Last week the San Diego Yacht Club released a statement regarding the levels of copper that exist in their basin and their commitment to reduce those levels. Similar problems exist in other Southern California basins, including Marina del Rey.

“Concentrations of dissolved copper that exceed government regulatory standards are being detected in the Shelter Island Yacht Basin (SIYB) where San Diego Yacht Club (SDYC) is located,” said the club’s commodore in an open letter. “The California Regional Water Quality Board for San Diego has found that copper-based hull coatings on recreational boats contribute over 90 percent of the copper pollution and that copper is toxic to marine organisms (other than those attaching to the hulls of boats) such as crabs, mussels and sea urchins.

“The California Regional Water Quality Control Board is legally required to reduce copper pollution so that water quality standards (The Clean Water Act) are no longer violated in the SIYB. As a result, we must begin to reduce the amount of copper bottom paint used on boats docked at SDYC.”

The letter is of particular pertinence, as it is the realization of an anxiety the boating community has been harboring for years. With copper — or, more accurately, cuprous oxide — being the sole relevant ingredient in the types of bottom paint that are most effective in this area, outlawing the ingredient, which is the lingering threat, could prove devastating for the recreational boater because currently there is no other type of paint that is even remotely as effective.

If cuprous paints were to be banned at this stage in the game, boaters would be hauling their boats out once a year, as opposed to the five years they can stretch the current paint’s life span to, and diver bottom cleaning costs would skyrocket.

The spearheading of the copper ban can be traced to a document called the Carson Report that was created by California Sea Grant on behalf of the Department of Boating and Waterways to explore the issue of copper being a harmful and danger- ous contaminant to California marine life. In the opening of the report, it’s clear what lies in store for the fate of the Marina del Rey area and other Southern California basins.

“Harmful levels of dissolved copper have been detected in boat basins in San Diego and Newport Bays,” warned Sea Grant. “Oceanside Harbor and Marina del Rey also have elevated levels of dissolved copper.”

The report discusses how scientific studies have proven that copper flakes eventually fall from boat bottoms, either by design or diver scrubbing and adversely affect marine life such as mussels, oysters, scallops, sea urchins and crustaceans. It also speaks at length about how non-toxic alternatives to copper will eventually be just as cost-effective as cuprous paints, but critics disagree.

The Recreational Boaters of California (RBOC) organization is respectfully skeptical of the Department of Boating and Waterway’s copper concern. In a guarded statement the organization said:

“The RBOC supports efforts to preserve and enhance water quality with the application of sound and current scientific studies.”

The organization expounded more frankly later in the statement:

“RBOC believes the resolution approved by the States Land Commission [in association with Sea Grant] regarding copper-based paint is fundamentally flawed.” An official from Recreational Boaters of California could not be reached for comment.

“I’d like to see studies on what effect it actually has,” said Windward Yacht Center manager Thomas Lehtonen, who works with bottom paint nearly every day in the Marina del Rey area. “I would like to know that — as someone who is concerned about the environment, which I am — what are the bottom lines here?”

According to a study done by the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project, there is indeed “widespread copper contamination in the water column of San Diego area marinas. And as goes San Diego, so goes Marina del Rey. Approximately 86 percent of the surface water in the marinas exceeded the state water quality threshold for copper.

“Despite the widespread dissolved copper exceedance, toxicity was observed much less frequently. Abnormal embryo devel- opment was only observed in a subset of embayments constituting 21 percent of the San Diego marina area.”

Essentially what this means is that these scientists studied a set of marine life (in this case mussels) and watched how they survived in certain samples of water and found that some of the mussels didn’t grow and develop normally.

“Almost every place we looked, the chemistry was above the [compliance] number,” said Ken Schiff, deputy director of Southern California Coastal Water Research Project. “But only a small number of places did we see being toxic.”

It seems sure, based on the studies done in San Diego, that the copper levels in the Marina will also be high, but boating advocacy groups such as RBOC and BoatU.S. point to the lack of scientific fact that Sea Grant has produced to support how damaging the copper is and are up in arms about the amount of money boaters (particularly Southern Californians) will have to shell out for less effective products.

Although Sea Grant has done research into what they consider are viable alternatives to copper-based paints, the market has not yet produced anything that boaters are endorsing.

Like many of these types of issues, the debate will rage on until conclusive studies indicate unequivocally that great harm is being done and/or when products are developed that circumvent the debate altogether. In the meantime, the boating public may have to weather a storm that could cost some dollars until the technology catches up with the government’s decisions.