Opinion: Playing Politics with Barnegat Bay

Michael Catania | February 18, 2011 | Opinion
Gov. Christie wants to protect Barnegat Bay, but he wants to protect his political prospects even more.

Governor Chris Christie picked up some good press when he very publicly signed a package of legislation designed to help restore Barnegat Bay.

His decision to conditionally veto the most significant bill in that package has gone by virtually unnoticed. The governor had all sorts of reasons why he was kicking the bill back to committee. The one he didn’t mention was probably the most discouraging: Politics as usual.

The legislation (A-3415/S-2341), sponsored by Assemblyman John McKeon and Senator Robert Smith, the chairmen of the environment committees in their respective houses, would have required the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to spend up to a year studying Barnegat Bay. If the agency found its waters to be “impaired,” then within two years it would set “total maximum daily loads” (TMDLs) for the nutrients and sediments that are slowly killing the bay’s ecosystem.

In quietly returning the bill to the legislature for reconsideration, the governor also sent along two pages of suggested amendments to what was essentially a one-page bill. Christie indicated that he “wholeheartedly support[s] the restoration of water quality in Barnegat Bay.” He also wanted to make it clear that he was not “questioning the good intentions of those in support of this legislation.”

Christie’s veto message also states that “many of the timeframes and requirements mandated by the bill are not realistic,” and concludes that the bill was “premature until the scientific basis for this specific regulatory action is established.”

The governor’s suggested fix: Have the DEP do an “assessment” (rather than a “study”) of water quality and give the agency up to five years (rather than two) to adopt TMDLs if it determines that Barnegat Bay is an impaired body of water.

Taking a look at the substantial expert testimony in support of this measure, you would be hard-pressed to find one who doubts that Barnet Bay is clearly impaired. It would be equally difficult to locate a credible witness who did not believe that the quality of the bay’s ecosystem is on the decline.

Better yet, ask the fishermen and crabbers who have watched the bay dying, along with their livelihoods. Or survey the tens of thousands of regular recreational users who have first-hand experience with deteriorating water quality. Do we really need to agonize over documenting the obvious?

The governor does have a valid point when he says the DEP does not yet have numerical standards for phosphorous, nitrogen or excessive sediments. And, yes, developing the modeling tools necessary to adopt TMDLs will be a challenge.

But if the substantial environmental progress we have made during the forty-some years since the first Earth Day shows anything at all, it is that setting ambitious goals has an odd way of making us focus on a problem before it is too late. And there is in fact some precedent for developing TMDLs in other challenged estuarine areas around the country, such as Florida and the Chesapeake Bay.

I have to wonder why the governor did not share his concerns with the legislature during numerous public hearings, or while basking in the limelight of signing the other, less significant parts of the Barnegat Bay package, or while trying to quietly rewrite the TMDL bill by conditionally vetoing it.

I also have to wonder if an extra three years is really going to make a difference, somehow providing the DEP with some new insight or scientific knowledge about how to solve this admittedly complex problem. Or will the passage of the next five years render whatever we do to pull the bay back from the brink too little, too late?

True, adopting and enforcing TMDLs would be tough. It would mean regulating activities that have been unregulated to date — like spreading fertilizer on a lush, green lawn right before it rains. Dubbed “non-point” source pollution, because it does not emanate from an obvious source like a smokestack or a discharge pipe, this contamination is the result of a myriad of activities that are an established part of our daily routine.

What’s more, since non-point sources will account for a large portion of any proposed TMDL budget, we may be dealing with specific limits on additional development and impervious coverage (sidewalks, roads, and parking lots, for example). That scenario, however, is not likely to be any easier to deal with five years from now, especially as the economy rebounds and a new building boom begins.

Here’s where the political realities come into play. Ocean County has long been one of the fastest-growing counties in the country. And lots of powerful folks have an interest in seeing that growth continue unabated. Given the importance of the Ocean County vote in recent statewide elections, perhaps it is understandable that the governor would want to delay what could be unpopular TMDL rules until after the next gubernatorial election.

But in opting to take more time, and to play it safe for now by conditionally vetoing this landmark legislation, Christie has missed a chance to use his office to help people accept that sometimes the toughest choice in the short run is the wisest in the long run. By playing politics as usual, the governor has put at risk our coastal and marine ecosystem, which attracts countless tourists to the famous Jersey Shore. And that’s bad for the environment — and the economy.

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