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Nitrogen Levels in NJ Waters Dip, But Will Drop Survive Trump Rule Rollback?

Administration considers scrapping Waters of the U.S. rule, but New Jersey might be unscathed since state regulations tougher than federal, experts advise

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An improvement in New Jersey’s water quality is likely to survive a planned rollback in federal protections for small streams and headwaters, but only if state law retains its tough standards, analysts said.

A long-term reduction in nutrients in New Jersey waterways, reported by the state Department of Environmental Protection this week, would not be reversed by the Trump administration’s plans to scrap the Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) Rule, which allows the EPA to define those wetlands or minor streams regulated under the 1972 Clean Water Act, water experts said.

But some warned that the improvement in water quality could be set back if state lawmakers rewrite laws to bring them in line with their federal equivalents.

“New Jersey is in a good position because our laws are stronger than the federal definition of wetlands,” said Carol Collier, Senior Advisor for Watershed Management and Policy at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. “It’s always good to have federal protection because state policies change and the state Legislature could change that.”

Nitrogen, phosphorus declined or held steady at most sites

The report by the DEP, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Delaware River Basin Commission found that levels of nitrogen and phosphorus were declining or steady in most of 28 monitoring points in New Jersey from 1971 to 2011.

At 25 of the study sites, concentrations of the two nutrients dropped or did not change significantly over the period, reducing the conditions in which algae can bloom in waterways.

Despite the overall decline in nitrogen levels, increases were reported at a station in Toms River and at Cohansey River in Upper Deerfield, Cumberland County. Phosphorus increased at one location, the west branch of the Wading River in Woodland Township, Burlington County. The DEP said it will do more work on the increases in those locations.

Algae growth cuts oxygen in water, hurting conditions for fish and other aquatic life, causing taste and odor issues in drinking water supplies, and making it harder for recreational users to enjoy waterways.

Water quality began to improve in the 1980s

The most common sources of nutrient runoff are fertilizers used on farms and lawns; discharges from wastewater treatment plants, and poorly functioning septic systems, the DEP said.

The water-quality improvements began in the 1980s and 1990s as wastewater treatment plants were modernized, and regional plants replaced many small local plants, the DEP said.

Another contributor was a state program that requires local governments to implement storm water control standards and best-management practices on issues such as animal waste ordinances, public education on storm water, and other steps to reduce the impacts of storm water runoff.

DEP Commissioner Bob Martin called the survey the most comprehensive analysis ever done on nutrient pollution in New Jersey, and said it provided a valuable platform for further work on the issue.

Martin attributed the nutrient reduction to the modernization of wastewater treatment plants; local improvements in managing storm water, and “tough laws” to protect rivers and streams.

Most state waterways still below federal standards

Tim Dillingham, executive director of the New Jersey-based American Littoral Society, said the report shows that progress has been made over the past four decades but most state waterways still fall below the “fishable and swimmable” standards required by the federal Clean Water Act.

“I don’t think you can make the argument that our work is finished,” Dillingham said. “The investment has paid off but that’s not to say that our waters are as clean as they should be.”

Dillingham said New Jersey may be in a better position than some other states to protect its water-quality improvements from the planned rollback of WOTUS, which has been strongly opposed by some farmers and landowners.

“The impact is likely to be greater in other states that don’t have state programs to protect those water bodies,” Dillingham said.

Dan Van Abs, associate professor of practice for water, society and environment at Rutgers University, said the WOTUS rollback is unlikely to weaken protection for small waterways in New Jersey because the state regulates based on “waters of the state,” which is broader than the federal rule.

That could change if the Legislature made state law consistent with federal laws, but that’s unlikely given that the Legislature has so far rejected efforts by some lawmakers to ensure that state law is no stricter than the federal version, he said.

“Their assumption was that federal laws are stringent enough and we shouldn’t be competitive,” Van Abs said. “That argument is harder to make if federal laws are backtracking.”

Van Abs also questioned why the study’s conclusions were based on the 28 monitoring points, whose nutrient content did not necessarily reflect overall water quality. Van Abs is a regular contributor to NJ Spotlight.

The DEP/USGS study period did not cover the effects of New Jersey’s 2011 fertilizer law, which directs users to adopt best-management practices near waterways; requires certification for professionals like lawn-care providers, and ensures that manufacturers to reformulate fertilizers to reduce nutrient impact on waterways.

It’s too early to quantify the effects of the fertilizer law, especially on Barnegat Bay, a water body that is sensitive to nitrate levels, said Van Abs. Those data probably won’t be known for another 10-15 years but they are likely to show an improvement as a result of the law, he said.

Jon Hurdle is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia who often covers water quality and other environment issues.

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