As waterfront properties go, Dockweiler State Beach is the ugly cousin of California's coast, nestled among a huge oil refinery, a power generating facility and a municipal sewage plant. All that, and LAX too.
But something audacious, and maybe even bodacious, is about to happen here 100 yards offshore: They are going to build the first artificial reef in North America designed to do nothing more or less than produce surf.
As in waves. As in surfable waves -- the most potentially primo kind of break, a surf line that curls to the left and right, for "naturals," surfers who ride left foot forward, and for "goofy-footers," who surf right foot forward.
And if it works, which the bathymetric studies and computer models suggest it will, this could be the beginning of something very cool or very controversial: creation or restoration of surf for overcrowded, elbow-jostling surfers around the globe, from Jersey to Japan.
The first artificial reef in the world designed to produce surf is now being constructed at Cables Stations in Western Australia. Two more are planned Down Under. British surfers have designed three reefs, which have not yet been built.
In California, in addition to the project at Dockweiler Beach, which will be installed in September, another group of surf activists is beginning the permitting process to build a reef in Ventura County to the north, which will include not only surfable waves but also a private, nonprofit "marine park" with man-made habitat for kelp and abalone.
"I could see this technology used all along the coasts, to replace surf that has been lost to development, and to create surf where there has never been any," said Gary Ross, surfer-inventor and a leader of the group Quantum Reef, which is pushing the Ventura project.
One British artificial reef enthusiast envisions a kind of surf-riders park, with reefs designed for beginners, intermediates and experts.
Call it Surf World.
This all is not as frivolous as it may sound. The project at Dockweiler Beach is part of an accelerating trend to "manage nature," not just for the creation of hydroelectric dams or cities in the desert, but to re-create and restore swamps and meadows as well as river rapids, trout streams, ski runs and rock climbing routes, to manipulate nature into aesthetically more pleasing, more recreational, more functional landscapes.
"It is a myth that we can have again these pristine environments in urban, intensively developed settings," said David Skelly, the coastal engineer who designed the artificial reef for Dockweiler Beach. "But we can do something. We can take the urban settings and manage them wisely, to redo nature, and to manage it in a sustainable and holistic way."
The creation of surf in El Segundo is not a wave machine such as those in water parks. It is an attempt to transform the energy of nature and tweak it, laying down a large V-shaped, submerged row of jumbo 15-ton sandbags, which will serve as a sort of "speed bump" for incoming waves, as one designer put it.
The artificial reef proposed for Ventura is similar, but instead of employing dump truck-sized sandbags, Ross and his colleagues envision a big Y-shaped reef constructed of hollow polyethylene pipes -- the material used in drinking straws -- that would be flooded with sea water so the structure sinks and would be anchored to the bottom. The beauty of this approach, Ross explained, is that the reef actually could be moved.
In 24 hours.
As ocean swells move toward the beach, they will hit the submerged, artificial reefs, where the wave energy will crest and break, designers hope, in that line of curling foam that will give surfers a long ride.
Maybe even a tube.
The creation of ridable waves has been aided by recent work to map the sea floors at dozens of the best surf beaches in the world, creating three-dimensional computer models that are taking some of the mystery out of why waves break in the tastiest ways in some locales, but in others crash in a big, foamy, lumpy, unridable mush.
The proposals to create surfable waves are not without controversy. Some surfers worry that this will create an "amusement park" atmosphere around what should, at its best moments, be a soulful communion with whatever Mother Nature offers.
"I don't know," said Steve Hodges, a muscled twentysomething board rider, still dripping from the water at nearby Manhattan Beach. "There's something about the word `artificial' that bugs me. Will you see the reef in the water? What's it made outta? Old tires? Junked cars? Then, there's the whole other thing: You could see some business guy selling tickets to ride the waves."
Hodges's friend, Pedro Acosta, listened and then thought for a minute. "I'll tell you this," he said. "If it's a good, consistent break, nobody will give a damn what it's made outta. They'll ride it. I mean, we already have to surf around sewage outflows. If it breaks, the surfers will come. I can promise you that."
The fact of the matter is, in places like Southern California, many of the best surf spots have been created by human activity, with surf simply being a lucky byproduct. Most of Santa Monica Bay, for example, features a man-made beach filled with transported sand -- the natural sand brought by rivers was stopped by dams -- and some of the most famous breaks in the region abut old piers and jetties.
The proposed artificial reef at Dockweiler Beach has a similar pedigree. In the early 1980s, following heavy El Nin~o storms, Chevron Corp. sought an emergency permit to build a rock groin to protect a large pipe it used to move oil between tankers anchored in the bay and its large refinery at El Segundo.
Chevron was given permission to construct its groin, but a conservation group called the Surfrider Foundation won an important concession: The California Coastal Commission ruled that "surfable waves" were an important natural resource that deserved protection. A consultant was hired to measure how the surf changed after Chevron built its groin, and lo and behold, the surf was degraded.
After years of study, legal challenges and negotiation, the commission directed Chevron to pay $300,000, of which one-third went toward the permitting process -- the reef must be constructed between gray whale migration and the grunion fish runs, and made of natural sand the same size and color of the existing beach -- and the rest toward design and construction.
The ruling that surf is a nonrenewable resource that demands state protection is a first, and maybe most important, result of the Chevron case.
"It means that when any other development occurs along the California coast that now surf must be considered, just as wildlife habitat is," said Michelle Kremer, the acting executive director of Surfrider.
Kremer herself is not exactly ambivalent about the creation of the artificial surf reef at Dockweiler Beach, but she is sounding a note of caution. "We're looking at this as a research project," she said. "Not as a panacea."
She does not want to see coastal developers given permission to alter the beaches with the promise, as Kremer put it, "Oh well, we'll just build you another surfing reef down the road a few miles." Indeed, such "mitigation" acts are common for replacement of wetlands.
Kremer understands, however, the allure of creating more waves, and she hears that coastal engineers who also surf imagine building them all over the place. "I have to confess that worries me," she said.
But if the projects here and in Australia or Britain work, the ability to create surf might be irresistible. There are about 1.8 million surfers in the United States alone, and in places such as Southern California, Florida, New Jersey and the mid-Atlantic shore, one of the biggest complaints by surfers is overcrowding.
"When Chevron built the groin in El Segundo, it was like taking a lane out of the California freeway. It created traffic jams every place else," said Chad Nelson, a young researcher now employed by Surfrider.
The traffic analogy may be prescient for the building of more artificial reefs. Because nobody ever removes freeways; they just build more.
CAPTION: With an oil refinery behind them, men fish at Dockweiler State Beach in El Segundo, Calif., where an artificial reef will be installed in September.