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Expansion of San Clemente manmade reef, likely the world’s largest, finishes early

Delays stalled the expansion what is likely the world’s biggest man-made reef offshore of San Clemente. But once boulders started rolling off the barges, the project went faster than predicted.

Dumping of the 200 acres of new rocks wrapped up Monday, July 20, about two weeks ahead of schedule, as Southern California Edison finally completed its mitigation obligations for the now-shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

Edison initially was on the hook for about 174 acres of artificial reef to compensate for environmental damages when the nuclear plant expanded in the 1970s. But that project, dubbed the Wheeler North Reef, attracted only about half marine life required by the state.

So the power company geared up to expand the rocky structure named after marine scientist Wheeler North, who designed the original portion.

The additional construction was scheduled for 2018 but was delayed by environmental studies to determine whether the underwater site was home to native American artifacts from thousands of years ago, before glacial melts raised sea levels and covered the area with water. Divers found nothing to verify that the area had been inhabited by humans.

Subsequent plans to start construction in May 2019 were delayed when an unusually wet winter and spring slowed production at the Catalina Island quarry that would be a primary supplier of the rocks. Work finally began last summer, paused in October for lobster season, and resumed in June. Several factors played into the work being completed ahead of time.

“We didn’t lose any days due to weather or equipment issues, everything went according to plan,” said Mike Ellis of contractor Connolly-Pacific. “The crew was well prepared and very experienced.”

The $20 million project, paid for by Edison ratepayers, came in well under the original budget of $33 million.

The ecological payoff is an extensive underwater foundation for the growth of kelp, which in turn attracts sheepshead, bass, black seabass, lobster and urchins — as well as fishermen, who’ve been enjoying increased the more bountiful fishing grounds since the original reef was completed in 2008.

Edison project manager Jenny McGee, who grew up in Dana Point, has called the effort the highlight of her career and noted that marine life will benefit for decades or longer.

“The team has a tremendous sense of pride on this project,” she said in a Wednesday email. “Everyone feels how special it is to be part of this wonderful effort to construct the reef.”

The original 120,000-ton reef, completed in 1988, stretches about 1.4 miles southward from the San Clemente Pier.

While never touted as the world’s biggest manmade reef, the reef appears to have held that distinction even before the expansion.

The Kan-Kanan reef completed offshore of Quintana Roo, Mexico, in 2015 has been called as the longest artificial reef, but at 1.18 miles it falls short of the original Wheeler North Reef.

Sunken ships are often used to create reefs, with the 44,000-ton aircraft carrier USS Oriskany off the coast of Pensacola, Florida, cited by Guiness World Records in 2008 as the largest artificial reef. But that’s less than half the weight of the initial reef off San Clemente.

And while Wheeler North Reef has yet to be formally crowned, its status is growing more secure, with its length expanding to five miles and weight reaching 270,000 tons when current work is completed.

Source: Orange County Register

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