San Clemente kelp reef needs help to grow and restore fish population, scientists say
By FRED SWEGLES / STAFF WRITER (THE OC REGISTER)
A 174-acre kelp reef that the California Coastal Commission required Southern California Edison to build off San Clemente needs to be bigger to support more fish, a team of scientists said this week.
The $45 million reef, funded by Edison and SDG&E ratepayers, is designed to make up for a reduction in the fish population off San Onofre said to have been caused by the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station’s saltwater cooling system.
There were concerns that sea water taken in by the plant to cool the reactors had a negative effect on kelp off San Onofre when the plant discharged warmer, cloudier water than the surrounding waters.
Officials at a public meeting hosted by the Coastal Commission Monday at the Ocean Institute in Dana Point suggested that the state may order Edison to expand the reef, built in 2008, by as many as 200 acres.
The reef, a half-mile off San Clemente’s beaches, is growing kelp similar to natural reefs in the area, said scientists who monitor it for the Coastal Commission. But they said the reef isn’t generating enough fish to sustain the 28-ton fish population required by Edison’s coastal permit.
Dan Reed, a research biologist at UC Santa Barbara, said the Coastal Commission staff will go over design options with Edison representatives to decide how to proceed. Options suggested Monday could require significantly less than 200 acres of expansion using taller rock and greater seafloor coverage than the existing design.
Kate Huckelbridge, a staffer with the Coastal Commission, said she hopes to have a proposal before the Coastal Commission within a year.
At its present size, the reef could only be expected to routinely sustain a population of 13.5 tons of fish, said Steve Schroeter, a member of the UCSB team. Sand bass, California sheephead and kelp bass are the most important reef species in terms of tonnage, Reed said.
Edison is required to meet the 28-ton standard for 30 years to make up for 30 years of operation of the saltwater cooling system. The plant retired in 2013. Each year that Edison meets required standards, it gets a one-year credit. After the first seven years of monitoring, Edison is still awaiting its first year of credit.
David Kay, environmental management project manager for Edison, said the company will discuss reef options with Coastal Commission staff over the next year.
“I expect we’ll reach some agreement on ending the project by whatever means, sunsetting the monitoring in a reasonable amount of time and in the ratepayers’ interest,” Kay said.
UCSB’s Reed said that ultimately the Coastal Commission will decide what type of reef Edison will build.
Ken Nielsen, a commercial fisherman and marine consultant from San Clemente, told the group he fears that continuing studies, analysis of alternatives and requirements before building the bigger reef will drag on, escalating the cost of a solution and extending yearly monitoring costs out further decades.
“How many millions of dollars are our ratepayers going to have to pay?” he asked.
Chris Goldblatt, founder of the Fish Reef Project, suggested that Edison incorporate concrete reef balls into the reef. They are about three feet tall, he said, and cost about $1,000 apiece to deploy. Because they are hollow and surrounded by holes, he said, they produce a whirring sound, “the same acoustic signature as a 15-foot-tall pile of quarry rock.
“For $1 million, we can deploy 1,000 reef balls and you’ll meet your fish standard within two years,” Goldblatt said.
The researchers said that would be outside the parameters of the reef Edison’s coastal permit requires, as it must mimic a natural reef.
Several nuclear activists asked why radiation monitoring of ocean waters isn’t part of the studies. Marni Magda of Laguna Beach voiced concerns about radiation implications from Edison’s release of coolant water and leaving discharge pipes on the sea floor, after 30 years of operation.
The research team, which is under contract to the Coastal Commission, said its task is to monitor the reef off San Clemente, not the waters off San Onofre. Radiation monitoring is the purview of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the scientists said, and is outside Coastal Commission jurisdiction.
Eric Miller, senior scientist with MBC Applied Environmental Sciences, said his firm does radioactive monitoring by collecting sediment and fish tissue in area waters, sending them to NRC-approved labs.
“It has been going on for quite some time,” he said. “There are people keeping an eye on that very closely and, so far, there have been no red flags.”