The Lessons of Pratte's Reef

by Garrison Frost

For the last few years, area surfers have been dropping by an otherwise desolate stretch of beach near the El Segundo jetty — not far north of El Porto — in search of waves. For the most part, they haven't found much, which isn't their fault. Surfers have done about as much as they possibly can to make sure there are waves there. The problem is that big business has been a little better at making sure there aren't any.

Surfers wouldn't have had so much trouble finding waves in the area about 20 years ago. Like most of the west-facing beaches in the area, the spot took off during winter western and northwestern swells. It was a good place to surf for people living in El Segundo and other spots north of Manhattan Beach. Access to the beach isn't great north of El Porto, and this was a convenient access point.

That all changed in the mid-1980s when Chevron — more than a little freaked out by the storms of the previous few winters — went to the Coastal Commission with a plan to build a 900-foot rock groin to protect its marine terminal and underwater pipelines. The Surfrider Foundation, previously a small player in environmental issues, fought the plan, but were unable to defeat it. On the contrary, the group was only able to extract a promise from Chevron that if it could be proved that their groin ruined surfing in the area, the company would pay $300,000 to build an artificial surfing reef to restore what was lost. Although far from a victory, the agreement sanctioned by the Coastal Commission was unprecedented in that it recognized surfable waves as a natural resource.

Chevron went ahead and built the groin, and over the following 10 years Surfrider was able to document a substantial decrease in surf. In the fall of 2000, Surfrider dropped the first 110 geotextile bags into the water to create the artificial reef. When that didn't do much to improve the surf, the organization took advantage of an additional $200,000 grant from the California Coastal Conservancy and dropped an additional 82 bags at the site. Despite all the hopes of the local surfing community, the reef hasn't panned out, however. While there have been a few waves, the reef has not met any of its expectations and is considered a failure. Engineers who have worked on the project say that in order to make the reef work, they would have to drop a lot more bags. But resources are scarce, and Chevron isn't about to cough up any more money. In the end, Chevron gained a lot more from the bargain than local surfers did, by a long stretch.

When the reef was built, there were lots of stories in the local media. But you don't hear much about Pratte's Reef now. Surfrider doesn't want to make much noise about it for fear that people will view it as a failure on their part. Chevron doesn't want to talk about it because they're afraid people will point out how it profited at the expense of the local environment. And surfers, well, surfers have a way of going where the waves are, and if it's not breaking at Pratte's, they just get on their skateboards or on their bikes or in their cars and go somewhere else.

But there is a lot in the Pratte's story that is worth talking about. A lot of points on which to build, to gain confidence and learn. I've listed a few below:

Surf as a natural resource
One of the biggest limitations of the environmental movement is proving to people just how important every aspect of the environment is. The Surfrider Foundation broke new ground by establishing a precedent for surf being understood to be a natural resource. Gone are the days when developers will do what they did at Dana Point, which was to build a harbor and wreck one of the best surfing beaches in California.

Rise of the surfers
Before the Pratte's Reef project, very few in the environmental movement had ever heard of the Surfrider Foundation. Now, this small organization has done something that few others could accomplish: gotten a big cash payout from corporate environmental nemesis Chevron. People used to think that surfers were as a group self-centered, disunited and apathetic. No one assumes that now.

Protection versus mitigation
Before Chevron constructed its groin, Surfrider representatives argued that the project would ruin the surf in the area. While the Coastal Commission agreed that the project had the potential to do damage, it allowed construction to move forward on the assumption that any problems could be fixed by building an artificial reef. This type of reliance on the power of technology is fatally flawed. Mother Nature is a much more complicated woman than the minds and tools of man can comprehend. In this sense, it's probably fortunate that the worst in this case was the loss of a surfing beach. While we can hope that the Coastal Commission leans toward protection over mitigation when the stakes are higher, some of its decisions — particularly those involving the Ballona Wetlands — indicate a dangerous belief in the powers of man.

Increased awareness
Thanks to Surfrider, folks in the South Bay have a much better awareness of the importance of protecting their ocean environment. Sure, not everybody's a surfer, but nobody's dumb enough to just give something of value away, particularly not to a major oil conglomerate that is doing just fine anyway.

(April 13, 2003)

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