Basque Wavegarden Project Has Far-Reaching Implications
Since December 2016 when Kelly Slater posted his big reveal video, the dialogue around wavepools has shifted from a fever dream fantasy, to a debate more grounded in reality. Every surfer is smitten by the sight of perfect waves, but as they became available at a push of a button, other issues presented themselves. Environmental issues, social ones too, and even questions of culture for those concerned with our collective values and how wavepools may alter them.
Beginning in 2019, the company Boardriders - who own Quiksilver, Billabong, RVCA, and Roxy - began the process of lobbying local council to build a wavepool near their Saint-Jean-de-Luz headquarters, just two minutes from the Basque coast. Boardriders chose to use Wavegarden technology, which makes sense as Wavegarden’s founder is Basque surfer Josema Odriozola, and the company has a test pool at Aizarnazabal, just an hour’s drive south in the Basque mountains.
Surfing culture can be baffling to the non-surfer. What seems a carefree and welcoming activity from the outside contains a much more nuanced set of rules and order that catches newcomers unaware and confounds those that don’t surf at all. Wavepools are a good example of this. After all, what surfer wouldn’t want more waves? To a non-surfer it would seem a laydown misere.
So you can imagine the confusion of the eggheads at City Council, when surfers - the people supposedly reaping the benefits - led a revolt against the wavepool at Saint-Jean-de-Luz. Faced with 65,000 signatories, including locals but also luminaries such as Dr Tony Butt and Greg Long, the company backed down and the wavepool project came to nothing.
Part of the opposition’s campaign was a point form list of reasons to stop the wavepool - called ‘The 24 Reasons’. To date, most objections to wavepools have been what you’d term ‘practicalities’ - think, environmental considerations such as land use, energy use, and water use. ‘The 24 Reasons’ listed those objections, however it also included theoretical objections; things that are harder to quantify but nonetheless form a basis for opinion.
‘Artificialisation of surfing’ was one such objection - using surfing’s founding stories of communion with nature to sell a project that is ostensibly anti-nature. Another objection is one that gets floated in any comment thread on wavepools but gets argued vehemently in either direction: that wavepools will add to the load on surrounding surf spots. In short, that wavepools create more surfers.
In opposing this...that is, arguing that wavepools do create new surfers, and hence add to the total load, the campaigners cited work by German mathematician Dietrich Braess who showed that building more roads didn’t lessen the traffic on existing ones. Braess said there was a ‘suction effect’ that simply encouraged more motor vehicle use on both new and old roads. This dynamic, argued the campaigners, is also analogous to surfers. More venues will simply mean more surfers.
There were other objections that’d fall into the theoretical camp, such as the claim that the pool can train surfers for competition. In time, and should enough pools be built, this theory will be tested, but for now it exists in the realm of ideas. Whatever point was most compelling, it’s enough to know that the Saint-Jean-de-Luz project was halted. However, this year another Wavegarden was floated and the old reasons for opposing a pool floated to the surface again.
When surfers at San Sebastian got wind of the planned pool near their town they duplicated the campaign that had been so successful for the surfers thirty kilometres to the north. They established a group - ‘Antondegi Berdea. Olatuak Itsasoan’ which translates as ‘Antondegi Green. The Waves in the Sea’ - they reached beyond surf media, and created their own point form opposition to the pool - ‘15 Reasons Surfers Say No’.
The 15 Reasons includes its own specific practical objections pertaining to land use - the proposed site at Antondegi is a green corridor - plus wider environmental objections about energy use and climate change, and also theoretical objections that expand upon Braess’ ‘suction effect’ citing work on fish farms that, “far from saving the wild fish populations has merely stimulated demand for wild fish”.
Swellnet spoke to Iñigo Fernandez Ostolaza, one of the campaign organisers, who said the pool will stimulate demand for surfing. “Zurriola beach in San Sebastian is probably the most crowded beach in Europe,” said Ostolaza, “and we are convinced that this wave pool will increase the overcrowding.”
Another similarity to Saint-Jean-de-Luz is that the general populace in San Sebastian are, according to Ostolaza, “very surprised to see that a group of surfers - many from different beaches and who do not know each other - are taking a stand against a project that in theory is aimed at them.”
Last week the ELA - the Basque trade union, representing 100,000 union workers - rejected the wavepool due to environmental considerations and also the absurdity, it says, of occupying six hectares of natural land in a space located "just four kilometres from the sea", concluding with the point that "not even surfers support it”.
Though their campaign has largely been aimed at the mainstream, Ostolaza is aghast that the surf media has largely dodged the debate. “We believe that our cause is a good example to make the global surfing community reflect on the suitability of building wave pools next to coasts with waves,” says Ostolaza, adding. “Apart from the environmental reasons, we also put surfing arguments on the table.” These theoretical issues are, he thinks, what surfers should be concerning themselves with.
This is where the threat lies to Wavegarden: Community action has already halted one project, and pressure is again rising at another site. If this mode of resistance works it could be copied by activist groups elsewhere and stymie growth along the coastal margins.
In reply to ‘Antondegi Berdea. Olatuak Itsasoan’, Wavegarden this week issued their own point form reply, ‘11 Key Aspects of the Wavegarden San Sebastian Project’. It's not online but Swellnet was sent a PDF version. In it, they counter all the accusations of environmental recklessness, including energy use (it’ll run on solar), water use (they’ll supply their own water), and industrialisation (the wavepool is less harmful than other projects slated for the site), while also deflecting accusations of elitism and relying on public subsidies.
That leaves them to address the unproven theoretical assumptions, which they do with some measure of trepidation: “...it is a reality that there are not enough waves for all San Sebastian...and it is also true that a Wavegarden will not alleviate crowding at beaches.” No mention about encouraging new surfers. Perhaps they don’t need to, as in two days time surfing will make its Olympic debut with an audience of three billion people watching.
In the five years since Kelly Slater revealed his pool, the surfing community has shifted from a common optimism about wavepools into polarised camps. There will always be environmental objections to any new land use - which most pools are - however Basque surfers are arguing the case that wavepools also harm the amenity of existing surfers. It’s a local struggle. Local surfers debating that which affects them. However with one win on the board and another in the balance, the ramifications could likely be felt far from the Basque Country.