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Newport Bay’s high copper levels could force boaters to change paint

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Sailboats and other watercraft move through the Newport Harbor turn basin.
(Don Leach / Daily Pilot)

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.

Staff at the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, which sets water-quality rules for Newport Beach, alleges that commercial and recreational boats release 36,000 pounds of copper into Newport’s waterways each year, according to agency documents.

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 that exceeded federal standards and needed to be reduced. Copper is believed to cause damage to the gills and nervous system of fish and to kill invertebrates that other marine creatures feed on.

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The regional water-quality board says the copper levels still exceed the standards, though it could not provide specific numbers Thursday. A spokeswoman said she would be able to provide statistics next week.

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 by 83% over the next 15 years. The plan could take up to two years to implement.

Newport isn’t the only area facing mandated copper reductions because of heightened levels blamed primarily on boat paint. Concentrations in Marina del Rey in Los Angeles County and the Shelter Island Yacht Basin in San Diego also have exceeded standards in recent years, data show.

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“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 released this month.

Newport Beach officials say a ban on copper paint would likely 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.”

“As a store in any of these communities could sell paint banned in Newport Beach, such a pervasive conflict requires that the state law predominate,” Kiff wrote. “Otherwise, the result will be an unnecessary confusion and uncertainty as different localities attempt to enforce different rules.”

Local boaters have said they are skeptical of copper-free paint options, which they say 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 that is believed to be more environmentally friendly.

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

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.”

Karen Rhyne, a member of Recreational Boaters of California, an organization that lobbies on behalf of boaters, said the high cost of changing paint could deter some boat owners.

“Boating is a huge economic machine in California,” she said. “If you tell boaters that they’re going to have to spend thousands to repaint their boat, it could make people walk away.”


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