West Coast
Biologist Andrea Bendlin looks for wildlife entering an area where an artificial reef is being built by Southern California Edison off Calafia Beach in San Clemente, CA on Monday, August 5, 2019. Bendlin will halt the work being done if a marine animal enters the area. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

San Clemente’s man-made reef, likely the world’s largest, is getting bigger

Work finally underway will combine with earlier structure for a 384-acre artificial reef

It’s not your typical construction site.

A half-mile offshore of Calafia State Beach in San Clemente, a bulldozer scoops quarry boulders off a barge and dumps them in the ocean. Nearby, divers examine placement of July’s rocks to make sure they match the blueprint. And on the elevated deck of a nearby barge, two biologists keep watch for sea lions and other mammals, calling a temporary halt to work when any swim into the construction area.

The project will more than double the size of what is already likely the world’s largest man-made reef, expanding it from 174 acres to 384 acres. Dubbed the Wheeler North Reef, the rocks provide a new place for kelp beds to take root, which in turn help spawn fish and other marine life.

It’s being built by Southern California Edison to compensate for damage to marine life resulting from the 1970s-era expansion of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. Although the nuclear plant was shut down in 2013, the original reef fell short of attracting the 28 tons of fish required — necessitating the additional underwater structures.

The work is also providing the assignment of a lifetime for Edison project manager Jenny McGee, a habitat restoration specialist who grew up in nearby Dana Point and, as a 19-year-old, worked at a nearby state beach.

“This reef is always going to be here. It’s going to be a home for sea life well beyond my life,” McGee said during a Monday visit to the construction barges, light sea breezes ruffling the ocean under a hazy morning sky.

“It’s really me, to be back home and working on this,” McGee added.

“To be returning marine resources to the Pacific Ocean is certainly the height of my career.”

Biggest man-made reefs

Filling the ocean silence is the hum of the barge power generator, the safety beeps of the bulldozer, the splash of the rocks into the ocean and the periodic groan of the anchor cables, which are adjusted to pull the barge along once a section of reef has been completed.

Surfers hoping for a new or improved break will be disappointed. A single layer of rocks on the sea floor will be three-feet high or less, in a minimum of 38-foot deep water. The environmental impact report found that it will have no effect on ground swells and negligible — if any — effect on locally generated wind waves. A primary concern of the Surfrider Foundation was that it could actually reduce the size of wind waves, although there was little support for that in studies.

Not to say the rocks being shipped in from quarries in Ensenada and on Catalina Island aren’t creating a massive structure — it’s just not very high.

The original reef, completed in 1988, stretches about 1.4 miles southward from the San Clemente Pier. The expansion will reach north of the pier for a total length of about 5 miles, McGee said.

So even though the Kan-Kanán reef completed offshore of Quintana Roo, Mexico in 2015 has been touted as the longest manmade reef at 1.18 miles, it fell short of the original Wheeler North Reef — named after marine scientist Wheeler North, who studied the biological feasibility of the original.

Additionally, the Kan-Kanán reef has been listed at a little over 10,000 tons. Most other large artificial reefs have been sunken ships, with the 44,000-ton aircraft carrier USS Oriskany off the coast of Pensacola, Fla., often cited as the biggest.

The original Wheeler North Reef was 120,000 tons and the expansion will add 150,000 tons, dwarfing those two more heavily publicized reefs.

Native American concerns

The long, slow process of constructing the reef to completion began in 1974, when regulators mandated the work as a condition for approval of two new nuclear units at San Onofre. Subsequent studies dragged on until 22 acres of trial reef were built in 1999. The original reef was completed in 2008.

After giving the reef time to establish itself as a home for new sea life, surveys showed that it was attracting 10 tons to 18 tons of fish annually — short of the mandate.

The expansion is largely following the same template, but has also run into a couple of delays. Construction was supposed to start last year but was postponed for studies to address concerns that Native Americans may have once lived on the now-submerged land.

“No physical tribal cultural resources were identified,” the report said. However, Edison has agreed to avoid putting rocks in areas thought to have been occupied by Native Americans.

Last winter’s rains also slowed excavation of rocks used for the project, delaying the start from May to July 18. That means the project won’t be completed by the Oct. 1 start of lobster season, when construction must halt. It is scheduled to resume next May and be completed next summer.

In a rare twist for construction projects, the price tag has dropped from the original estimate of $33 million to the current estimate of $20 million. The cost will be borne by investors and rate-payers.

The benefits will be borne by marine life — and fishermen. Such effects have been apparent with the original reef even if it didn’t meet the required threshold, said James Peeler, on-site project manager for Edison consultant Coastal Environments.

“We see fishing boats around the reef all day,” he said. “It’s serving its purpose.”