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Snapshots of New Jersey: Barnegat Bay Comes to a Boil

The public and environmentalists are growing increasingly vocal about the lack of any realistic response to the bay's numerous ills.

While NJ Spotlight is on summer hiatus, we've made sure you won't lack for intriguing reading. We've put together a series of Snapshots of New Jersey, a close look at some of the varied and vibrant places that make up the Garden State -- from Wildwood to Montague and Barnegat Bay to Teaneck. Enjoy. We'll be back August 28.

It looks as if we're in for a long, hot season on Barnegat Bay, hot enough to bring the waters to a (figurative) boil.

I know firsthand the growing unease among the public and environmental groups, both dissatisfied with the pace of change in the Bay, compared with the speed and character of the government's response.

I've read the recent studies from the state’s leading scientific researchers, presenting an increasingly definitive, stark, and harsh evaluation of ecological decline in the bay’s waters.

And I've heard residents of the bay and summer visitors echo and validate the often arcane scientific assessments with increasingly common personal tales. They complain about diminished summer and vacation experiences due to an onslaught of stinging jellyfish, “blobs” of smelly seaweed along the shoreline, and disappearing shellfish (and fishing opportunities). These experiences are turning people out to bay-oriented events in numbers uncommon for public policy debates.

Coming from “the other direction” are government officials at the county and state level who seem never to have heard of Gov. Chris Christie’s very public political prioritization of the restoration of Barnegat Bay. They are not only taking steps that the environmental community interprets as falling short of what is needed, but also are pushing events criticized as cynically designed to hide tough choices regarding controls on development in the bay’s watershed. And I'm not unfamiliar with the accusations of “cherry-picking” scientific methodologies that can help influence regulatory decisions.

Christie’s “10 Point Plan for Barnegat Bay” has served as the bright spot in an environmental agenda that is generally seen as being overly submissive to industry and developer interests. It contains important elements of a response to the bay's troubles, particularly in dedicating funding to “fix” storm water problems linked to conveying pollution to the bay. Still, the initiative has been tarnished by a series of vetoes by Christie of the most aggressive potential solutions. Even more daunting, from my point of view, is the active support for several pieces of legislation that remove key environmental restrictions on development viewed as critical to restoring the bay.

The public’s interest remains keen in Barnegat Bay. Over 100 Bay area residents gathered on an August night to brainstorm ideas for attacking its ecological problems. It was moving to listen to a freewheeling discussion that recounted lost swimming opportunities, kids turned away from traditional waterskiing with grandpa, and vanished generational businesses built around the bay’s health. In the spring, at the state DEP’s behest, thousands came out in the drenching rain to clean up trash around the Bay, in a single-day event that was billed as an opportunity to address pollution.

The bay's pollution problems are outlined comprehensively in a newly completed report by leading researchers at Rutgers University. The release of the study in late July added authoritative fuel to the long held concerns that the Bay is dying. Principal investigator Dr. Michael J. Kennish -- the state’s leading authority on Barnegat Bay -- wrote about his work. “Barnegat Bay … is adversely affected by multiple human activities that have taken their toll over the years, and the system is now in insidious ecological decline.”

Kennish’s study, reflecting both original research and a comprehensive evaluation of historical studies on the Bay, made no bones about its plight, noting “these adverse impacts have become more evident during the past 15 years, and they are now impacting human use [of] the system.” The definitive nature of Kennish’s work is significant. Debate about responses to the readily observed problems of the bay has been plagued by questions and expressions of uncertainty from state regulators: These doubts extend to the nature of the pollution, its sources, and its relationship to impacts generated by Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station’s cooling system (which uses more than a billion gallons of bay water a day, straining the volume of marine life). In the face of this position of uncertainty, decisive action has long been absent. I don't think I'm alone when I characterize these responses as an excellent example of plausible deniability.

Kennish’s work strips this away.

Working through a comprehensive evaluation of current science and assessments of the bay, as well as providing a new “Bay-centric” evaluation process, the study details indicators of ecological impacts. Its conclusion: It should come as no surprise that serious ecological problems are now occurring in the estuary.

It also directly confronts the argument regarding alleged scientific uncertainty head on.

According to Kennish’s findings on the various environmental problems arising from stressors on Barnegat Bay, eutrophication (nutrient over-enrichment and associated cascading ecological impacts) poses the most serious threat because it creates the potential for ecosystem-wide decline.

The study clearly identifies the main culprit in the Bay’s decline as overdevelopment. It concludes that human activities in the watershed linked to declining environmental conditions in the estuary are largely land use-land cover issues. Cumulative changes in the watershed land surface are leading to greater impervious cover and runoff to area streams and rivers discharging to the Bay, thus promoting nutrient enrichment and other pollutants.

By providing a definitive, scientific assessment of the Bay’s problems and their genesis, the Kennish report provides a clear blueprint against which to measure the policy, regulatory, and management responses offered by the Christie administration and the Legislature. It should leave us with a simple question: are the right things being done to cure the ills of the Bay?

A side-by-side comparison of problems and proposed solutions -- whether in the governor’s plan, DEP initiatives, legislative proposals, or the land use and environmental policies of Ocean County and local municipalities -- shows a significant disconnect between the fact that overdevelopment and urbanization are the primary drivers of the Bay’s problems. This holds equally true of the policy decisions ostensibly made in the name of restoring Barnegat Bay.

Bottom line (and I don't believe my assessment is too harsh): Christie, the DEP, and the Legislature haven’t dealt with overdevelopment. In fact, a series of builder-lobby-backed legislative bills, gubernatorial vetoes, and DEP regulatory decisions and rule-making have substantially handicapped the existing tools available to address the Bay’s ills. At the same time, they've failed to advance new approaches proven successful in other similarly impaired estuaries.

Many of the responses to the bay’s problems by the Christie administration and Ocean County elected officials are increasingly measuring up as inadequate in addressing the real problems. And it should be understood that they are political in their motivation. They are undercut by other regulatory and policy actions outside the “bay plan.” In fact, a recent, bizarre proposal to reclassify the Clean Water Act status of the bay as unimpaired had all the hallmarks of rewriting the rules to perpetuate the status quo. A response scaled to the seriousness of the issue and degree of impairment facing the Bay has not been introduced anywhere.

If you'll allow me to adapt a well-known adage, this summer Barnegat Bay is a watched pot that is coming to a boil.

Tim Dillingham is the executive director of the American Littoral Society, a coastal conservation group headquartered in Highlands, NJ. He serves on the advisory and science and technical committees of the Barnegat Bay Partnership, the board of the Institute for Marine and Coastal Sciences of Rutgers University, and chairs the board of directors of “Restore America’s Estuaries,” a national coalition of coastal habitat restoration organizations.

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