for 2008-’09 is about $2 million. It’s money that comes from SCE and ratepayers-although Kay says it’s “less than a fraction of a cent” on the monthly bill.
As the project progresses, it’s assumed that the need for monitoring will decrease and the oversight cost will go down, but for now it’s paramount. “Edison is measuring the footprint and topography and using multi-beam sonar, and we’re measuring the coverage and overlap [by diving],” says Schroeter, who’s also been on the project since day one. “Those two things combined tell if it’s built to specification.” Schroeter and his team are also ensuring that at least 90 percent of the rock is exposed so the kelp has a place to attach, and they’re also measuring fish productivity, and looking at the numbers and diversity of fish species and invertebrates. They use the existing, natural reefs at San Mateo Point and Barn-about 10 miles south of San Onofre-as sounding boards. If SCE doesn’t meet the requirements, then the utility may have to expand the reef.
“We’re trying to create on a very large scale-that no one’s ever done-a very complex ecological system,” says Kay. “There’s a great deal we don’t know and more we couldn’t control if we did know what was happening.”
Regardless of the unknown, SCE and the Coastal Commission concur that the artificial reef can only be a good thing for the ocean environment. “It’s a habitat for all the things that live on the bottom of the ocean,” says Ken Nielsen, a 58-year San Clemente resident and fisherman who owns Seaventures in Dana Point, “and creating that rocky reef is going to help commercial and sport fishing. I see it as totally beneficial for San Clemente-not hurting anything, only helping.” A member of the city Coastal Advisory Committee, Nielsen attended every meeting on the subject and says his only concern was the ability to drive his boat through the kelp if it grew too thick. “They made channels for the boats,” he says.
Tennant says another concern the community raised was the kelp that finds its way to the beach-also known as kelp rack. “That’s sort of life,” says Councilmember Jim Dahl, a boater who looks forward to watching the reef grow. “The kelp’s out there and it has a tendency in summer to break and die back and it winds up on the beach.”
It’s time to head back to the Dana Point Harbor, and as the Echologic passes the pier, North Beach and the Marblehead Coastal bluff, the canopies soon blend into the fabric of San Clemente. And indeed the blending was all part of the design.