Our sea levels are rising globally, and as beaches wash away, coastal erosion is becoming more and more of an issue. Are building sea walls and bringing in huge amounts of sand the answer? Are man-made reefs the answer? We know of more than a few spots where man’s involvement has given us some very good waves. So is it okay if the solution to coastal erosion creates a good surf spot? In the U.S., and especially California, coastal permitting and requirements present major challenges to gain proof of concept even if the system is removable.
Back in 1970, California State Highway Engineers routed the new Highway 101 extension over the ocean next to a small beach community called Sea Cliff. There was a wave there called Stanley’s Dinner (named for a steak house nearby), and the beach was a delicate mix of sand and small cobblestones. Small streams fed into it, but as the boulders were dropped that elevated the 101 ramps, an entire ecosystem was destroyed – and along with it, a few amazing waves.
Growing up in Southern California, a place where sea walls often replace surf breaks, I wanted to find out if good man-made reef technology exists and if so, how soon it could be implemented. I met up after a day of surf with Gary Ross, founder of Highwave, Inc. and Highwave Sports, who I thought was the best person to talk to regarding man-made reefs, given he has spent the last two decades perfecting and evolving reef technology.
Erin Edwards: Gary, I know you continue to work on a reef design that we hoped would save some lost beaches and bring back surf. Any progress? How long have you been working on this?
More than twenty years ago, we started working on the best way to build a reef for shore protection and surf. A few second place finishes for proof of concept, including Pratte’s Reef and Oil Piers in Ventura, strengthened our resolve to continue. We only have a few bad choices for shore protection – more armoring which destroys beaches and waves and dumping sand that goes away or runs to higher ground. In nature, offshore reefs stabilize beaches, but no smart technology exists to mimic nature in this way.
How does your reef work?
Our latest evolved design can be built in a harbor and floated just offshore of the wave zone and installed in just a few days on GPS-located anchors. A structural basket-like form will attract and hold the sand we dump on it. The reef elevation can be precisely located and is built of inert scalable HDPE pipe. The floating football field size reef will be a modified tripod or 3D “Y” when installed. It encourages more sand behind it and creates a left and right wave on the inside of the reef. It will create an environment for sand to settle inshore to stabilize beaches. This structural skeleton becomes a natural living reef.
The all-pipe structure can also be considered for plumbing to harvest wave energy. The larger forward section of the structure is critical for refraction to make it all work, pushing the erosive wave energy more offshore and also offers a chance to capture some of the energy. The wave energy part of the reef is in the works and is the most exciting new development.
Sounds like an amazing idea. Who is involved and when is it ready to go?
The design evolved from a team of experts, free thinkers, engineers from top companies, environmentalists, and professors from respected universities. Also key was collaboration with U.S. Navy experts for anchoring. The historic non-profit Stanley’s Reef Foundation helped a lot when they were up and running, especially in getting quite a few professional surfers and legends behind the cause. The Save the Wave coalition is now carrying the torch.
Yes, the reef is ready. We have patents and new patents pending and have presented our research with a published paper with the IEEE and have an evolving team and resources we can call on when we have a project.
What’s the latest?
Just got back from a conference in Hawaii where we were selected as a finalist for future sustainability for the Pacific Islands for wave energy and shore protection. We also just completed important 3D modeling with Sea Engineering in Hawaii. Our private work on the energy aspect continues and we’re happy with our progress. We have also offered rules for wave energy development for others and ourselves. Energy collectors must be safe for all marine life (including us surfers) and also for the environment, meaning it must not float on the surface and must not have mechanisms in the wave zone.
Can you tell us where the reef could happen?
We have some potential here in California. A growing glimmer of hope is at Oil Piers in Ventura County, where our serious reef efforts started in the ’90s.
Another potential location would be at the historic Morro Bay Power Plant. The plant is now closed, but its owners are committed to convert this site to wave energy. If that comes our way, it would be a perfect location for a lot of reasons and, importantly, the surfing and commercial fishing communities were key in the development of our technology and key stakeholders in that area.
I made a presentation to the Navy base officials at Point Mugu several years ago with very good interest. This meeting helped inspire us to explore wave energy possibilities. More sand is lost in the canyon at Mugu than any other SoCal location. The first step is to trap it and then find a way to send it down coast to Malibu and beyond. A huge right sand point lost in the 70’s could reappear on a larger sand-trapping reef.
Is there anywhere else you’re thinking of?
Oregon is a very progressive leader in the quest for blue-green energy in the USA and we are looking at possible testing at OSU. The East Coast also has a need for smart ideas to stabilize a beach and good options for wave energy device testing.
We are also looking at Mexico and some Pacific Islands also. Shore erosion is a global problem and wave energy is a new global quest, and solutions must consider the environment and all of the stakeholders.