Removal Of “Pratte’s Reef” Begins In Los Angeles

As reported on

Surfers just can’t catch a break at Dockweiler State Beach.

Workers dismantle Pratte’s Reef near LAX. Some parts of the “reef” were buried while others were 14-feet underwater. Photo courtesy of
An ambitious effort to use an artificial offshore reef there to create ridable ocean waves is a washout, its organizers concede.

Disappointed long-boarders watching workers remove the sandbag-sided Pratte’s Reef say the last big wave action was 26 years ago, when a spectacular wintertime El Niño storm system pounded the El Segundo shoreline.

But the same monstrous swells that had surfers flocking to the ocean south of Los Angeles International Airport swept away much of the broad, sandy beach. Particularly hard hit was a pipeline that connects the Chevron oil refinery with ocean tankers moored offshore.

After the storm, the oil company constructed a 380-foot rock jetty into the ocean to shield the pipeline from future damage. Unfortunately, the rock wall also shielded nearby Dockweiler Beach from large ocean swells.

Surfers — who long ago had come to grips with the loud jets taking off over their heads and the Hyperion sewage plant effluent beneath their boards — quickly complained about the sudden disappearance of Dockweiler’s ridable waves.

After a lengthy study, Chevron acknowledged that its jetty was responsible for flattening the surf. The company agreed to help pay for the artificial reef after experts suggested that an underwater barrier might restore at least some semblance of the beach’s previous surf.

The firm’s contribution was calculated in an appropriately artificial manner: the number of “lost” surfing days caused by the jetty were multiplied by the cost of an admission ticket to the Raging Waters theme park. The final amount came to about $300,000.

Surfers working through the Surfrider Foundation came up with a reef design proposal and set out to get approval of what would be the country’s first man-made surf-inducing structure.

It turned out that 23 agencies had to sign off on the project, however. That took six years, and in the end it was agreed that the reef would be removable in case it didn’t work or caused unexpected environmental problems. The permit specified that the reef would be reviewed in 10 years; the agreement could be extended after that.

That meant the structure couldn’t be built out of rock, steel, wood piers or even junked cars stacked on the ocean floor. Instead, it would be made of sandbags.

By the time the first 14-ton sandbag was dropped from a barge about 300 feet offshore, the cost of filling them with clean construction sand had tripled. Organizers were forced to scale back the reef’s size

When 110 of the behemoth black polypropylene sandbags were in place, surfers named the place in honor of legendary surfing activist Tom Pratte. He had championed the reef but died of cancer at age 44 before it was built.

As the 2000 surfing season arrived, wave riders waxed their boards and waited for the man-made reef to whip up the surf. It never happened.

Proponents of the reef decided to build it bigger. And they cautioned that Pratte’s Reef was an experiment.

“Nobody ever promised the Banzai Pipeline,” said the reef’s designer, Encinitas marine engineer David Skelly, himself an avid surfer. “Everyone knew there wasn’t enough money. What blew me away was that the surfing industry didn’t come up with a million bucks for this.”