A project to restore reefs and marine animals off the Palos Verdes Peninsula Coast resumes this week and is expected to be finished in September.

A large barge and crane will be seen off Rancho Palos Verdes, near Trump National Golf Course, when work resumes on the Palos Verdes Reef Restoration Project on Thursday, Aug. 27, which will restore the rocky reefs that have been impacted by decades of landslides.

The artificial reef is also designed to attract fish and other marine animals, while creating fishing opportunities, decimated by reef loss and contamination from DDT and PCB, according to scientists involved in the project.

“You don't see from the surface, but certainly imagine you take a beautiful reef and you bury it, that's extreme damage,” said Daniel Pondella, a professor at Occidental College and director of the Southern California Marine Institute. “So we're able to figure out how much was lost, where it was lost, and then develop a plan funded by the state and the federal government to restore the habitat.”

Approximately 58,000 tons of rock is being transported from two quarries on Catalina Island to create the new artificial reef, according to Jonathan Williams, research scientist with the Vantuna Research Group (VRG) and Biology Department at Occidental College.

Williams said the first half of the project took place from May 8 to June 3. They expect to finish the second half of the project near the end of September.

“The original plan was to begin construction in August (2020) and do it all in one fell swoop, but with COVID-19 on the horizon in March and April, the construction company (Connolly Pacific) had requested that we split the work into two phases to accommodate their schedule,” Williams said.

As the permit holder and leaseholder, the Southern California Marine Institute is in charge of the project and also involved in the research. SCMI, along with VRG, designed the reef and performed or will perform nearly all the studies before, during and after construction, Williams said.

History of landslides

According to an article in The Daily Breeze, based on a California State Lands Commission report, the Portuguese Bend Landslide in 1956, which was reportedly started by road construction on Palos Verdes Drive, buried a large portion of the natural reef off of the Peninsula. Another landslide in 1999 buried more reef habitat and released more sediment.

For decades, the Torrance-based Montrose Chemical Corp. reportedly dumped DDT contaminated waste into the ocean that eventually reached the Palos Verdes Shelf.

In 2001, a settlement was reached between Montrose and state and federal agencies, creating the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program. The program was formed to restore what was impacted by DDT and other contaminants.

Williams said that even though much of the funding of the restoration project came from the money set aside from the Montrose settlements due to the DDT/PCB contamination, it is not intended to fix contamination damages.

“This project is designed to restore rocky reef habitat buried by sedimentation from landslides,” Williams said. “The restored reef will eventually increase rocky reef associated wildlife that is not as susceptible to DDT/PCB contamination as soft sediment associated wildlife since DDT/PCBs are mostly stored in the sediment rather than on rock.”

Dating back to 2017, the city of Rancho Palos Verdes expressed concerns about the project in letters to the California State Lands Commission and the California Coastal Commission.

While the city supported the goal of restoring fishing resources destroyed by chemical dumping, the city, in a letter to the California Coast Commission in May 2019, was concerned about the proximity of the project, which the letter said was a quarter-mile offshore from Founders Park and Rancho Palos Verdes Beach, and proximity to DDT and PCB impacted sediments in the Santa Catalina Channel.

“We remain unconvinced that the potential harms of the project are adequately mitigated,” the letter read.

Even with the objections, according to an article in The Daily Breeze, in early 2018, the California State Lands Commission approved an offshore lease sought by the Southern California Marine Institute, which partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Agency to start the project.

The project covers nearly 70-acre area of coastline, according to the article, between Bunker Point and White Point. The depth of the tons of rock was estimated 15 to 21 meters.

But the project took a few years to get full approval according to Williams.

DDT contamination subsiding

Williams said the California Coastal Commission issuing a Coastal Development Permit was the last hurdle to clear before construction began. They also needed to obtain permits from the Department of the Army, Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board and a lease from the California State Lands Commission.

Williams said the area where the reef is being built is too shallow, too far in shore, to be affected by the DDT in the sediment. He also said that the federal government and county sanitation district have been conducted surveys over the past 20 to 30 years and tests discovered that DDT has been breaking down naturally over the last decade and a half. Also, Vantuna has conducted its own tests that concluded scant traces of DDT near the construction area.

“Really the main takeaway is the area where this is being built doesn't have much DDT in the sediment,” Williams said.

“The reef being built recreates the rocky reef that used to be there,” Williams said. “So any of the sediment that has the DDT is now being buried by this rocky reef. So any DDT that would be there is now being basically taken out of the system, out of the food chain.”

Williams said the goal in the construction of the reef was to restore it to a height where it could not be buried again. The reef was modeled after the KOU Rock, which sits approximately 60 feet deep and is directly offshore where a ship-to-shore radio tower once sat. According to information provided by Rancho Palos Verdes resident Bill Leach to Vantuna, KOU was one of three stations put into place for telephone and radio calls in the 1930s.

“There's a natural reef that's only a couple hundred meters to the east at the same depth that is just this big beautiful reef nice and tall has no sedimentation on it,” Williams said. “It is absolutely covered in fish and lobster, and all sorts of other wildlife.”

Williams said the landslide area is described as the “most geologically active area in the entire world.” In surveys over the past 10 to 12 years, they discovered reefs buried in up to almost 7 feet in sediment that came from landslides.

“Every time you drive up Palos Verdes Drive, it’s being repaved seemingly every weekend,” Williams said. “It’s constantly moving and it’s constantly putting sediment into the ocean and on top of what used to be very rich, productive rocky reefs.”

The city of Rancho Palos Verdes has its own Landslide Management Program and a Facebook Page, “RPV Landslide.”

“It seeks the involvement of the community to identify and plan short- and long-term solutions to the largest active landslide in the continental United States, and to protect the shoreline ecosystem, including Palos Verdes Drive South, a major sewer main, and the open space preserve, from future damage,” the page reads.

Loss of kelp forests

Another issue, according to Pondella and The Bay Foundation is the loss of kelp forests, which has been impacted by landslides over the decades.

“A lot of kelp bed has been lost, this has been known for a long time,” Pondella said.

According to its website, The Bay Foundation estimates the Palos Verdes Peninsula has lost approximately 75 recent of its giant kelp canopy. The causes include sedimentation development, urban runoff, storms slowing kelp growth and overfishing resulting in the loss of urchin predators.

“This allowed purple urchins, a dominant kelp herbivore, to overrun the reef and devour the remaining kelp,” reads the website. “If left alone, kelp forest recovery may take decades.”

To combat the issue, The Bay Foundation started removing the purple sea urchins with the help of researchers, fisherman and conservationists.

According to the organization, they have restored 46 acres of kelp forest in two coves and four open shore reefs off the Peninsula.

Pondella said the Restoration Project is a unique opportunity to have a significant impact in an area that suffered “significant ecological damage.”

A goal of the Restoration Project, Pondella added, is to make better fishing opportunities for fishing interests and this is done be reading a healthier ecosystem.

“Some of the most productive reefs in the entire region, so all of Southern California, producing the most fish and commercial invertebrates are right off Palos Verdes,” Pondella said.

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