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Will Newport Bay boaters have to give copper paint the brush-off?

Will Newport Bay boaters have to give copper paint the brush-off?
Commercial and recreational boats release 36,000 pounds of copper into Newport's waterways each year. Above, the start of the race from Newport Beach to Ensenada in April 2013. (Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

In an effort to reduce copper levels in Newport Bay, a regional water-quality agency is looking to limit the type of paint that boaters can use on their vessels.

According to documents from the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, which sets rules for Newport Beach, commercial and recreational boats release 36,000 pounds of copper into Newport's waterways each year.

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Historically, paints containing lead, zinc and, more recently, copper have been used to prevent marine life from sticking to and causing damage to the hulls of boats.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found during a 2002 study that Newport Bay water contained copper concentrations exceeding federal standards. Copper is believed to cause damage to the gills and nervous systems of fish and to kill invertebrates that other marine creatures feed on.

The regional water quality board said last week that the copper levels still exceed standards, although it could not yet provide specific numbers.

The agency's staff detailed its findings and recommendations to the board during a meeting July 24. Because copper levels are not in compliance with federal standards, the agency is considering a reduction plan that could force boaters to use copper-free paint.

Under the proposal, copper levels in Newport Bay would have to be reduced 83% in the next 15 years. The plan could take up to two years to implement.

Newport isn't the only area facing mandated copper reductions: Concentrations in Marina del Rey and the Shelter Island Yacht Basin in San Diego also have exceeded standards in recent years, data show.

"The concentrations in Newport Bay are harmful to aquatic life and must be decreased to meet the water-quality standards to protect the fish and other marine animals living in the bay," according to a Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board staff report.

Newport Beach officials say a ban on copper paint probably would be difficult to enforce given the prevalence of the paint at harbors in nearby Long Beach, Huntington Beach and Dana Point.

City Manager Dave Kiff suggested in a letter to the board that it allow all agencies to come up with one plan for reducing copper in harbors statewide instead of trying to enforce a "patchwork of varying restrictions on paint."

Local boaters were skeptical of copper-free paint options, which they have said are expensive and not effective at repelling marine life.

In 2010, the city and environmental group Orange County Coastkeeper secured a grant to help boat owners pay to remove copper-based paint from their vessels in exchange for a silicone-based paint believed to be more environmentally friendly.

Of 172 vessels in the marina, only 10 were converted as part of the program, Harbor Resources Manager Chris Miller said.

The boaters who did make the change ultimately reverted to copper paint.

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"It didn't work. Customers weren't happy," Miller said. "The alternative paints aren't everything they're supposed to be."

Fry writes for Times Community News.

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