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Newport weighs giving Harbor Patrol more power to board boats to monitor sewage

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An Orange County Sheriff’s Department Harbor Patrol crew pulls a “victim” out of the water during a drill in Newport Harbor.
(File photo)

In an effort to improve water quality and spread the word to boat owners that they can’t dump sewage into Newport Harbor, officials are considering an ordinance change that could give authorities more leeway in how they monitor and board boats in Newport Beach.

City harbor commissioners have indicated their support over the last several months for changing the city’s municipal code to allow the Orange County Sheriff’s Department Harbor Patrol, which enforces laws in the harbor, to board without permission any vessel it suspects is discharging contents of the sewage holding tank into the water.

Harbor Patrol deputies would then drop a dye tablet into the boat’s toilet to help detect when the holding tank is leaking or being emptied into the harbor.

Currently, the Harbor Patrol does not have authority under the city ordinance to board a vessel to inspect the holding tank or drop a dye tablet without permission from the owner.

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“Our intention here is to create the legal basis for the exercise of discretion by law enforcement and code enforcement to board and drop a dye tab when they feel it is appropriate,” Commissioner Doug West said.

The commission discussed the potential ordinance change during its meeting Wednesday but decided to delay a vote until it has specific language to review.

The proposal is expected to go to the entire Harbor Commission for a formal vote in July. If approved, it then would go to the City Council for consideration.

Commissioner Bill Kenney said the current law is problematic because it enables people who don’t have working tanks to skirt the no-discharge rule.

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Dye tablets, which are placed in the vessel’s toilet and then flushed into the holding tank, are used to determine if the tank is functioning properly or leaking into the harbor. They also help deter boaters from intentionally discharging their tanks into the harbor because the dye is immediately visible in the water.

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“Those who know the law and are probably violating the law just simply say, ‘You can’t come aboard,’” Kenney said.

It is against federal and state law to discharge untreated sewage within three miles of shore or to dump treated or untreated sewage in a designated no-discharge zone. Boaters who illegally discharge sewage can be fined up to $2,000, according to the California State Parks Division of Boating and Waterways.

Community members have urged commissioners to use caution when drafting the ordinance to ensure they’re not giving the Harbor Patrol the authority to board vessels without probable cause.

Commissioner Joe Stapleton echoed those concerns: "We have to be very careful about how we write this,” he said.

hannah.fry@latimes.com

Fry writes for Times Community News

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