Heavy Metal: Your boat’s worth in copper

Story Highlights

  • Antifouling copper paints were identified as the source of high concentrations of copper in the bay.
  • Five sources of copper have been identified in Newport Bay and Newport Harbor.
  • Copper loading from boats is the largest source of copper to Newport Bay.
  • Water board is pressing for an 83 percent reduction in copper levels at Newport Harbor within 15 years of the TMDL plan’s implementation.
  • Public hearing on the proposed TMDL is scheduled for Oct. 28.

NEWPORT BEACH — The copper on the bottom of your boat is so bad for the water we must find a way to clean up our harbors as fast as possible. This is the mantra behind California’s recent implementation of copper regulations in Los Angeles, San Diego and, potentially, Newport Beach. The central Orange County harbor is the latest boating-themed waterway to be subjected to copper regulations known as Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL).

Marina del Rey and San Diego’s Shelter Island are the only other harbors in Southern California with strict copper regulations in place.

The Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) is currently considering a regulatory plan to reduce copper levels in Newport Harbor, which is part of the larger Newport Bay, by 83 percent within 15 years.

Water board staff hopes to gather public input on the Newport Harbor TMDL plan during a hearing scheduled for Oct. 28 in Irvine. A staff report prepared for the Oct. 28 public hearing identified portions of Newport Harbor, particularly the Lower Bay, as highly urbanized and a dramatically altered watershed.

Antifouling copper paints were identified as the source of high concentrations of copper in the bay, according to the RWQCB. Marina operators, recreational boaters, boatyards, and the respective staffs of Newport Beach, Orange County and State Lands Commission would be held responsible for reducing copper levels in Newport Harbor.

Boats as a Leading Source of Copper

Environmental scientist Linda Candelaria spearheads the water board’s efforts to incorporate a TMDL plan for Newport Harbor.

Her staff report explained the goals and processes of TMDL policies.

“The goal of the TMDL process is to attain water quality standards and protect the beneficial uses of water bodies, including aquatic habitat, fishing, and recreation,” Candelaria stated in her staff report. “A TMDL is a written, quantitative assessment of water quality problems and contributing pollutant sources.

Her report continues: “It identifies one or more numeric targets … based on applicable water quality standards, specifies the maximum amount of a pollutant that can be discharged (or the amount of a pollutant that needs to be reduced) to meet water quality standards, allocates pollutant loads among sources in the watershed, and provides a basis for taking actions needed to meet the numeric target(s) and implement water quality standard.”

In all the staff report identified five sources of copper in Newport Bay and Newport Harbor: antifouling paints on boat hulls and from boatyards; urban runoff from major tributaries; urban runoff from storm drains; bay sediments; and, air deposition.

“The two largest sources of Cu to the Bay are [copper] antifouling paints (AFPs) and runoff from the major tributaries,” Candelaria’s staff report stated.

More than 50,000 pounds of dissolved copper antifouling paints are found in Newport Harbor’s waters annually due to passive leaching and hull cleaning, according to Candelaria’s report.

“Passive leaching occurs when a boat is docked in the water,” the staff report continued. “[Copper] is also discharged into the water when boat hulls are cleaned, usually by scrubbing with soft or abrasive pads by divers. This cleaning creates a plume of [copper], both dissolved and particulate, with more abrasive pads resulting in a higher discharge.

“In addition, passive leaching of [copper] increases for a time after hull cleaning until the hull becomes fouled,” the staff report continued.

Plans to Regulate Copper

Recreational boats are Public Enemy No. 1 in the Santa Ana RWQCB’s plan to reduce copper levels in Newport Harbor by 83 percent within 15 years.

There are three goals Newport Harbor must meet along the way:

  • 20 percent reduction of copper within 3 years;
  • 50 percent reduction of copper within 7 years;
  • 70 percent reduction of copper within 11 years.

“Since [copper] loading from boats is the largest source of [copper] to Newport Bay, the highest priority of this TMDL implementation plan is to reduce or eliminate [copper] discharges from [copper antifouling paints] on recreational and commercial boats. This TMDL cannot be met unless [copper] loading from boats is reduced or eliminated,” Candaleria stated in her staff report.

The water board identified two possible strategies to limit copper discharge from boats: restrict the sale and use of copper antifouling paints; or, reduce the amount of copper discharge from antifouling paints.

Copper could also be reduced at tributaries and areas controlled by the State Lands Commission.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and California Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) also take part in regulating chemicals, pesticides and sentiments.

Candelaria’s report stated the EPA is currently reviewing whether to register copper-based pesticides. The review process will include a public hearing, though a date has not yet been set yet.

Meanwhile DPR made several copper mitigation measures, such as boater education, changes to product labels and best management practices at local marinas.

DPR and the water board, however, are at odds over one solution: cleaning frequency.

“DPR’s recommendation of reduced cleaning frequency … is not practical to implement,” Candelaria’s staff report stated. “Cleaning frequency is a matter of boater preference and the needs dictated by hull fouling conditions, which vary widely in waters where boats are moored, the length of time that boats are in the water, and boat usage. In general, boaters want to clean their boats when the hulls have light fouling so that the fouling does not become hard and require hard scrubbing.”

The harder the scrub the greater amount of copper would be released into the water during hull cleaning and could result in more frequent repainting, added Candelaria.

Nonetheless the water board is currently pressing for an 83 percent reduction in copper levels at Newport Harbor within 15 years of the TMDL plan’s implementation.

“It is anticipated that most of the 83 percent reduction will be accomplished by boat conversions from [copper] to nontoxic [antifouling paints]. The phased schedule for reductions will allow for the transition to nontoxic [antifouling paints] as boats are due for routine maintenance and repainting. Public education and outreach will be a critical component of this effort to ensure that boaters are aware of TMDL requirements,” Candelaria’s report stated.

Public Process

The EPA is currently studying copper and water quality as part of a federal rulemaking process. While public comment for the study closed on Sept. 27 boaters and other interested parties (such as boatyard managers and marina operators) are encouraged to contact Mike Elias (see Take Action section) at the EPA about the federal agency’s plans to adopt new water quality standards affecting boaters and harbors/marinas.

Boater influence can directly influence how regional, state and federal agencies regular copper restrictions and boat bottom paints. Policymakers need to be made aware whether copper restrictions are working or what alternate bottom paints are working (or not working).

Every marina and harbor is different so perspectives you can share of where your boat is docked could influence whether a water board or state policy is adjusted to for region (as opposed to government officials implementing cookie-cutter proposals).

Oct. 28 TMDL Hearing

A public hearing on the proposed Newport Bay Copper TMDL is scheduled for Oct. 28 at the Irvine Ranch Water District (15600 Sand Canyon Avenue, Irvine, California). The hearing begins at 9 a.m.

Public comments must be submitted to Candelaria (see Take Action section) by 9 a.m. on Oct. 17.

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Standing Watch/Take Action

In this section you will find resources and supplemental information on what you can do to Take Action. Submit additional information or tips on this issue to editor@thelog.com

Take Action

Linda Candaleria, Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, RB8-CuTMDL@Waterboards.ca.gov or 951-782-4991

Cynthia Graham, San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, Cynthia.Gorham@waterboards.ca.gov or 619 521-3921

Shana Rapoport, Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, SRapoport@waterboards.ca.gov or 213-576-6763

Mike Elias, Health and Ecological Criteria Division, Office of Water, EPA, Elias.Mike@epa.gov or 202-566-0120 or 1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. 20460

Chris Miller, Newport Beach Harbor Resources Manager, CMiller@newportbeachca.gov or 949-644-3034