By Pat Reynolds
On a recent weekday morning in a small public meeting room in Marina del Rey, about two dozen residents heard representatives of the California Regional Water Quality Control Board introduce a proposal that could affect millions.
The issue before the Small Craft Harbor Commission: water pollution in the harbor.
According to the state board’s Los Angeles office, the waters of Marina del Rey are on their way to becoming too toxic an environment to sustain many of the organisms that inhabit it. In a 56-page report, the agency details an array of water quality concerns and several scenarios for cleaning up the area — but none was more jarring than a proposal to dredge the entire Marina del Rey harbor at a potential cost of more than $200 million.
But let’s back up.
The report details myriad ecological issues that exist in the harbor, which is essentially a parking lot for boats. There is data on zinc contamination, PCBs and increased levels of DDT, but the main and most pressing thrust was the amount of copper, a biocide, detected throughout the harbor’s water column.
There’s no mystery surrounding where this copper is coming from — the bottoms of nearly all boats in Marina del Rey are coated with a copper-based paint of one kind or another. Monthly boat cleanings with abrasive scrubbing tools release tiny particles of copper from the hull and into the environment.
How serious of a problem this really is and how to solve it is where factions and frictions begin to emerge. Last month the state board sent a one-page bulletin to boaters proposing a switch to alternative paints, saying they were working with the paint industry to supply “effective options.” But boaters argue that there are currently few acceptable alternatives to copper paint and virtually no effective ones. Some involve costly preparations and are deemed not nearly as effective as copper. All are projected to be expensive for boat owners — an additional cost as high as $8,000 per boat, according to some estimates.
“As of today, there are no viable non-biocide [paints] available for use in Marina del Rey,” says Greg Schem, who owns The Boatyard in Marina del Rey.
Even though he could make a lot of money repainting boats, Schem spoke up about the lack of feasible paint alternatives during the Dec. 11 meeting.
“It’s ironic, because this could be a windfall for the boatyards,” Schem says. “We’d be required to do all this work … [and] $8,000 times 5,000 boats is $40 million, but the fact is we have to do what’s right. If we’re all boaters and in this for the long haul, this is not the right way to approach it. We have to be more rational.”
Also controversial were the state board’s proposals for cleaning up the existing problem — sediment capping, dredging or a combination of the two.
Sediment capping, according to the report, means “to cover contaminated sediment by a layer of clean sediment, clay, gravel or other material.” But capping is only workable under certain circumstances and “is most effective in large, deep water bodies,” which the marina is not.
So dredging seems to be the more effective option, but a full-scale dredging of Marina del Rey for environmental purposes was a jaw-dropper for many in attendance.
The type of dredging that’s proposed is hydraulic dredging, which is a much different process than the mechanical dredging done last year at the main entrance of the harbor for navigational purposes. Instead of an enormous crane and barge, the dredge involves equipment about the size of a mid-sized boat that basically vacuums the bottom.
Though less intrusive than a more conventional dredge, the process is still quite expensive and complex.
Gary Jones, acting director of the Dept. of Beaches and Harbors, said dredging the roughly 400 acres of water in the harbor was cause for great concern.
“I’m sure that the reality of such a project would see a cost far in excess [of $200 million],” Jones said. “With regards to marketability, our fear is that if it is less attractive and more costly to moor your boat in Marina del Rey, then we will see vacancies increase. That will have an effect on not only county revenue but also the revenue of our lessees, the marina operators.”
The state board has set a pretty lofty goal for cleaning up the harbor. They hope to achieve an 85% reduction in copper levels by March 2024. A similar dredging took place at Shelter Island in San Diego, where those efforts achieved a reduction of only 10% in seven years.
Schem and others said the 10-year timetable is far too short, considering the lack of established alternatives for boaters.
The state board representatives also took heat for offering a short window for public comment. As of now, residents have a Jan. 15 deadline to weigh in about the proposed dredging.
“The reconsideration document is extremely technical and full of information which has been studied for a long time by the board,” Schem wrote in comments about the situation. “Given the scientific complexity of the issue, a more reasonable time for public review and scientific analysis [should] be at least six months.”
So here we sit. The California Regional Water Quality Control Board has deemed the water in Marina del Rey toxic and harmful to the sea life that inhabits it. The culprit is the paint that exists on nearly every boat in the harbor. The dilemma and challenge at hand is finding the most reasonable and cost-effective way to make a substantial and lasting change.
For information about the study, visit waterboards.ca.gov/losangeles/water_issues/programs/tmdl/tmdl_list.shtml.
To get your comments on the official record, email firstname.lastname@example.org by 5 p.m. on Jan. 15. The email subject line must read “Comment Letter – Marina del Rey Harbor Toxics TMDL Reconsideration.”
Pat Reynolds is editor and publisher of The Mariner magazine.