By Lillian Boyd

Southern California Edison will begin construction to more than double the size of Wheeler North Reef, a 174-acre, man-made kelp forest, on Thursday, July 18.

Wheeler North Reef currently stretches from out past the end of the San Clemente Pier south to Seal Rock. The expansion would go up to 384 acres, stretching north into Dana Point waters. The reef is intended to facilitate kelp forests that were lost to warm-water discharge used by San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS) as ocean water was used to cool its reactors.

Ken Nielsen, a local career commercial fisherman and marine consultant, says that he’s worked with environmental groups, biologists and consultants who have criticized the reef project.

“Part of my business is taking scientists out to do ocean monitoring. A lot of these people think it’s baloney too,” Nielsen said. “It’s going to cost millions to monitor (the reef) and meet the ridiculous requirements on the Coastal Commission.”

The project was mandated by the Coastal Commission in the 1990s for mitigation efforts following the construction of SONGS’ Unit 2 and Unit 3. The Commission’s permit for SONGS required that it study and improve in-plant fish return and create 150 acres of tidal wetland, both of which have been completed.

A section of the Wheeler North Reef as viewed from above in 2010, before the kelp was fully filled in. Photo: Andrea Swayne
A section of the Wheeler North Reef as viewed from above in 2010, before the kelp was fully filled in. Photo: Andrea Swayne

SONGS is still required by the Commission to create an additional 150 acres of kelp reef, which produces 28 tons of fish.

Nielsen says he would take Dr. Wheeler North, the reef’s esteemed namesake and pioneer of kelp reef studies, out on the water before his death in 2002. San Clemente Times columnist Fred Swegles wrote in the April 25 issue about Wheeler’s opposition to the reef.

“The first San Onofre reactor went into operation in 1983 in the middle of a horrendous El Niño,” North said in a 1998 interview. “The kelp beds all up and down the coast were suffering. And the El Niño didn’t abate here until December of ’84. So the kelp bed was in poor condition.”

North said a kelp reef being monitored four miles to the south went extinct during the El Niño—too far away to blame on the power plant. The study didn’t consider that, he said. North said the Coastal Commission’s study concluded that San Onofre’s kelp reef would have been 60% bigger than it actually was, if SONGS Units 2 and 3 hadn’t been operating.

“We understand there were some differences in scientific opinion among research professionals,” said John Dobken, SONGS public information officer. “However, Southern California Edison remains committed to this environmentally friendly project, which will provide lasting benefits to the local marine ecosystem.”

After the first season of construction wraps up in September, the second season will resume May-September of 2020 in order to avoid impacts to lobster fishing season.

“Construction of modules will take variable amounts of time depending on the size of the module,” said Jenny McGee, the project manager.

There will be two transport vessels transporting rock from three quarries to supply the rock being used for reef construction. Those quarries are from Catalina Island and Ensenada, Mexico.

Transport vessels will be coming from Catalina, Long Beach and Mexico. Reef material includes metavolcanic and granitic boulders. McGee added that the project will not have any impact on recreational fishing or boating activities and that the boater notices were issued for boater safety and awareness.—Lillian Boyd

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