By Pat Reynolds

Boaters in Marina del Rey harbor are skeptical of claims that copper pollution requires a swift and expensive government response

Boaters in Marina del Rey harbor are skeptical of claims that copper pollution requires a swift and expensive government response

The issue of a potential ban on copper boat-bottom paint in Marina del Rey and a possible dredging of the entire harbor for environmental reasons have the local boating community rattled and concerned. And they are not alone. Los Angeles County, probably the most prominent stakeholder in all of this, is not pleased with what the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board aims to do.

In a recent 15-page letter to the water board, L.A. County Director of Public Works Gail Farber and Watershed Management Division Deputy Director Gary Hildebrand made it clear that spending no less than $250 million on a clean-up, scaring away boat tenants with compliance ordinances and upsetting the cultivated “destination” aesthetic during the process is not to their liking.

The water board is pressing the issue over concerns that levels of water toxicity it has been monitoring for years — particularly copper — could soon make the harbor unsuitable for its intended purposes, listed as: “water contact recreation, non-contact water recreation, commercial/sport fishing, marine habitat, wildlife habitat and shellfish harvesting. “

Therein lies one of the abundant rubs in this situation — many locals scratch their heads when they read that list. Shellfish harvesting? Sport fishing? Commercial fishing? Marine habitat? These are not the first things that come to mind for boaters in Marina del Rey. I’ve been here quite a while and no one has yet asked me to go clamming over in D basin or to take the boat over near the public launch area to do a little sport fishing.

It’s probably wording like this that makes many boaters wary of the operation. It alludes to a disconnect — perhaps an agency in pursuit of something to clean rather than a legitimate cause to protect. Unlike initiatives such as the Marine Protection Act, in which officials were looking to implement inventive methods to combat the overfishing of depleted stocks, this proposal doesn’t seem to carry the same urgency and weight. The reasoning sounds dubious to many in the boating community.

“When Costco built its giant store and parking lot on Washington Boulevard in Marina del Rey, it was built on land that was once, long ago, home to everything from earthworms to deer — dogwoods to tumbleweeds. Developers poured four inches of bubbling hot asphalt over it and killed everything, on top of, as well as under the ground … forever. This has been done hundreds of times across L.A. County and tens of thousands of times across North America. Everyone accepts it simply as “progress” and ‘the cost of doing business,’” said longtime Marina del Rey boater Capt. Richard Schaefer, one of the more outspoken opponents of a harbor dredge.

“However, for some arcane reason, known only to dogmatic bureaucrats and environmentalists, when water is added to the equation we don’t have simply a parking lot for boats, but rather some threatened aquatic wonderland; conjured from what was once a thriving — though somewhat corrupted — ecosystem, located on a scrubby bit of terra firma,” he said.

Schaefer, along with thousands of other boat owners, may soon have to remove all traces of copper paint from the bottom of his boat to comply with an environmental mandate — a costly proposition putting the issue under great scrutiny.

“Imposing mandatory hull paint replacement when there is no viable alternative paint, there is no similar requirement in other local marinas/harbors, there is no statewide requirement for non-copper paint, and there is no current state or federal law that requires the sole production and use of copper-free boat hull paints is an unreasonable and arbitrary action that would unnecessarily impair the efficient management of the Marina del Rey harbor,” states the county letter.

But in its documents, the water board counters that “at present, there are a number of available alternatives that have been demonstrated to be both nontoxic in nature and effective at reducing fouling growth. Examples include silicone hull coatings and hard smooth epoxy hull coatings, combined with more frequent underwater hull cleaning.”

They also make the case that banning copper paint will force the industry to invent event better solutions, producing a product to meet obvious demand, as they say in Economics 101.

But the idea of banning an integral ingredient in the boating recipe with a promise of “something awesome will come along — you’ll see” is not very comforting. It, too, invites doubt towards those making these propositions. Furthermore, reps from both local boatyards don’t agree that these alternatives are worthy.

Lastly, what makes some of the harbors human inhabitants all the more uncomfortable is how the water board doesn’t seem overly sympathetic to the economic impact this will have on the county and individual boaters. We know agencies often lack quality bedside manner, but in response to these concerns board documents state that “the potential for economic losses to businesses in Marina del Rey if boaters choose to dock their boats at nearby harbors is not a CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] relevant inquiry. The CEQA inquiry relates to what significant adverse environmental impacts are foreseeably attendant with the reasonably foreseeable means of compliance with the regulation.”

I’m not entirely sure what all that means, but I know it’s cold.

I believe most boaters are environmentally conscious people and it’s not our first tendency to discount a concern. Granted, when proposals are made that hit the wallet, things can be different, but in this scenario it seems folks are just taken aback. If the pollution in Marina del Rey is as dire as the water board contends, they need to make that clearer. Ironically, much of the information coming from their camp sounds unsympathetic and robotic. I’ve never seen such universal recoil to an environmental proposition in this area.

Probably the greatest underlying worry is how this could impact local boating at its core. Attendance is low, slip vacancies are up and many feel this may be a blow that will come too hard and too fast.

“We’re really struggling with this in the boating community,” Debra Talbot, head of the Dept. of Beaches and Harbors Boating Section, said during a recent public meeting. “We’re finally, a little bit, coming out of the corner from the economic tragedy that we suffered in the recreational boating community, and I really feel like this will push us way back and may even get rid of the recreational boating community. This [proposal] will double the cost of maintaining our boats, and that’s not what we want for the marina — we want it to prosper and thrive.”


The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board is holding a hearing to discuss acceptable pollutant levels for Marina del Rey harbor at 2 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 6, at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California Board Room, 700 N. Alameda St., Los Angeles.

Members of the water board and the Recreation Boaters of California will discuss and take questions on plans to ban copper boat paint during a public forum at 7 p.m. on Feb. 20 at the Del Rey Yacht Club, 13900 Palawan Way, Marina del Rey. Call (310) 823-4664. §

Reach Pat via letters(at)