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Taking Steps to Save Barnegat Bay

Conservationists and advocates see hopeful signs of political will in proposed legislation aimed at limiting threats to ecosystem.

Barnegat Bay is described as a jewel of the Jersey Shore, a $3.5 billion asset to the regional economy -- and a valuable resource to those who use its 660-square-mile watershed for fishing, boating and recreation.

Fertilizer use, runoff and development are among the major issues impacting the 660-square-mile Barnegat Bay watershed.

And many say it is slowly dying.

Runoff from lawns, roadways and developments is choking the bay, loading its waters with nitrogen and phosphorus that cause algal blooms, which in turn kill native eel-grass and shellfish. Building along its shores has aggravated water quality problems and destroyed marshland vital to marine life. The Oyster Creek nuclear plant pulls 1 billion gallons of water daily out of the bay, straining its marine ecosystem.

For years, conservationists and bay advocates have argued for more stringent controls on fertilizers that add to the nutrient load in the bay, which has a mean depth of only five feet. They have lobbied for more funding to fix malfunctioning storm-water runoff systems, which empty pollutants into coastal waters. They have pushed for more funding to preserve open spaces along stream corridors and its shore.

Not much has come of it. But supporters say the bay can be saved.

Political Will

“It’s a political issue, not a technical issue,” says Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society. “We know what we have to do. It is just the will hasn’t been there.”

Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, says the state has no choice but to prevent the bay’s collapse. “If you’re saying the bay generates billions of dollars in revenue, then you’ve got to protect it,” says Smith, who owns a home along the bay.

In a rare joint meeting of the legislature’s two environmental committees slated for Thursday in Toms River, lawmakers will take up a package of four bills designed to address the bay’s multiple problems. Two deal with with storm-water issues. One would revamp regulations governing the use of fertilizers, likely to be the most controversial matter to be considered. The fourth would address soil erosion issues, which have contributed to water pollution problems.

Four Critical Issues

If Barnegat Bay is going to be revived, legislators, local officials and the public will need to grapple with several major issues, which, to date, have largely thwarted actions to restore the bay.

Eutrophication This is the process by which nutrients in polluted runoff, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, generate rapid algae blooms and other excessive organic growth.

To deal with the problem, Smith is sponsoring a bill to require fertilizers sold in New Jersey to have a minimum of 30 percent slow-release nitrogen, which releases the nutrients over a period of time. Advocacy group Save Barnegat Bay calls the measure a major victory for the bay, since excessive nitrogen is its largest environmental problem. The organization claims lawn-based fertilizers are responsible for 10 percent to 30 percent of the nutrient loading.

That figure is sharply disputed by the New Jersey Green Industry Council, a group comprising fertilizer manufacturers and others. Nancy Sodlum, executive director, says fertilizers account for less than 2 percent of the surface runoff into the bay. “It’s just such a small part of the problem,” she said, adding that the measure would simply lead to people in New Jersey to buy fertilizer from stores in New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

The bill also would not address what’s generally acknowledged as the biggest source of nitrogen, the rainfall affected by the burning of fossil fuels, mainly by power plants.

Storm-water Runoff There are more than 2,000 malfunctioning storm-water facilities around the bay, according to Smith, and a lack of funding at every level of government has stymied efforts to remedy the problem. The U.S. Geological Survey says two-thirds of the nitrogen loading into the bay comes from surface runoff.

The legislative committees plan to take up two bills to address the problem, one directing Ocean County to develop a storm-water management plan for the county, the other imposing a new fee on developments that increase storm-water runoff unless there is not net impact from the building. The bill is modeled after a law that has helped North Carolina confront the issue, according to Willie DeCamp, president of Save Barnegat Bay. “It is going to cost a lot of money,” DeCamp says, “but it has to be done sometime. Sometime has got to be now.’’

Oyster Creek The nation’s oldest operating commercial nuclear power plant sucks in more than 1 billion gallons of water from the bay each day, killing millions of clam and crab larvae in the process. And the highly heated discharge returned to the bay also adversely affects marine life, according to environmentalists.

“We’ve basically changed the hydrological cycle in the bay,” says Stan Hale of the Barnegat Bay Estuary Program.

In the last days of the Corzine administration, the state Department of Environmental Protection ordered the owner of the plant, Exelon, to install cooling towers to minimize the impact. If required to do so, Exelon says it will close the plant. The Christie administration is proceeding with hearings on the draft permit calling for the cooling towers while it meets with various stakeholders.

Smith, who at one time pushed a bill to require the company to build cooling towers, has stepped back from that approach. Instead, he is quietly supporting an alternative privately pursued by the Corzine administration, which would allow Oyster Creek to continue operating while the state helps Public Service Enterprise Group develop a new nuclear station at its existing plant in South Jersey. PSEG’s early site permit application for a new unit in Salem County last week was accepted for review from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, although the Newark company is still undecided whether to proceed with the project.

Land Use This is perhaps the toughest issue of all, given that state officials say more than 30 percent of the Barnegat Bay watershed already has been paved over. For example, 36 percent of the natural shoreline has been bulkheaded, or built with piers, a process that destroys the habitats of various marine life.

“New Jersey has made some poor decisions,” reflects Hale, citing the filling in of wetlands throughout the estuary.

Development also exacerbates nitrogen loading, since the plants and vegetation that might otherwise absorb the nitrogen in rainfall have been removed, leaving it to run off into the bay, DeCamp says.

“For years, we’ve been focusing on that [land use issues] and really haven’t got anywhere. In a sense, Barnegat Bay is dying because of a lack of political will to say no when no needs to be said,” DeCamp adds .

The state has made limited efforts to restrict growth in environmentally sensitive areas, but the future of New Jersey’s smart growth planning efforts remains uncertain, given that the Christie administration recently overhauled the office and moved it under the aegis of the lieutenant governor.

Smith, however, remains hopeful, pointing to successful restoration efforts in the Hudson River. “Can you do it with Barnegat Bay? Of course, but it isn’t going to happen overnight,” he says.

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