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Op-Ed: New Jersey Needs This Tool to Reduce Flooding and Water Pollution

The Garden State’s sources of pollution almost defy counting: pesticides, fertilizers, petroleum, antifreeze, septic systems, sewer pipes, and pet waste — to name just a few

Jim Waltman
Jim Waltman

New Jersey has a $15 billion problem. Polluted stormwater runoff causes damaging flooding, fouls rivers with pollution, and closes beaches due to dangerous bacterial contamination. With aging infrastructure, a warming climate, and expanding development, this problem will only get worse without bold action from policymakers.

On June 21, the New Jersey Senate took an important step towards addressing this problem when it passed legislation to reduce the twin problems of flooding and water pollution. Assemblyman John McKeon has introduced a companion bill in the Legislature’s other chamber.

Authored by Sens. Bob Smith, Kip Bateman, Richard Codey, and Linda Greenstein, the bill would provide towns and counties with a tool that is available in 41 other states but has been lacking in New Jersey: the ability to create utilities to manage polluted runoff in order to protect their communities.

Our water pollution problems are different today than they were 50 years ago, when many of America’s rivers were open sewers for human and industrial waste. The ugly sight and stench of our waterways created a public outcry that prompted Congress to pass the Clean Water Act in 1972, which ended most intentional discharges of untreated sewage and industrial pollution into our water.

Unfortunately, that law has not come close to solving all of our water pollution problems. In fact, most of New Jersey’s streams still fail to meet the state’s water-quality standards. Today, the biggest sources of water pollution are mostly unintentional, but they are many: pesticides and fertilizers we spread on our lawns, petroleum and antifreeze that spill from our cars, leaks from failing septic systems and broken sewer pipes, waste from our pets, soap from washing our cars, and road salt we spread on our driveways and sidewalks, to name just a few.

A witch’s brew

When it rains, this witch’s brew of pollutants washes over our lawns, driveways, parking lots, and streets as polluted stormwater runoff. In many cases, the polluted runoff flows into storm drains, then through a series of underground pipes that carry the runoff directly to local streams. For most of us, these polluted streams are a source of our drinking water.

In 21 New Jersey communities, polluted stormwater runoff is combined with human wastewater and treated at wastewater plants. But in heavy rainstorms, these systems are overwhelmed, and raw sewage is spilled directly into rivers — a problem that was supposed to be eliminated under the Clean Water Act.

Earlier this month, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection reported that stormwater at 47 of the state’s beaches tested high for fecal bacteria — not exactly what our state’s tourism industry needs.

The problem is being exacerbated by the steady march of blacktop, concrete, rooftops, and other hard surfaces that are impervious to water. With fewer unpaved areas to filter the polluted runoff and allow it to percolate down into the ground, there is more polluted runoff rushing into our streams and, consequently, more flooding.

Scientists, landscape architects, and engineers are developing strategies to address this problem. The idea is to identify areas with large expanses of asphalt or concrete that can be reduced and/or retrofitted to capture polluted runoff, filter it with vegetation or other means, and allow it to soak into the ground where plants and soils can cleanse it. Supplementing our towns’ existing infrastructure with a new kind of “green infrastructure” can help reduce pollution and flooding and also improve the condition of our groundwater aquifers.

The pending legislation would authorize (not mandate) a way for towns and counties to fund these green infrastructure solutions to our polluted runoff problems.

The New Jersey Assembly should join the Senate and pass legislation to authorize towns and counties to reduce flooding and water pollution through the creation of stormwater utilities. We will all benefit from this cost-effective investment in our communities.

Jim Waltman is the executive director of The Watershed Institute (formerly the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association), a member-supported nonprofit organization that works to keep water clean, safe, and healthy in central New Jersey.

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