A groundbreaking plan to prevent ballast water in cargo ships from contaminating California's environment likely will be delayed because there are no existing shipboard treatment systems that satisfy state regulations.
Ships take on water as ballast when they are loaded with cargo as a crucial means of stabilizing the vessel. Some or all of that water is generally discharged in the next port to rebalance the load.
In the process, invasive species from other parts of the globe get delivered to California. This causes havoc for native species, which often can't compete against the invaders. California rivers and coastlines, and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in particular, are considered among the most invaded in the world.
In response, the Legislature in 1999 passed the world's toughest ballast-water regulations. An update in 2006 set treatment standards and compliance deadlines.
The first crucial deadline hits in January 2014, when existing ships with ballast capacity of 5,000 metric tons or less must meet state treatment standards for all water discharged in state boundaries. A second deadline in January 2016 affects larger ships.
But according to a report by the State Lands Commission, which enforces the law, no treatment systems available to shippers meet the state standards.
As the regulations have unfolded, required progress reports have said numerous systems have "potential" to satisfy state law.
The new report, which the commission will discuss Friday in Sacramento, concludes those systems didn't live up to their potential.
"The fact of the matter is, there are no technologies that exist now," said Jennifer Lucchesi, commission executive officer. "So it doesn't seem reasonable to continue with this implementation date when the technology isn't there to meet California's standards."
The commission will consider asking the Legislature to put off the deadlines. It also will consider awarding a $500,000 contract to the Delta Stewardship Council, a sister state agency, to study shore-based treatment. That could require extensive modifications at California ports.
No matter what California decides, ballast water will get treated to some degree, because all ships must comply with federal standards under similar deadlines. But these standards are less stringent.
"Our position is that the best solution is simply to align the California standard with the (federal) standard, similar to what every other coastal state and nation has done over the last year or so," said John Berge, vice president of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.
Andrew Cohen, marine biologist and director of the Center for Research on Aquatic Bioinvasions, favors California's rules and said the solution may be shore-based treatment. There are good reasons for stricter standards, he said, and they are not limited to invasive species problems.
"Ballast water could potentially be a place where new diseases are created and spread around the world," he said. "So the stakes are very high."
Contact The Bee's Matt Weiser at (916) 321-1264. Follow him on Twitter @matt_weiser.