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Opinion: Find the Nine Million Water Polluters in NJ (Hint: It’s Not Industry)

It’s all too common to blame sources outside of ourselves for the water pollution problems we face in this state

Daniel J. Van Abs
Daniel J. Van Abs

Public-opinion polls consistently show a great deal of concern about water pollution. Years ago, my then-employer sponsored a telephone poll to assess how people perceived water-quality issues in the Raritan River Basin of central New Jersey. Among other things, we asked what sources of surface-water pollution needed more regulation: options included public wastewater (sewage) treatment plants, industry, lawn care, land development, agriculture, and stormwater runoff.

Eighty percent said industry, the highest percentage for any answer. The problem? Then and now, there are few industrial wastewater discharges in the Raritan Basin.

Water pollution in major rivers and the ocean has long been associated with sewer systems and industrial discharges, otherwise known as point sources, a perception based on the realities of the 1950s through 1970s -- and beyond, in some locations. Rivers here and elsewhere were badly polluted due to point sources. Given that these rivers tended to be near or in large cities, where many people lived, their perception was reasonably connected with their experience. Even in the 1980s, New Jersey had many coastal beach closures due to inadequate sewage treatment facilities along the shore.

The Clean Water Act resulted in control or elimination of the most egregious sources of water pollution from point sources, costing billions of dollars in New Jersey alone. Additional work is needed, especially for combined sewer systems, but those urban waters are far better now. You once could identify rivers by their stench. Now there are crew races in the lower Passaic River.

Water-pollution evaluations by my agency and the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection showed the same general results. In only a few waterways were public-sewage treatment plants the major source of pollutants, and in none were industrial discharges the major source, as the vast majority of industries actually send their wastewater to public treatment facilities.

Contrary to public opinion, we found that in most parts of the basin, the major issue was and is nonpoint source pollution, the pollutants associated with runoff and other dispersed sources in urban, suburban, and agricultural lands. The Raritan River basin is not unusual in this. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concludes that the vast majority of polluted streams are affected more by nonpoint sources than point sources.

Many areas of the country, and of New Jersey, never had cities or major point sources of pollution, and yet the rivers were and are still damaged. Water-quality monitoring by state and federal agencies clearly shows that the problem has gotten worse in many streams, ponds, and lakes of New Jersey. For most of those bodies of water, there are no traditional point sources at all. And yet, we are seeing excessive levels of nutrients, fecal bacteria, sediments, and other pollutants. Even waters that have wastewater treatment plants may be polluted for reasons other than or in addition to those facilities.

So where is the pollution coming from? Nine million polluters. Each and every one of us contributes to nonpoint source pollution, from the youngest to the oldest, from the richest to the poorest. Some contribute more and others less, but our ability to generate water pollution is significant and comes from myriad sources and processes.

Here are just a few examples:

Do you eat food? Farmers must prepare the ground for crops, which releases sediment to streams when the rains are heavy. They use fertilizers, either organic or not, which likewise can migrate to our waters.

Do you live somewhere? Every housing development results in some movement of pollutants directly to surface waters, or indirectly through stormwater systems. People manage their yards, put sealant on their driveways, and in parts of the state discharge their sewage into septic systems.

Do you buy things? Commercial developments are similar to residences in their effects on water quality, but also are major sources of litter (mostly from customers but some from the businesses themselves) and contaminated runoff from parking areas. Retail stores also rely on trucks to deliver product for sale, and all those trucks generate pollutants that get into the water.

Do you go places? Our roads are major sources of nonpoint source pollution. We all are aware that a road can be pretty slick when a rain follows a long dry period; that is due to deposits of oil, grease, and other contaminants on the roads. Our vehicles emit pollutants also, some of which eventually settle to the ground and get to our surface waters. We use road salt to keep roads clear in winter, resulting in significant increases in salt levels in our streams. Roads generate stormwater also, which can disrupt stream channels, moving massive amounts of sediment during storms.

Do you use electricity? Fossil-fuel sources of electricity emit significant pollution into the atmosphere, some of which eventually falls to earth. For example, the mercury contamination in many New Jersey streams is directly related to past and current discharges by these power plants, especially now from the coal states to our west.

Why is this so important? First, people generally find it easier to support regulation of others and not themselves. If we can convince ourselves that point sources are the problem, we absolve ourselves of responsibility for water pollution. We can regulate “them” and accept the costs that are passed on through sewer-utility rates, electricity costs, and so on. If we don’t acknowledge our involvement, then we see no need to change our own behaviors.

Second, by ignoring our nonpoint sources of pollution, we set ourselves up for failure. The Clean Water Act calls for fishable and swimmable waters. It is clearly impossible to reach that goal unless we get serious about nonpoint source pollution.

Third, nonpoint source pollution can’t be regulated in the same manner as point sources. the state DEP currently regulates perhaps a few thousand point-source dischargers, industrial and public, through permits that spell out how much discharge is allowed from each. They also regulate public stormwater systems, through a separate permit approach. (Stormwater systems are legally considered point sources, because they discharge through pipes, but they are fundamentally different from wastewater-treatment plants.) This permit-based approach cannot work for nine million nonpoint sources. The federal Clean Water Act regulates point sources but not nonpoint sources. We will need to address nonpoint sources in other ways, including better development and street-design standards, stormwater management, agricultural practices and personal behavior.

Fourth, while the NJ DEP historically has been a fairly strong regulator of traditional point sources, it is getting significantly better regarding combined sewer overflows, and has promise regarding municipal stormwater systems. But it has little staff and less money to address the issue of nine million water polluters. More than any other issue, solving this problem will require cooperation across multiple state departments (think transportation, agriculture, community affairs and education as a start), multiple levels of government from municipal to federal, and a wide array of nongovernmental organizations, private-sector interests, and the nine million of us who need to know and do better.

The upshot is that our nonpoint source pollution problems cannot be solved by dictate, by one agency, by one law, by one approach. There may be no more complicated water-resources problem facing New Jersey. We will need leadership across the board, incorporating this issue into whatever they normally do (including roads, farms, utilities, land-use controls, and education) if we hope to gain any traction on this issue. So far, that leadership has been sporadic and limited by funds and the complexity of the issue, both within and outside of government. We need better, but we need to recognize also that this must be a shared response and a shared responsibility.

Daniel J. Van Abs is currently Associate Professor of Practice for Water, Society and Environment at the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. He has spent more than 30 years as a professional, manager, and advocate in the fields of water resources, watershed and regional environmental management. The views expressed in this essay are solely those of the author.

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