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Op-Ed: DEP Misses Boat, Fails to Turn Tide on Polluted Stormwater

Department is renewing municipal stormwater permits for the first time in over a decade but is not incorporating technology that could improve water quality

Michael L. Pisauro, Jr.
Michael L. Pisauro, Jr.

Almost every waterway in New Jersey is too polluted to meet clean water standards, and the state is about to miss a major opportunity to do something about it.

Every time it rains, water washes off of hard surfaces like roads, parking lots, and rooftops instead of soaking into the ground like it would in a natural environment. This stormwater runoff flows through gutters and pipes directly into our local rivers, streams, and bays — carrying animal waste, dirt, fertilizer, trash, oil, grease, pesticides, and any other substance it comes into contact with along the way.

Across New Jersey, polluted runoff from all of this impervious cover is burdening local communities with public health threats, lost economic and recreational opportunities, unhealthy ecosystems, and costly flooding.

Polluted runoff is a contributing cause of about one-third to one-half of the state’s extensive water quality problems. As of 2010, New Jersey had identified 14,000 miles of rivers, 28,000 acres of lakes and ponds, 200 square miles of bays and estuaries, and 450 square miles of ocean and coastal waters where polluted runoff has made the water unsafe for fishing, swimming, boating, or drinking.

It’s clear that New Jersey’s current approach to this issue is not meeting the challenge of curbing this harmful pollution source. Part of the reason? The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) hasn’t updated its municipal stormwater permits (MS4) — which govern local efforts to reduce runoff — in almost a decade. But it is renewing those permits now. Unfortunately, the draft permits the DEP has proposed are not taking this opportunity to turn the tide on water pollution. Instead, the proposal largely retains the same requirements that have been in place since 2009 — requirements that have failed to protect local waterways. In fact, water quality across the state is getting worse.

One big problem is that the permits do not require the use of modern technologies that have proven effective at reducing runoff pollution. “Green infrastructure” practices — like rain gardens, green roofs, permeable pavement, and cisterns — let rainwater soak into the ground or be absorbed by plants instead of dumping contaminants into our streams and lakes. Green infrastructure also provides additional benefits, like cleaner air, more beautiful neighborhoods, fewer asthma and heat-related illnesses, lower energy demand for heating and cooling, and increased property values.

Many places around the U.S. — including New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. — are making major investments in green infrastructure as a cost-effective solution to runoff pollution problems. But New Jersey’s permits and regulations do not fully require the use of these technologies. That’s a shame, because stronger safeguards are needed here more than anywhere else: New Jersey is the most densely populated and urbanized state in the nation.

Maintaining the status quo in these permits would mean guaranteeing at least another five years of fish kills, urban flooding, and other runoff-related impacts. New Jersey families deserve better.

Instead of issuing new stormwater permits with the same weak requirements, the DEP must take this opportunity to modernize the standards for runoff controls, and to require that municipalities develop and implement plans for cleaning up local waterways. The time to fix our pollution problem is now.

Michael L. Pisauro, Jr. is policy director at the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association.

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