Explainer: How Well Is New Jersey Doing In Protecting Its Waterways?

Tom Johnson | October 28, 2014 | Explainer
The Garden State continues to struggle to meet federal water-quality standards -- and it shows

It could be doing a lot better, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region II office in New York. From the Raritan Bay to the Maurice River in Cumberland County, New Jersey continues to struggle with meeting federal water-quality standards, according to a press release issued by the agency. Acknowledging some improvements in water quality in the state have improved, New Jersey still has a long way to go.

What the major problems are: The most common pollutants in the state’s waterways are polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs, which cause 14 percent of impairments), arsenic (13 percent), phosphorus (9 percent) and low dissolved oxygen (8 percent). Both PCBs and arsenic are considered toxic compounds, and low dissolved oxygen can cause problems for aquatic life.

Why this is a problem: The latest list compiled by the EPA identifies 1,770 instances in which a pollutant is causing an impairment in a body of water that keeps it from being “designated for drinking water, swimming, and recreation fishing” under the requirements of the federal Clean Water Act, passed more than four decades ago.

Any improvement in sight? Seventeen water systems in New Jersey that were impaired in the last assessment were not included in the latest EPA list, a fact the agency attributed to efforts by state and local and government agencies to improve water quality.

What are the impaired waters? According to the EPA, they include the Hackensack River, Passaic River, and hundreds of other waterways.

What else needs to be done: Plenty. Projections by outside groups like the American Society of Environmental Engineers say it will costs tens of billions of dollars for New Jersey to upgrade sewage treatment plans to prevent degradation of the state’s waterways. The bill could top $32.5 billion, according to a report from the organization. Another $8 billion is needed for drinking-water systems, the society said.

Other issues the state needs to address: The most common sources of water pollution include stormwater runoff, combined from sewer-overflow systems, which leads to untreated sewage being dumped into waterways during heavy storms, as well as air pollution.

*Is the state dealing with the problems? To some extent yes. The state Department of Environmental Protection is trying to control problems caused by combined-sewer outfalls by issuing permits for those systems in the Camden and New York/New Jersey harbor areas. EPA officials said once the state finalizes those permits, it could expect to see improvements in water quality.

Potential problems in reaching clean water goals: A question on next Tuesday’s statewide ballot ask voters to approve a measure that would constitutionally dedicate a portion of the corporate business tax to fund open-space preservation. The downside of that proposal is that it would siphon money from programs that fund quality monitoring in important water bodies, such as Barnegat Bay. That could impact efforts to assess what waterways need additional protections.

What happens next: Slow slogging. Neither the state nor New Jersey municipalities have the resources to address the huge problems they are facing, although the federal government has stepped up the amount of money it is providing to address these issues. The state’s Environmental Infrastructure Trust, which finances low-interest loans to facilities, also is stepping up efforts to help communities fund these projects.