Unless population growth in Ocean County is controlled and there is a halt to rapid changes in land use, the decline in Barnegat Bay will likely continue and even more probably worsen, legislators were told yesterday.
The bleak assessment was delivered by Michael Kennish, a longtime researcher at the Rutgers University Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences and a contributor to a new multiyear study, which concluded overdevelopment poses a serious threat to the Barnegat Bay/Little Egg Harbor estuary.
Reversing the decline in the bay, described an “environmental jewel” by one lawmaker, has emerged as a top priority of both legislators and the Christie administration.
The message delivered to the Senate Environment and Energy and Assembly Environment and Solid Waste committees in a rare joint meeting in Lavalette was sobering: Not nearly enough is being done to halt the impairment of the bay, which Kennish called in a state of “insidious ecological decline.”
The northern portion of the bay already is impaired and the degradation is moving southward, Kennish told lawmakers. “It’s not an isolated situation. It’s getting worse,” he said.
“We have to really ramp this up,” Kennish warned. “We’re nowhere near where we need to be if we’re going to fix it.”
The bay’s problems have been well documented. It has been overloaded with nutrients, primarily nitrogen and phosphorus, which leads to eutrophication of the bay, a process that leads to rapid algae blooms that upset the delicate ecological balance of the bay.
The process causes a sharp decline in eel grass, an important habitat for marine life, to steep drops in hard clam populations to an increase in sea nettles, a type of jellyfish, which has made it impossible to swim in some areas of the shallow bay.
Besides restraining population growth and altering land use practices, Kennish suggested a couple of other priority steps the state should take to reverse the decline in the bay. The first involves fixing the more than 2,700 stormwater basins, most of which are malfunctioning and end up emptying polluted runoff into the bay during heavy rainstorms.
In addition, Kennish urged the state to establish a so-called pollution diet for the estuary by setting Total Maximum Discharge Limits (TMDLs) to limit the runoff flowing into the bay. It is similar to what has been done to deal with pollution problems in Chesapeake Bay.
The Democratic-controlled Legislature approved a bill last year ordering the state Department of Environmental Protection to establish TMDLs, but Gov. Chris Christie conditionally vetoed the bill. Similarly, a bill to establish stormwater utilities to help the region deal with the stormwater basin problems was blocked by the administration.
Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the Senate committee, said during the hearing he hoped that the latest study on the worsening conditions in the bay would convince the Christie administration to reconsider its positions on the two bills, which he expects to move after the summer recess.
That may not be enough, Kennish said. “If you don’t get a grip on population growth and land use changes, you will probably continue to see a decline,” he said. In the 1960s, 107,000 people lived in Ocean County. Today that number is above 570,000 with 10 percent of the county’s land impervious, meaning runoff just flows into the bay.
“This system can’t handle the kind of conditions existing in Ocean County,” Kennish said, describing the conditions as a cancer to the estuary.
It led Assemblywoman Grace Spence (D-Essex), the chairwoman of the Assembly committee to ask, under a worst-case scenario, “Are we looking at a dead bay?”
“I would say it’s going to get worse. I wouldn’t say it’s dead,” said Kennish, offering one of the few optimistic assessments of the future of the estuary.