Dissolved Copper: A More Than Decade Long Battle with More Efforts on the Horizon

Reducing copper levels in marinas across Southern California has been a renewed goal of the State Water Resources Control Board; some regions have been at it for years and others are poised to face new regulations in the coming years, what progress has been made and what’s the future of copper regulations?

SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA— Reducing copper levels in Southern California marinas from boat hull paint has been a years-long battle. Many believe it is one that is likely to continue until the industry and boating community find a paint alternative that can keep growth off and is cost-effective.

“From our perspective and with over a decade of involvement in this issue, we believe that there needs to be more emphasis at an industry level to truly see a change in paints and alternative paint use,” said Karen Holman, Port of San Diego director of environmental protection, in an email. “A balance is needed, that takes into account water quality, beneficial uses of bays and harbors, copper and alternative paints, and in-water hull cleaning strategies that ensure boating remains an economically viable recreational pastime.”

San Diego’s Shelter Island Yacht Basin was the first area in Southern California to have a total maximum daily load policy (TMDL) for copper due to the water body having significantly higher dissolved copper levels than the state regulatory limit of 3.1 mg/L. The TMDL puts a limit on the amount of pollutant a receiving water body can accept in order to protect its beneficial uses. Marina del Rey now also has a TMDL requirement due to similarly high levels of copper.

Copper is a common component in hull paint as it repels marine organisms which attach themselves to boat bottoms and can significantly slow the vessel, alter maneuverability, and damage the hull. However, it can leach into marina basins impairing water quality and threatening the health of aquatic systems. The state still allows copper-based paints that are registered with and meet the Department of Pesticide Regulation registration requirements for pesticide usage. High leach rate paints, those with 9.5 micrograms per square centimeter per day or more, were required to be phased out by 2020.

The future of copper regulations in other locations, such as Newport Bay and Ventura and Los Angeles counties, are poised to ramp up over the course of the next four years. Reducing copper levels in these areas has been named as a priority for 2020 through 2025 by both the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board and Santa Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Every five years the State Water Resources Control Board publishes a Nonpoint Source Implementation Plan identifying priority projects to reduce water pollution in the state’s rivers, streams, lakes, beaches, bays, and groundwater. The state’s Nonpoint Source Implementation Plan for 2020-2025 includes plans to implement a TMDL policy for Newport Bay, which is expected to come out before summer, and streamlining regulations across all saltwater marinas in all of Los Angeles and Ventura counties in the same manner as Marina del Rey Harbor.

“We want to maintain the consistency in our regulation, that’s really the main purpose of treating every harbor in the same manor,” said Jun Zhu, a senior environmental scientist and TMDL section chief for the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Since the NPS Implementation Plan was released, the Marine Recreational Association has continued to raise concerns about the blanket approach to copper controls and has been involved in continuing discussions with the Los Angeles water board about the plan.

“You got marinas that aren’t an issue, why would you blanket us all with the same rules and requirements? That, from my perspective I think is unfair,” said Mark Sandoval, a past president of MRA and current Channel Islands Harbor Director.

Another goal listed in the NPS Implementation Plan is to adopt a conditional waiver of Waste Discharge Requirement for the discharge of biocides from boats in the Marina del Rey Harbor. That was set to be released in 2020 but due to COVID-19 and associated staffing challenges, Jenny Newman, the assistant executive officer for the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, said that waiver is now expected in the next fiscal year, July 2021 to June 2022. She said the document is still undergoing internal review but it will have conditions to ensure that the copper loading from antifouling hull paint is reduced.

“If there’s not a problem with the water in those marinas exceeding water quality standards, specific numbers for copper, then they won’t have to implement any action, but if they do, then the actions they implement will be similar across all marinas,” said Newman.

Developing a similar waiver for all of Ventura and Los Angeles counties is also listed as a goal, with the date of June 2024.

“Until those documents come out from the regional board, we really don’t understand the full burden of it, we can only kind of guess, reading between the lines of how it might go,” said Shelly Anghera, the Coastal, Water, & Environmental Technical Director for Moffatt & Nichol who was hired by MRA to formally submit the organization’s comments on the NPS Implementation Plan.

In San Diego, the fight against a copper-impaired water body hasn’t come without a cost to the port district, marina operators, boaters, yacht clubs and hull cleaners who were all tasked with working together to reduce copper levels in the Shelter Island Yacht Basin by 76 percent from the estimated 2005 loading level by 2022. So far, there has been a 48 percent decrease in copper levels, according to the port’s annual compliance report for 2020, which was released in March.

“While the variety of copper load reduction strategies have resulted in a copper load reduction that has met TMDL interim compliance targets, annual water quality monitoring has not shown a corresponding decrease in water column dissolved copper levels,” said Holman.

In the past decade, the port has implemented various copper reduction strategies, which have included legislation related to in-water hull cleaning; site-specific and baywide monitoring; a hull paint conversion program; hull paint testing and research; and community outreach and engagement.

The port also converted its fleet of vessels to non-copper hull paints, looking to lead by example, and copper concentrations at the monitoring station closest to the Harbor Police dock where the copper-free port vessels are docked, were below state water quality standards at .77 µg/L in 2020, according to the most recent compliance report.

“Skepticism of new paints has been and continues to limit the use of non-copper paints,” said Holman. “To really see a behavior change in the manner in which boaters address fouling on their boat hulls, the boating industry needs to get behind good non-copper products.”

Anghera and Sandoval agreed one of the biggest challenges has been getting the boating community behind a non-copper alternative paint.

“It is about reducing copper concentrations and the main argument is that’s fine but it’s hard to get boaters to change their behaviors in paints when there really isn’t suitable alternatives that the boating community has embraced,” said Anghera.

The Port of San Diego said their focus for the remaining two years of their TMDL is to improve the understanding of the water quality impacts associated with in-water hull cleaning and the effects that the Department of Pesticide Regulation’s low leach copper paints have on water quality.


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